Christ the King A
November 26, 2017
I remember asking my dad once after church about the part in the prayer of confession that says, “We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” My young brain could not understand why I should confess something I hadn’t done! Why does it say that? I asked. My dad appealed to my studious nature, and said sometimes we don’t do things that we should – like, homework. That hit home! From then on, I became especially aware of the “things left undone” in my developing faith and Christian life.
Today’s parable is the epitome of “what we have left undone.” I always felt bad for the goats in this story – they didn’t even know they had fallen short of what was expected of them! It’s not like they were bad people, or doing active harm to anyone. Maybe they went to church every week. Maybe they even gave to appeals for money for good causes now and then. But, we also know, that they saw people who were in need – hungry, naked, immigrants, sick, imprisoned – and didn’t do anything to help. They did not offer a listening ear, nor a handout, nor a call to their representative to advocate for a positive change in the system that put them there in the first place. All those things were “left undone.” And that “left undone” is what put them with all those cursed goats in the final judgment. Yikes.
I definitely have a love-hate relationship with this parable. It’s such a rich one, such a clear expression of what Jesus wants from us: to see Christ’s face in every vulnerable person, to treat every such person as if they, themselves, are Christ, to love them and serve them, even without first determining if they deserve it. That part I love. The hate part comes in the fact that this parable is terribly convicting, and I have this sinking feeling that, according to this parable… I’m a goat. For how many times have I known of a need and ignored it, or justified not tending to it, or decided not to help because helping someone else would harm me in some way, or at least compromise the way of living to which I’ve become accustomed? How many times have I put my selfish needs above those of my needy neighbor?
Of course sometimes this happens because we simply don’t know what will help, or because we have different ideas of what will help. The current tax debate is a perfect example. On the one hand, cutting taxes would keep more money in the pockets of hardworking Americans, but on the other, paying more in taxes would allow the government to help with some of the larger expenses Americans face, like healthcare, disaster relief, excellent education, and retirement. Some argue that cutting taxes for the rich might mean a heavier tax burden on the people who can’t afford it, but others say it might also mean businesses can employ more people, helping those people to make more of the money they so desperately need. So, which way better serves “the least of these”?
Or, to bring it closer to home, if Jesus Christ were living in Webster, barely making ends meet, and
uncertain how he would pay his rent next month, let alone pay for his various and necessary prescriptions or clothes for the kids… which approach to tax reform would best be living into the ideal Jesus lays out in Matthew 25? What tax code would make Jesus say, “You cared for me when I needed it!” I certainly have my opinions, and I know you do too, and they might not be the same… but as long as both of us have in mind the wellbeing of “the least of these,” do our respective opinions make either one of us a sheep, or a goat?
This problem of not knowing the best way to help causes me a fair amount of despair, and can quickly move me toward hopelessness: “I just don’t know what will work! How can I help, being just one person, when the problem is so overwhelming, and how do I even know where is the best place to spend my limited time and energy?”
Of course, I don’t think Jesus meant this parable to drive us into despair. The point is simply this: treat every person you meet as if theirs is the face of Christ. Every word we say, every action we do, every decision we make, we must ask ourselves: if I knew my action or non-action would negatively impact Christ himself… would I do it?
If we could do this, could really take this question to heart – how would it change our relationships? How would it change our world?
There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years however fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend, Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “P
lease do,” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”
Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah? Or that one?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery, word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them. [Accessed here on 11/22/17]
Friends, I don’t know whether you are a sheep or a goat, any more than I know whether I am a sheep or a goat. What I do know is this: the Messiah is among us. The Messiah is among us here at Bethlehem. The Messiah is among us in here in Penfield/Webster. The Messiah is among those addicted to opioids. The Messiah is among millions of women who have been sexually assaulted. The Messiah is among animal species on the brink of extinction, and among those who fight for their survival. The Messiah is among the refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland. The Messiah is among those who cannot afford healthcare that is necessary to stay alive. The Messiah is among those who suffer from mental illness, and cannot find help. The Messiah is among “the least of these,” all around us, where we might not have thought to look. Where else might we see the Messiah, and how might we serve him there?
Let us pray… Lord Christ, you have told us that when we love and serve the least of these among us, we love and serve you. Help us to see your face among those who are in need, and help us in all of our words, actions, and decisions, to consider how they will affect the least of these. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen