This sermon was delivered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio, November 20th 2011.
On this last Sunday before Advent, as the church prepares itself for the winter waiting, looking for the light of the world in the darkness of the earth’s sleeping, at least in our northern hemisphere, we celebrate Christ the King. Before we look for the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us, as a vulnerable infant, we end our year in triumph, celebrating God’s glory manifest in the Risen Christ and Lord.
In the parable that we hear this morning, the king sits on the throne of judgment, sorting the people as a shepherd sorts the sheep and the goats. He will, as Ezekiel says, feed them with justice. The self-satisfied and self-seeking, the sleek and the fat sheep who pushed with flank and shoulder and butted the weaker animals out of the way, they will receive the treatment that they deserve. The weak, the poor, the least of the flock will be tenderly cared for. In the parable, the king does not address the little ones, but promises reward and rest to those who cared for them on his behalf.
In the parable, the least of the flock, the vulnerable, the very young and the very weak, the hungry and the thirsty, the helpless and those at the mercy of the elements and of their fellows – these represent the king himself.
I was hungry – did you feed me?
I was thirsty – did you give me a drink?
I was homeless – did you offer me shelter?
I was cold – did you give me a warm coat or quilt?
I was sick, I was in prison – did you visit me?
The King – Christ the King, as we understand the parable – knows the answer. He has already divided the people into those who were generous and merciful to those they had the power to be generous and merciful to, and those who were selfish and did not offer comfort to someone who needed it.
This parable has been the foundation of many a mission ministry. It has prompted the work of countless feeding ministries, of clothing and quilt ministries, of homeless shelters, of prison ministries and the personal ministries of hospital volunteers. The tag line, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” has been seen on Episcopal Relief and Development literature and campaigns, and in personal email signatures. This parable has inspired passionate living and sacrificial giving; it has saved lives.
It is also a parable of judgment; and those can make us anxious.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the knowledge that there are too many times, too many people that I could have helped but didn’t; when I have said, no, I can’t give you anything right now. People I have not visited in the hospital, or in prison. When a man stole the downspouts from another church I once served in, one of our members visited him in jail, heard his story, prayed with him and for him for a change of heart, for God’s transformation in his life, and I was humbled, because he went and I hadn’t thought of it.
And there have also been times when, people with whom, God help me, I have ticked my way through the list: I have fed you – check. Clothed you – check. Given you shelter – check. Prison visitation, hospital vigil – check.
I know that neither way gets me over to the sheep’s side. In fact, I am convinced that the only way that I can get there is by the grace of God.
Did you ever, as a child, sing that Sidney Carter song of this parable?*
When I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there?
Jesus, singing to his children, was the one in the song who was hungry, who was thirsty, who was cold, naked and needy. We knew this because the last verse was a promise:
Wherever you travel, I’ll be there.
Only God could make that promise.
The idea that God, in Jesus, could become so vulnerable, so needy, could throw himself so entirely on to the mercies of the human condition, dependant as it is on the goodwill of friends and family, the kindness of strangers, the fairness of governance – when we sang that song as children, that blew my mind, and broke open my heart. That Jesus could go through the dangers of childbirth, the hunger and helplessness of infancy, the pain of the anticipation of death, the thirst of the dying man on the cross, all to demonstrate and realize God’s love for God’s people – that was an incredible thing to me. That was what first brought me to church, to find out more about this extraordinary Son of God who would go to such lengths to bring us to the knowledge and love of God.
And it is only when I remember that astonishment, that surprising grace, that unbelievable love that I have the chance to come anywhere close to loving my neighbour as myself, to offering the cool, living water to a thirsty soul. I wish it happened more often. I pray that it happens more often.
The sheep in the parable knew no more than the goats that when they served their neighbour they were serving God. They did not do it to gather credit for themselves, or to curry favour with the King. They did it because it had become second nature to them, because their first nature was shaped by their love of God. They were touched by grace, and all that they did they did with love and with thanksgiving.
There is something of a joke hidden in all of this, of course, which is that where the sheep are going, there will be no more need of their generosity, their self-sacrifice, because there will be no more hunger, thirst, suffering. Their work is done, and they may truly rest.
The goats – well, they do still have work to do. The eternal punishment that Matthew describes for them may be translated as a work of pruning, like the pruning of a tree so that it may produce more and better fruit. Its intensity is such that it is called eternal, although that is not necessarily the same thing, we are told by the commentators, as forever.1 It is not, I think, in the nature of God, who loves us enough to become so vulnerable to us and for us, to leave anyone without hope.
If I call you sheep, I hope that you will take it as a compliment. As Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” I have seen already in the short month that I have been here the way that the community looks to you for comfort, for food and warmth, for healing words and for the love of God.
Remember where your love comes from. The commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves is second only to the commandment to love God with all of your heart, and all your mind and with all your soul. Remember the grace that God offers each of us, because only by the grace of God do we have grace to share with our neighbours. As we celebrate Christ the King, remember how first he came among us, and remember how much God loves us.
Thanks be to God.
* I don’t have a reference for this song; I remember singing it from an OHP at school! I did find out from www.ehymnbook.org that it was by Sidney Carter.