King in Rags


Pantocrator, Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily, 1148; mosaic

Christ the King  (November 20, 2011)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory….”

Christ the King is a recent observance, first proposed in 1925 in response to growing nationalism and secularism by Pope Pius XI who had the difficulty of dealing with the rise of Nazism. So there is a bit of a protest in this Sunday. A way of saying “no’ to the various claims for our allegiance in the modern world and a reiteration that only Jesus rates ultimate allegiance.

Now the fact is that the term “king,” or the Hebrew equivalent “Messiah” or “Christ”, is never used by Jesus of himself. Peter may confess him to be the Christ, and Jesus won’t deny it. Pontius Pilate may ask if he is a king, and Jesus responds “Is that your word or did some tell you to put it that way?” The placard above his dying head proclaimed he was the king of the Jews, but it was meant as a sarcastic put down of the Jews. No doubt the hesitancy has to do with the reluctance to let notions of kings and messiahs define Jesus. Rather Jesus redefines what a king is, what a messiah is.

Remember how Jesus warned that Gentile leaders lord it over others, “But that is not to be the way with you. If you would be first among others, you must be willing to serve the least.”

The parable today is about as close as Jesus comes to claiming the title king.

We read that when the Son of Man comes in all his glory with the angels, he will take the throne of judgment.

But immediately the parable shifts our attention from the king who is judging to those being judged and by extension to ourselves.

There are several things this story tells us. First there is a judgment day. Recently I read the Qur’an and was struck by how much it assumes that any people of the book, by which is meant Jews, Christians, as well as Muslims, must accept that our life is not ended by death and on the other side we will have to give an account of what we did with the gift of life.

Secondly it is Jesus who will judge us. Hebrews says that he is uniquely qualified for this because he shared our humanity and knows what it is to be tempted, to suffer, to be pressured by powers of this world. He is able to sympathize, the writer says. Paul in Romans 8 says that Jesus rather than condemning us is praying for us. The one who judges is pulling for humanity to succeed not looking for a way to flunk us.

The Merciful God is the Righteous Judge.

I don’t always know what to make of Hell. Matthew speaks of it again here as a place of torment and regret. I keep coming back to the sad possibility that Hell is a choice a sinner makes for himself. Now you ask why anybody would choose to go to Hell. I don’t know, but you and I both know that people can choose things that will increase their misery even when they are aware that it is going to cause them grief.

Moses said in Deuteronomy, “I have given you these instructions so you know the way that leads to life and the other ways that lead to death. Choose life; why would you die?”

At some point a person who is going to Hell will recognize that is what they have been living for a long time. In fact, some say that a person who has made sin a lifestyle would be miserable in heaven.

`To be saved means that I have begun the journey to heaven. My life is gradually changing as I train to be the sort of person who could belong there. Of course it is by God’s help and grace. But it also takes my response and dedication to become what God wants me to be. As Paul puts it in Ephesians, God is at work in us so we can know his love, and do amazing things that are beyond us without his aid. Saved by grace for doing good things God has prepared for us to do.

The one who judges us, the one true king, is one who has identified himself with the most vulnerable and defenseless in the world. Look not for him in splendor but in rags. To judge our fitness for the kingdom Christ looks at how well we have served the need about us.

The ones who will fit into heaven, who are prepared for it and for whom it was prepared from before the foundation of the world – are the ones who have become so merciful that they have lost track of their acts of mercy. They just do it because it is the thing to do.

They have forgotten a lot of the good they have done, but Jesus has not. Sometimes I muse that no good is ever lost forever to God. That in some sense the accumulated rich goodness of creation will be brought forward into heaven. The joy will be complete, memories and beauty and friendship and wonder and science and the very stuff of this creation.

I know that hope, and faith, and knowledge, and speech will all fad into the background, but no good will be missing.

In Revelation we read that the kings of the earth will bring their treasures into the holy city. Just an unexplored expression, but doesn’t it suggest a hope that the things that we treasure most are never assigned to oblivion.

