Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sheep and Goats on Christ the King

Sermon 11-23-14 Christ the King

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Sometimes surprises can be God’s way of breaking into the routines we’ve imprisoned ourselves in, can’t they? We are going along, just fine we think, at the breakneck speed of our lives when suddenly we are surprised, brought up short, and, like in my case, find that had I kept going I would have ended up in a place that I hadn't intended. Like Denver. True story.

Beau and I were flying back from Midway airport in Chicago to Trenton via Frontier after spending some time in WI for my little sister’s college graduation. And, of course, we did not quite leave ourselves enough time for all the complex traveling to the airport. After being dropped off and taking the Amtrak from Milwaukee to Chicago, we rushed to the elevated or “L” train, which was super crowded with rush hour traffic, hurried through some fast food, dashed to the security line, jogged to our gate, and were relieved to see that there were still lots of people in line to board. Whew. That was a close one!

While we were still congratulating ourselves, I gave the ticket lady my ticket. And when she scanned it, it beeped, a concerned, abnormal beep. You all know that beep. Definitely not the beep anybody wants to hear.

“You’re going to Trenton, Ma’am?” the ticket lady asked me. Relieved, I responded with a cheery, “Yes I am!”

“Well, ma’am, this plane is going to Denver.” …. Whoops.

It turns out it was Right Gate, Wrong Plane – our plane had been delayed, which we would have known if we had thought to check our email OR ANY OF THE BAZILLION SIGNS that are ALL OVER the airport. Instead, we were hurried, rushed, and stressed, until we were literally forced to stop, to look up, and pay attention. We were in such a hurry that we had missed all the signs.

For the last few weeks, we have been listening to Jesus’ stories about people who seem to have missed the signs too, and have been brought up short in often some very unpleasant ways. The five unprepared bridesmaids. The slave who buried the talent entrusted to him. And now, Jesus sets the scene for the end of history, where Jesus decides to give his clueless disciples, both then and now, to give away the end of the movie. Spoiler alert, says Jesus. You know all those people who are suffering? That’s where I am. You remember all those people who were in need, who were hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, a stranger in need of welcome? Yup, says Jesus, that was me, I was right there, in front of your very nose all along. Surprise…!

But really surprising thing about this story is not that the goats missed all the signs. That seems like it would be a given. Like the bridesmaids. Like the one-talent servant. But in THIS story, the sheep do too. They were just as surprised to find out that the people in need that they helped -  the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger in need of welcome - all were actually their Lord and king in disguise. Surprise…..!

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of our Church year, and it sure can be easy to miss. It doesn’t coincide with our calendar “end of the year,” it falls sometime around the business of thanksgiving and Black Friday, and is soon forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of the “Christmas Season,” or what we prefer to call “Advent.” We don’t make any “New Church Year Resolutions,” though maybe we should. We don’t have a count down. There is not bedazzled ball to drop here in the church. Just some white and gold here and there, nothing too showy or over-the-top, to remind us what it means that Jesus is our king.

And as this story reveals, like Christ the King Sunday, sometimes Jesus is also really easy to miss. After all, he doesn't act like a regular king, does he?  Are you a “Game of Thrones” fan? EVERYONE…. Wants…to be… the king. With that throne comes certain desirable perks. Kings command armies and make decisions. Kings are surrounded by power and wealth. Kings make the rules and shape history. As Mel Brooks once said “It’s GOOD to be the king!”

It might be good to be the king, but have there been any GOOD KINGS? …… That list seems pretty short. Far more familiar to us are the Genghis Khans, Emperor Neros, and Richard the Thirds. And in our own time, we have witnessed of “bad rulers” to spare – Stalins and Hilters and Kim Jong Ills and Quaffafis and now the leaders of ISIS. But what they all seem to have in common is a thirst for power and control above all else, to the detriment of those who have no power, no control, and no voice.

But we don’t seem to do a whole lot better when we throw off these kings to rule ourselves. It seems like an awesome thing to be king of our castle. Why then am I rushing everywhere, so ridiculously busy I can barely keep up? Because I am so NEEDED of course. My time is needed, my money is needed, my effort is needed, and so nothing else and no one else matters except what needs my attention right now.

Thirty years ago a famous experiment out of Princeton University was done with seminary students – because they always have plenty of time on their hands (right?). It has been retold many different ways, but this is how it originally went: The participants were told to go from one building to another, in different degrees of earliness or lateness. For some of students, it was a meeting, and others were off to give a talk about the Good Samaritan.  Remember that story? On the way from point A to point B the participants encountered an actor portraying someone in need. Who would stop to offer help?

As it turns out, “subjects in a hurry to reach their destination were more likely to pass without stopping.” Some of those giving a talk on the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the man in their haste. Surprise….!

We’ve all been there. We’ve all be too busy to see Jesus. I may not have stepped over someone, but I have walked by, driven passed, looked away, refused eye contact with someone who needed a dollar, a helping hand, or just a “good morning.” Surely I must be in the goat category, rushing headlong onto the plane bound for Denver.

But, according to Jesus, that’s not where I belong. I don’t belong to the powers of this world, or the kings in my heart that seek to break me to their will. I belong to that other king, that Christ the King, and so do you.

This is a king who is also shepherd, who is not like any king history has ever known. His armies were made up of palm-waving peasants shouting “Hosanna!” His inner circle was made up of day laborers and nobodies. His royal court consisted of scandalous women, sick people, children, and the mentally ill.  His kingly acts included feeding over five thousand freeloaders, explaining the kingdom of God in stories, and healing people without health insurance. It is any wonder that the powers of this world tried to kill him?

This is a king whose greatness comes from gentleness. This king was born, not in a royal palace surrounded by servants but with farm animals. His coronation was with a crown of thorns and his throne is a cross. His true power is revealed, not in wealth or might or force, but, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” And in the meantime, our king makes his home, not in a palace, but with whoever is suffering and in need. With those who have no power, no control, no voice. As Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This may be the final Sunday in our church year, but this is not the final story in Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus having the last word, and it is a world of hope: Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And that, I think, is a fine way to end one year and begin another: trusting that Jesus is going to keep showing up and keep surprising us by giving us opportunities to see his face in the faces of our brothers and sisters in need.  Because THAT’S where Jesus is found. AMEN.

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