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The Last Day of Pentecost - The Feast of Christ the King November 26, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
November 26, 2017  | The Reign of Christ
The Conclusion of the Year of Grace 2016 - 2017
Pope Pius XI was an anxious man in the year 1925. The Bolsheviks had overthrown the monarchy in Russia, executed the royal family, and begun their persecution of the church. The newly founded Italian state had seized the papal lands that encompassed much of central Italy and confined the pope to the grounds of the tiny Vatican State. Affection for democratic institutions was growing throughout Europe as kings and queens looked on in utter disbelief as their privileges were curtailed left and right. And the growth of historical and scientific study within the church was calling into question the papal claim to infallibility and the papal monarchy that ruled the largest religion on the face of the earth. For Pius XI, the growing tide of atheistic secularism appeared as one large group of outsiders who scorned the Christian faith and thus, in the midst of this conflicted situation, he instituted the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, what we keep today as the feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. His intention was to point hundreds of millions of Catholics throughout the world toward the ever-abiding presence of Christ – but Christ portrayed little differently than the Russian czar or the king of England. Indeed such a feast could easily lead to triumphalism; it could, for instance, support those who insist that our country was founded as a Christian nation, a nation that should be ruled with biblical laws and governed by Christian men (no women, thank you) – the very position promoted by many fundamentalist Christians and backed by white supremacists who hold, ironically, that hatred of others is a Christian value.
But, then, thankfully, the creators of the list of gospel readings appointed for each Sunday and holy day present us with this gospel text, a vision of the future that, in truth, is more about the world in which we live today. For the gospel presents us with those who are the least in the kingdoms of this world and of our nation: the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked, the foreigner, the imprisoned – and presents us with those who respond or fail to respond to their need.
In the world in which Jesus lived, it was not at all uncommon to divide people into two groups: insiders – that is, our family, our village, our nation (people just like us) – and outsiders – everyone else different than us and frequently looked upon as somehow less than, inferior to us – that is, other families, foreigners, people who speak with accents and hold to customs different than our own.  That Matthew’s Jesus employs the image of sheep and goats to describe insiders and outsiders would make perfect sense in a culture where sheep were thought to express the noble and “manly” virtue of suffering in silence while male goats were viewed as lascivious little devils who freely shared their females with other male goats. With the sheep, you’re in an honorable group; with the goats, a shameful group. Thus, a cursory reading of this judgment scene could lead one to conclude that those who respond to the least of these are deemed honorable in the sight of the One who will judge the living and the dead, and those who fail to respond to the needs of their neighbors will be called shameful and thus receive a less than honorable fate. And so I ask you: who wouldn’t want to be a sheep rather than a goat? But, then, I wonder: are you and I not a mix of the two – striving to be attentive to the suffering of our neighbors by actually doing something to alleviate their pain and yet pulled by the goat within to care only for our pleasure and our personal needs? Between these two – “it’s all about me” and “it should be about you” – we find the tension at the heart of Christian faith and life.
The fact of the matter is this: in the world of Jesus, one was expected to extend loving kindness to one’s family and close friends and one was expected to offer hospitality to the stranger in the need – kindness to family and friends, to insiders; hospitality to strangers in need, those who first appear as outsiders but by virtue of the hospitality offered could become close friends, even members of one’s family. But here’s the Surprise in the story: the expectation of offering hospitality to strangers in need was not – was not – the monopoly of one group or religion: it was expected of Jews, Christians, and the worshippers of other gods.  And so, whoever offers hospitality to the stranger in need offers hospitality to the One who rules, who reigns in the midst of the least of these.
The Anglican biblical scholar, Marianne Sawicki, writes that the gospels are filled with memories of Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, it is easy to attach ourselves to memories because memories frequently refer to a past time that seems to be settled and closed. It is thus easy for us to worship in the present if it is only in remembrance of that fact that Jesus lived here once upon a time. But in addition to memories, the gospels, and this gospel text, convey instructions to us for recognizing Jesus in our time, in the present. Where does he say we will encounter him now, in the present? Why in the invitations he gives us in the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, and the refugees. Their pleas are coming to us from Jesus incognito. Indeed, their pleas are the invitation to enter into nothing less than the kingdom of mercy.
Matthew 25:31-46
Jesus said, “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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”