So even a little good deed that you never remember doing may be the thing that Jesus remembers being most significant.

onionDostoevsky (in Brothers K.) relates the story of a woman who was almost saved by an onion. She had been a person of absolute selfishness and so, when she died, she went to hell. After all, she had chosen hell every day of her life. Even after her death, her guardian angel wanted to save her and so approached the Savior, saying a mistake had been made. “Don’t you remember? Olga once gave an onion to a beggar.” It was left unsaid that the onion had started to rot, and also that it wasn’t so much given as thrown at the beggar. The Savior said, “You are right. I bless you to pull her out of hell with an onion.” So the angel flew into the twilight of hell — all those people at once so close to each other and so far apart — and there was the selfish woman, glaring at her neighbors. The angel offered her the onion and began to lift her out of hell with it. Others around her saw what was happening, saw the angel’s strength, and saw their chance. They grabbed hold of the woman’s legs and so were being lifted with her, a ribbon of people being rescued by one onion. Only the woman had never wanted company. She began kicking with her legs, yelling at her uninvited guests, “Only for me! Only for me!” These three words are hell itself. The onion became rotten and the woman and all the others attached to her fell back into the disconnection of hell.”

All the parables of Matthew 25 are about living during the long wait till Jesus returns. The bridesmaid story reminds us to be prepared for a long wait. The servants given talents story reminds us to be active, using what we have in our hands already.

We might say the parable today tells us to live with compassion.

Be prepared– get equipment you need for the long haul.

Be active and willing to risk

Be responsive and compassionate

But there is another lesson. When the son of man comes in glory -and that is going to happen- you will discover that he has been around the whole time. 1

Jesus says that when we do acts of compassion, he is the one we helped. If we had not heard that so many times we might recognize how puzzling such a statement is. How can Jesus the king be the one helping when we help a person in rags?

Undercover Boss is a CBS TV reality show where the boss, usually the President or the CEO, goes undercover behind the scenes of his business. Their goal is to find out if business is being conducted effectively and efficiently. You just don’t expect to see the President or CEO of a big corporation dressed in work clothes while they clean toilets, stock shelves or take out the garbage. But working alongside employees several days they find out how hard the work is, what the attitude of the workforce is, who is contributing and who isn’t to the company’s business and reputation.

Inasmuch as you were cheating the customer or taking advantage of the company or doing a good job– you were doing it unto me.”

You get a raise– you get fired— the boss is incognito and he knows first hand.

Is Jesus saying he slips in disguise as one of the sea of humanity to find out what kind of person we are? Have you ever heard of a boss that treats his workers respectfully when he thinks he is being watched but is a rough guy when there is no to witness?

origin_282322560Tolstoy wrote a lovely story based on this parable, “Where Love Is, God Is” about Martin the Cobbler who has a vision in his devotion. Jesus tells him he will visit the next day. The next day he feeds an old man shoveling snow, gives a cloak shawl to a beggar woman, and buys the apple and gives it to a hungry boy who had tried to steal it, reconciling the woman and boy. As the sun goes down he thinks to take up the gospels for devotion when he hears someone in the room.

“Who is it?” muttered Martin.

“It is I,” said the voice. And out of the dark corner stepped Stepánitch, who smiled and vanishing like a cloud was seen no more.

“It is I,” said the voice again. And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms and the woman smiled and the baby laughed, and they too vanished.

“It is I,” said the voice once more. And the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped out and both smiled, and then they too vanished.

And Martin’s soul grew glad. He crossed himself put on his spectacles, and began reading the Gospel just where it had opened; and at the top of the page he read

“I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.”

In as much as you did it unto one of the least of these…

Ask any decent parent: If somebody threatens to hurt your child, you take it personally. You don’t make a great distinction between your child and yourself. If you have done it to my child you have done it unto me.

Or maybe there is something deeper. Maybe the life of Christ is somehow present in “the least of these.” This would mean that when we deal with another human being we are standing on holy ground. No one is insignificant. They each and all deserve respect, justice, fair dealing, imaginative compassion.

