Today we’re celebrating the feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, which is one of my very favourite days to preach in the entire church calendar. I love what the lectionary does with this day. I’ve loved it ever since I was a — young and inexperienced preacher, when I first dove into the readings for this feast day as a final year of seminary student, back when I was finally starting to get a handle on what the whole preaching thing was about. I love the readings for this day because somehow every year they sneak up on me and they surprise in new and fascinating ways, which I think is exactly the way that they’re meant to be read.
Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel account picks up right where we left off last week, and in fact, if you remember, this is really the passage that I spoke about last week. Whereas last week’s reading described this landowner who was basically ruthless in the way that he treated those below him who weren’t productive enough, today’s reading describes a king who shows up in the faces of the least productive members of society. I truly think that this passage right here is one of the most revolutionary pieces in the entire Bible because it takes everything that we assume about power and status and privilege and it flips on its head. That’s the surprise of this passage.
When I was 20 years old and just coming back from Bible College I got a job working at a summer camp. This was a special needs camp catering largely to quadriplegic adults with associated cognitive impairments, most of them living in group homes. I knew what the camp was, going in to the summer, but I had absolutely no experience working in developmental services. I got the job because I’d volunteered one week a year at a kids’ camp for a few years prior. I drove up to the camp on my first day and within the first hour someone was showing me how to change diapers and how to transfer someone into a shower chair so that I could bathe them. I sat down at the end of the first day and I just thought to myself ‘what, on earth, have I gotten myself into?’ To say that it was learning to swim in the deep end would have felt at the time like the understatement of the year. But the thing about that job and about that camp is that it remains, to this day, one of the holiest places I have ever set foot on in this world.
The people that I met in that place, the people that I worked with, off and on, over the course of four years, were not wealthy people. They weren’t powerful people, or popular people. Many of them needed support for the most basic things that so many of us take for granted and they’d needed that support throughout their entire lives.
By all measures these people were not productive members of society, and if that sounds harsh and that sounds mean then fine, let that serve as a wake up call – to all of us. Because there’s an incredibly popular attitude at work in our world and in our communities that says that human worth is dependent on productivity, on how much someone can contribute to the whole. It says that if you can’t pull your own weight or you can’t offer something to the world around you then you deserve to be written off. And obviously we never talk about it in explicit terms like that but you can hear it, sometimes, in the questions we ask. One of the first questions kids learn to face in life: what are you going to be when you grow up? One of the first we ask when we meet someone new, what do you do (meaning, of course, where do you work)? You can see it in the drive towards automation and in the North American job drain. Robots can do it more efficiently and people overseas can do it more cheaply, and so jobs in many industries are disappearing from the market at alarming rates. You can see it in the way that everyone, kids and adults alike, are so wildly overscheduled these days. We’re all trying to do something, or to achieve something, or to be something else. We don’t simply live in the midst of it, we are very much a part of a culture that glorifies productivity and busyness and action and activity.
The people that I worked with at that summer camp taught me, once up on a time, that it doesn’t have to be that way, that our worth and our lovability and our integrity, don’t have to depend on what we do. You are worthy of love, and you are worthy of respect, and you are worthy of God’s grace, not because of the things that you do in life but because of who you are, a beloved child of God.
The tricky thing about the spiritual life is that it takes someone who’s able to recognize that fundamental truth about themselves, that they are loved by God, to also recognize that fundamental truth about someone else.
THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST
This parable that we have before us today about the sheep and the goats, about those who treat The Other with respect, is a reminder to us about our responsibility to love those who at first glance might seem to be unlovable: the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the prisoners. But it’s also a reassurance that we ourselves are lovable too. The kingdom of Christ doesn’t need to pit the privileged and the unprivileged against each other, and it doesn’t need to work with the old hierarchies where the virtuous offer their charity to the needy. The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom unlike any we’ve ever known. It’s a kingdom where all people meet together as equals, no matter where you stand in society, where each person respects the other not because it’s their duty or their payment, but precisely because they themselves have experienced the respect and the love of Christ himself.
This parable is an image of what happens in the fullness of time, but its message is a message meant for us here and now. It’s a reminder that we’re not simply waiting passively for the coming of some hypothetical kingdom of Christ but as Christians, as part of the church, we are actively searching for it in our lives.
Somewhat counter intuitively, one of the best ways for us to search for the kingdom of Christ is to slow down, to stop trying to fix the big problems of the world or beating ourselves up over our failure to do so. We search for the kingdom of Christ by taking a deep breath, by bringing ourselves back into the present, by allowing the love of God to take hold in our hearts, and then by opening our eyes again to the world around us, by seeing the need in front of us, by reaching out in whatever way we’re able to those who can never repay us.
The mystery of this parable is that when we embrace this life, we may not sense it, but the kingdom of God lies all around us, and we may not see him, but we stand in the holy and mystical presence of none other than Christ the King.