Recognizing the King

23 November 2014 – Christ the King Sunday

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 25:31-46 (NRS)

Remember the opening scene of the show Camelot? If you’re not familiar with it, let me tell you about it. King Arthur is all alone in the woods. He’s hiding out, actually, because he’s scared. Guinevere, is soon to be arriving. His new wife, which will make her the new queen of Camelot. Merlin, his mentor, comes looking for him. He tries to reassure Arthur that it all will be all right. Though Merlin has seen some sort of thing ahead with a valiant knight called Lancelot. King Arthur goes on to sing that song as if he’s his subjects on the eve of their king’s wedding: “I wonder what the king is doing tonight? . . . He’s scared!” Arthur answers back! No sooner does the audience applause die down, than in rushes Guinevere. The king hides out as she sings her plea to her patron saint to save her from this terrible turn of events: being in a land far from home in which she really doesn’t want to be and becoming the wife of a king she really doesn’t want to marry, just because her father worked out the arrangements to strengthen ties between their countries. When finally Arthur comes down out of the tree, Guinevere continues to tell of her terrible fate and how she has run away to ensure it never will come to pass. She’s looking right into the face of the man she doesn’t want to marry, but she doesn’t recognize him. That was the days before the paparazzi plastered photos of celebrities everywhere. And it’s not like Arthur had a way to do a selfie to tweet or text to her in advance. She doesn’t know he’s the king – until a soldier of his guard comes looking for Guinevere. Seeing the king, the man bows to the ground in recognition of his sovereign. Suddenly Guinevere understands. This is the face of the king she is to marry. She finally recognizes the identity of the one standing before her.

It’s ironic, of course, that this king isn’t recognized in his own land – and by the woman who is to be his queen, no less. But it wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last that a king goes undetected. In his final teaching, at least according to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells too about a King that too often is not recognized. Ironically, he’s talking about himself and the way in which all the nations will be able to see him. It’s a parable of sorts about the long awaited Son of Man finally coming among the people. The prophet Daniel had foretold such a son. One who would save the people from the way their lives had come to be. Everyone will be gathered together, the story goes. And as was done each night in Israel by the shepherds, sheep and goats will be separated. Shepherds brought the goats together back then – most often bedding them for the night in a cave where their collective body heat could keep all the goats warm. Sheep on the other hand, with their woolly coats could sleep scattered out on the hillside if they wanted to. For the sake of the goats, actually, the shepherd had to separate them in order for goats to survive the cold of the night. The funny thing is: the separator in Jesus’ story is a king. One that will treat like his own heirs those who have recognized him.

It’s possible we’ve heard this story from Jesus so many times that it no longer has the impact it most certainly had upon his first hearers. It had been a really long time – if ever – that the people knew a king that fed the hungry and made sure the thirsty had water to drink. That outsider strangers were welcomed in and those unable to put a stitch upon their own bodies were given clothing. The sick often were left to be tended by women who most of the month already were considered unclean. And the worst thing in the world was to be carted off by the king’s soldiers to be imprisoned for whatever unjust infraction you might have been accused of. Kings didn’t mess with those kind of people. The kings Jesus’ listeners knew were the Roman king Augustus, the Caesar and Herod Antipas who often was also referred to as a king. It wasn’t in the face of one in need you were to recognize those kings. They were recognized in their great might. In the massive building projects they undertook. In Rome’s fierce army and their ability to keep you in check through fear. These kings of Jesus’ day weren’t seeing to the needs of their subjects. They were seeing to the security of their own interests. They were crushing common folks into allegiance with crippling taxes and threats of death. Jesus is speaking of a different kind of kingdom. Ruled by a drastically different king.

We’ve not always been good at recognizing this in the church. Which is a goodly part of why in the 1920s the Franciscan order of brothers overtured the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church to establish a holy feast day called Christ the King of the Universe. The world just had witnessed the kings around the earth clashing in a cataclysmic war to end all wars: World War I. In fine Christian lands, Christ was not being recognized as the King of compassion. Instead, folks were acting a whole lot more like Caesar and Herod of Jesus’ day. Christian history often has gone astray in such a way. Which is why the Franciscans wanted Christ the King of the Universe Sunday to become a regular part of our faith traditions. It really was in the 1960s after Vatican 2 that Christ the King Sunday gained any sort of universal recognition. So that you and I are like 2nd generation Christ the King Christians – though I realize many of us may not be all that familiar with the high holy day. One contemporary Franciscan reminds us that Christ has been the King of the Universe from the start. He’s the Alpha (the first letter of the Greek alphabet). And will be the King of the Universe at the end. He’s the Omega too (or that last letter of the Greek alphabet). In one of the most helpful explanations of Christ the King that I have heard, we’re reminded that Christ, or the eternal Logos, was part of God from the start. The pattern or blueprint of God that came to be materialized. In other words, the part of God that came to inhabit matter. To show us what God is all about. To show us the way that rules the universe from beginning until the end (Richard Rohr, That very same way that Jesus, the Christ, was about in his life, death, and resurrection.

And just in case we wouldn’t remain clear about where to recognize this King, Christ; Jesus tells us to look into the face of those around us. Especially those in the deepest need. It’s pretty radical to claim that the eternal God, King of the universe, sovereign Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of it all can be found most definitely in one consistent place. In the face of those who are fed, watered, welcomed, clothed, and healed. Now who ever would expect a King to reside there?! . . . It’s why we’re to be about such ministries. Face to face, not just writing checks for them. Twice this week I heard stories from members of this church about following this command of Christ. I could see it in the eyes of both of you as you talked. If we allow ourselves to be, we are changed when we come face to face with feeding someone who is hungry, or giving drink to one who thirsts. When we welcome someone who was a stranger to us, our lives are opened a little bit wider to the ways God lives and works in this world. It’s always good to help because another has a need; but according to Jesus’ story, that’s not quite why we’re to jump into action. Such service changes us. It allows us to see God living in another – even if we sometimes have to look rather deeply to recognize. Or maybe peer around parts of a person we’re pretty sure God would never inhabit. If we dare enough to see – maybe even to have our minds opened a little bit further to who God is – we’ll find ourselves standing before the King. And if in that moment we’re quiet enough, we might just hear: “Well done good and faithful servant. Today, you’ve entered my kingdom!”

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

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