(Note: I preached this sermon on the Feast of Christ the King in 2008 at Wicker Park Lutheran Church).
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine, for a moment, that it is England in the 14th century, and you are an ordinary person living in the city of York. Like everyone else, you are a Catholic. You can’t read or write, but hear the sermons at church and you know the stories from plays and from artwork. You want to be saved. You believe in Jesus and you receive communion a few times a year. But you know that you’re sinful, too.
Imagine that it’s a high annual festival, and all the guilds of artisans in the city are putting on plays. Each play is on a wagon processing through the city. They depict the whole story of the Bible, from the creation of the world to the last day. You watch them as they stop by the town gate. Since it’s a festival day and there’s no work to be done, you might sneak out during the play on Noah’s ark, or Jesus in the temple. The young men and young women are out enjoying themselves. There are games to be played and casks of ale to be drunk. Imagine you hurry back, half-buzzed, perhaps flushed with the excitement of meeting a fellow young person, in time for the last wagon. It’s the one paid for by the fabric dealers and dry-goods merchants, the wealthiest in town. The sun is going down. The stage pulls up to reveal Christ enthroned in glory, looking out at you and everyone you know.
Christ has come to judge the living and the dead. He separates the people like sheep and goats. The sheep, on his right, will be those who have ministered to him in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. They will enter into eternal bliss, even though they did not know that they were serving the Son of Man and the King of the Universe. The goats, on his left, will be those who neglected the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. They will enter into eternal punishment, even though they did not know whom they neglected. On stage a gaping hell’s mouth, with flames stoked inside, yawns open to receive the damned. And you are in the middle, watching this spectacle. Which group would you join at the last day? What good deeds have you done? Are they enough? You give alms, but have you given enough? You share what you have with the monks and travelers who are in need, but have you been generous enough? You live now in the time of mercy, but the time of mercy, the time of God’s patience, will not endure forever. The day of judgment will come.
This terrifying passage was, for centuries, the most important image of Christ’s return. Long before the Left Behind series promised a rapture for the righteous, Christians were taught to fear the judgment in Matthew 25. This is the also the text we use each year to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. I want to say just a little about about fear and about kingship today.
Think about it for a moment. Here Christ is condemning hunger, thirst, exclusion of the foreigner, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment. He could have condemned things that are in our power, like stealing or murder or adultery. At least then we could be responsible. Or he could have condemned things that have become obsolete as civilization developed and morality changed. We could breathe a sigh of relief if Jesus threatened slaveowners, participants in human sacrifice, or people who marry thirteen year old girls. No, 2,000 years after this prophecy, hunger, thirst, exclusion, inadequate clothing and shelter, untimely and untreated illness, and unjust incarceration are as common as ever. Maybe not in our corner of the world. Pretty much everyone in Villa Park has something to wear, and the hungry can stop by my wife’s church for food, and everyone has access to at least some medical care. But the world as a whole is still a world of trouble. This is a terrifying reading because despite all our progress and technology and democracy, it’s still a terrifying world for so many people.
And it’s a terrifying story because it implicates us. It forces us to ask what we’ve done, whom we’ve cared for, how we’ve reached out. We’re all good, moral people here. I know most of you at least a little bit. I’ve seen your generosity through the church, and I know that the world’s miseries mean something to you. The same is true of me. All the same, I do not trust that my little wagonload of good works will be a sufficient answer to Christ’s judgment in this story. Do you?
This is the point in the sermon when my preaching professor would want me to find some “good news” in this reading. I am supposed to produce a unicorn from out of this pile of manure. And there isn’t one there to be found. It’s not because I don’t want to be encouraging and comforting. It’s because the world out there can be so cold and hard, and we can get so warm and drowsy in our protected lives. The task that falls to us, then, is not to berate ourselves for doing too little. It is to change our perspective. It’s to change our perspective from ourselves and our needs, wants, fears, and good deeds to God and the world God loves. The question, “have you fed, watered, welcomed, clothed, healed, visited enough” will never have an answer. The question “who is the king, and who are his treasured subjects?” is one we can all answer.
Today’s story is fearful, but it is also a story about Christ the King. This king’s high-ranking officials, his representatives, his no-good relatives appointed to good jobs, are the hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, imprisoned. He takes his throne among them and rewards their friends, shunning the wealthy and the powerful who have not heard the call of compassion. He rules not as a tyrant or petty dictator but as a gracious, patient, and suffering savior. We, on the other hand, live in rebel-controlled territory. We live and work in a world that does not know and does not trust Christ’s kingship, and it is our daily struggle to be faithful to that king who sometimes feels so far off.
You have kept coming back to this little, slightly shabby outpost of Christ’s reign to hear good news. Week in and week out you see the images of Christ gathering his sheep. Christ appearing to a humble woman. Christ teaching the wise and holy. Christ the crucified ascending to the Father in glory. You have given generously–some of you heroically–to support its existence here as a welcome to the stranger and a beacon of hope in a place where the temptation to forget all of these things can be strong.
It is the end of another church year. It is the time when we ask all of you to dig deeper and support the mission of the church both now and in the future. It is also a time of dread and uncertainty as the economy staggers. All of us have something to lose in this, and around the world the armies of Christ’s subjects will only grow larger. When it is winter for the world, however, it must be spring time for the church. These days challenge us to look beyond our budgets and our habits to imagine how we might reach out in new ways to a world that needs us. It is a time to renew our purpose and our loyalty. Your church needs you. Your world needs you. Your king needs you. Amen.