I, I’   Nothing shows God breaking the silence, ending the wait, as when God sees injustice, cruelty. in Ezekiel God fires the shepherds who have cared only for themselves and not the sheep in their charge. God says, “I, I will be the shepherd.”

Exodus 3. God says I have seen how pharaoh has treated my people; I have heard their cries, I know their suffering, therefore I am coming to deliver them.”

What is your name?” Moses asks

My name is I am here…”

The day of the “I am here” shakes up those who have been mistreating God’s people.

Last Friday night Baptists from around the country gathered or tuned in to the second Baptist Covenant meeting. Baptists of all sorts of denominations and color and ethnicity. Marian Wright Edelman was among the speakers and she warned those assembled: “Don’t normalize poverty. Don’t just accept the way people are suffering as the new normal.” Notice what is happening, be part of changing the system, the situation in which people live.

This afternoon your Habitat for Humanity is dedicating another house just down the hill from our church on Hillcrest. It was done quickly because rather than build a new house, this is a rehab of an existing house that was about to be unoccupied. This Thanksgiving a family that did not have decent housing will be home for the holidays.

Some people say it was wrong for the government to push for ownership, that it got our nation into economic difficulty. But it was making loans that people could not pay and then leveraging those into bonds that were unsupportable and then insuring those shaking bonds that got the country into a mess.

One of the things we look at with Habitat is whether a family can afford the mortgage, given that it has no interest attached, it is often less than the rent they are currently paying.

We are not throwing money to pay a month’s rent, we are making it possible for people to buy a home.

Peter and John were headed to the Temple (Acts 6) when they were accosted by a beggar: Peter responded, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I unto thee, Rise up and walk.” Peter did something about the root of the problem, the reason he was having to beg.

“When did we see thee and do something for thee…”

In some cases Jesus’ examples are giving something concrete– in some cases what they gave was time. “You came to see me.” There are some situations we can’t fix. But we can still be present while people go through it. We can still listen and respond compassionately.

Maybe the connection between Jesus and the least is mystical. Physicists now suggests that the world is not just disconnected atoms, but that under all the appearance of independence, there may be a real connection. They speak of string theory which poses the idea that “particles” are more like the nodes on a vibrating string that change according to pitch. And even suggest that a change in one particle on this side of the universe might make a change in a particle on the other side of the universe.

What if Jesus incarnation means that we are all connected in him in invisible but real ways such that nothing can happen to any of us without it being felt by God.

What if it isn’t poetry to say “My life is hid in Christ” or “It is no longer just me that lives but Christ lives in me.” What if the picture of Genesis 2 means that to live is to have God’s breath in us. And everything is connected.

Jesus is, after all, God’s act to bind all things together in heaven and earth.

Everything is connected.

Tread gently in the world, for God is present everywhere. And under all the terrible conditions we may find people, even the worst, the most dependent– God who made the world loves each part and sees the bird that dies, and the wild beast no human has ever laid eyes on, the God who numbers the hair on your head, that God cares so much that we can say every person you meet is connected to God’s heart.

So to love God– to really love God means we must love and respect and treat fairly every life.

So on this day we can worship God who comes to us with human form in Christ.

  • Crown him Lord of creation for he made it.
  • Crown him the Lord of power and might, for all authority is ultimately his.
  • But above all crown him the king of love, for it is his mercy which moves the stars and guides history. And will receive us in glory.

Someone said, we ask if all the good deeds we do will put stars in our crown. Well and good. But what does Revelation say? That when we see the Lord God, when we see the Lamb that as slain, we will take off those crowns with all their stars and lay them at his feet and sing with all the hosts of heaven,

“The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,  “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” Revelation 4:10, 11

Lord of Lord, King of Kings, Hallelujah, Amen.”

1Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren you did it unto me. Now truth be told the focus of this statement is specifically those who are seeking to do the will of God. In Matthew 12 Jesus was told his brothers and mother were outside and needed to see him. Probably to tell him to stop all this and come home. But Jesus said, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ (49) Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. (50) For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”