Below is my sermon from Christ the King Sunday, November 26. At the end of the liturgical year, we typically have “end-times” readings, that is, apocalyptic stories or judgment stories. This year’s story, Matthew 25 of the sheep and the goats, can be particularly hard to hear, as we all know places where we have fallen short in our own lives. The good news is that ultimately, God redeems us from our shortcomings and failures and uses us to spread the kingdom message of love and care for the least of these.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When one of my seminary professors was working on his doctorate, he spent a year studying in Paris. He told us the story of how, when class was in session, he would eat most of his meals at the school. On the weekends, though, he didn’t have much money, so he tried to plan and use it wisely.
He would get a couple of loafs of bread, some cheese, and some meat, and that would last the whole weekend. But outside the bakery where he got his bread, there was usually this homeless man. He never said anything, or asked for anything, he was just there.
And eventually one week, my professor felt that he had to give this man something, that he couldn’t just walk by him again. So, very carefully, he broke off half of one baguette still inside his bag. He didn’t want the man to see how much he had, because he truly did need most of it for himself.
After he gave the man half the loaf of bread, he was walking away, and the man called him back. Wanted him to wait. His first thought was that this man probably wanted the rest of the bread. But when he turned around, he saw that the homeless man had broken the half in half, and was extending one piece towards him. “Do you want to share?” He asked.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” My professor found the face of Christ that day, though he did so begrudgingly, reluctantly. This passage from Matthew, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, for me, is a very convicting passage. I feel convicted reading it, because I often do not help the least of these when I’m given an opportunity. I often pass by the homeless, as you might too. I know logically that it would be impossible to help everyone I meet, so I try to support organizations and policies that might help the entire homeless population. But still, when I hear this passage, I am convicted.
Once I can push past my initial discomfort though, and focus on the image Jesus describes, I find that I am surprised by the passage. In fact, I am surprised by the surprise. Both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, are surprised. They are surprised, not by their actions, but by the fact that they had encountered God and not realized it.
“When did we feed you,” the righteous ask. “When did we clothe you, or give you water, or visit you?” The unrighteous wonder the same thing—they had not ignored God surely, they had never even seen God.
This passage urges us to consider a couple, I think very related points. First: Where do we see the face of God? And second: How are we called to love and to live in light of that?
So, where do we see the face of God? This is Christ the King Sunday, where we celebrate and remember that all the earth is subject to God. But the God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being upon a throne up there above the clouds, or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.
God is our shepherd, says Ezekiel. God is among the people, caring for them, guiding them. God in Jesus in right in the middle of the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, among, us, particularly in our neighbors. Particularly in the one who needs us.
If we want to see the face of God, we must look into the face of one of the least of these: those who are vulnerable, those who are weak, those who are very young or very old. These are the ones you will find me with, Jesus promises.
It was certainly true during his life on earth: we found God not in palaces, but in stables. Not in kings or warriors in armor, but in a baby, clothed only in swaddling clothes. We found God not in courts and important places, but in the countryside, in the small towns, with small, unimportant people. We found God not in splendor and glory, but instead on the cross.
Where do we see the face of God? Often times, like for the sheep and the goats, we see the face of God in places we weren’t expecting to. And so, what does that mean for us? How are we called to love and to live in light of that?
I keep coming back to the surprise in the gospel story. The righteous in the gospel weren’t loving others, weren’t feeding or clothing or visiting others—in none of what they did were they acting with calculation or expectation. In fact, they were shocked to learn that had cared for the King of Creation.
God created the whole world out of an abundance of love. Like a fountain bubbling over, God is love and overflows with love. In creation, God gives of Godself, and in sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self as well as who we are. We are created in the image of this freely giving God, and so we are called to freely share, because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.
In particular, we are called to love those conventionally considered unable to give back. But we don’t do so in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s love, to curry favor, or to make sure we are considered righteous at the end of time. We give and we love as an expression of the love that is inside us, bubbling up, spilling over, and flowing out.
The righteous sheep are surprised to learn that they had cared for the King of Creation. They had simply shared who they were and what they had freely. How are we called to love? With abundance. Without expectation or calculation, but by sharing the love of God that is within us.
We are called to remember what Jesus said: that we will find him among the least of these. Among those society ignores, among those we rather wouldn’t have to see and deal with. We can’t help every single person we encounter. That is a fact of life. But what you and I can do, and are called to do, is not to ignore and overlook, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ.
Where have you seen the face of God lately? Where might you see the face of God this week?