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November 22, 2020
Reign of Christ
Grace to you and peace from God, our creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I mentioned at the beginning of the service that this is the last Sunday of the church year. We call it Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. And in terms of church festivals, it’s a relatively young one.
It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. At that time, the world had been ravaged by WWI, and had begun to bow down before the “lords” of exploitative consumerism, nationalism, secularism, and new forms of injustice. In Italy that year, Benito Mussolini dissolved the Italian parliament and had become a dictator.
In Germany, Adolf Hitler resurrected his political party and Mein Kampf was published. In the US, President Calvin Coolidge proposed phasing out the inheritance tax and the KKK had five million members. And the Spanish flu epidemic had ended seven years earlier.
So, in 1925, the power and wealth of the Vatican aside, Pope Pius wanted to make sure that followers of Jesus remembered that their allegiance was to Jesus, and not to any human leader of this world.
And in that regard, we still have a ways to go. Not least because in many parts of the world, including the US, Jesus has become associated with everything about kingship and consumer culture like material wealth, conquest, victory, supremacy, and nationalism.
Pope Pius was right, though. It is necessary to separate Jesus from all of that – from the idols of our time, and the idols of all times. Because Jesus isn’t seated on a throne with a glittery crown on his head. He is Immanuel, “God with us.”
And “God with us” is the character of who Jesus is – which is what Matthew’s gospel has been emphasizing all along, but especially in these last few weeks. And today’s parable makes it crystal clear.
This story takes place right before Jesus’ arrest, and there’s no mistaking that it’s a parable of judgment. But what’s interesting is that, as it appears in this parable, judgment has more to do with mercy than it does with works. This isn’t about getting people to do things out of fear of condemnation or judgment. God doesn’t work that way.
Jesus’ words here are meant as encouragement for continuing his ministry after he’s gone; to see and experience and respond to the needs in our world, reminding his disciples that they don’t know when or where they will see him.
In other words, it has more to do with the character of the community than with the community’s actions.
Both groups in this parable encountered Jesus. But both groups are completely clueless about it. Both groups asked, “Lord, when was it that we saw you…?” But they asked their questions for completely different reasons.
For the ones who were righteous, meeting the needs of others came so naturally to them that they didn’t even give it a second thought. They loved and served Jesus without intentionally looking for him.
But the ones who were condemned were aware of every good deed they’d done, and they only saw Jesus in places of power and strength. They were surprised by where he actually was, and as a result, they didn’t see him at all.
When we read this parable, it’s easy to get stuck on the literal image of sheep and goats and try to figure out which one people are, and worry about which one we are. But our task isn’t to separate one from another. Our task is to see Jesus in the world. And Jesus comes to us every day.
A few years ago, I was in my car at a freeway offramp waiting for the light to change. And standing on the shoulder was a man who I assume was experiencing homelessness because he held a sign asking for help. Behind him, closer to the intersection, was his backpack and a couple of other bags.
And walking across the overpass were two young women who looked like they were coming from a convenience store. They were carrying a couple of plastic grocery bags, and I could see that there were snacks and beverages in them.
I watched as they walked along the shoulder past my car, and I expected them to cross the frontage road into the neighborhood, but I didn’t see them in my rearview mirror.
So I looked in the side mirror and they’d stopped to talk with the man holding the sign. They were showing him what was inside one of the bags, moving the items around so he could see them. And I could tell by their gestures and facial expressions they were asking him if what they’d bought was okay.
And then they walked back to where his backpack was, set that bag of snacks next to it, and then crossed the frontage road into the neighborhood.
The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt reminds us that “because we don’t know when we will encounter the face of Jesus, nearly all ground is holy ground.”
We don’t have any control over when Jesus comes to us. But as people of faith, because we declare loyalty to Jesus, we proclaim that every person is created in the image of God. For that reason alone, we see Jesus every day.
So if we ever have to ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you…?” it’s because we’re not paying attention.
Seeing Jesus affects how we live our lives. But he often goes unnoticed because we expect to see him in certain places – but not in every place. So sometimes we forget that our actions, or lack thereof, are less about doing good deeds and more about simply embodying Christ’s love to the people who cross our path.
Jesus comes to us as the person experiencing homelessness, and as the person who offers help. He comes to us as the medical teams caring for people who have Covid, and also as the people who wear a mask when they’re out in public. Jesus comes to us as the people who die at the hands of violence, and as the people who protest and demand better.
Jesus comes to us as refugees and immigrants who have left their country of origin because it’s no longer safe for them to be there, and Jesus also comes to us as the people who receive them. Jesus comes to us as the person who is striving to live into their identity, and as the people who accept them for who they are.
Declaring loyalty to Jesus is a call to action that brings Christ’s love and compassion into the world, and shifts the world from what it is into the world God created it to be.
On this, the last Sunday of the church year, as we remember to whom our loyalty belongs, we also look ahead to Advent – the season of preparation for Christ’s birth. And we remember that Immanuel, God with us, isn’t some figurehead seated on a throne somewhere far away.
Jesus is the person who comes to us when we least expect it, and also when we most need it. We don’t know when or where we will meet him. But we do know that he comes to us every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 History of Christ the King Sunday taken from: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/november-22-roc-matthew-2531-46