Matthew 25:31-46, Reign of Christ, Sermons

What Kind of King?

Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.
Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.

(A sermon for Reign of Christ A – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46)

I have a particular fondness for the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” When I sang it as a little girl, probably the first king who came to mind was not God, but the father of Prince Charming in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” He was played by Walter Pidgeon, and his character was serious but kindly, concerned for all around him, and mostly just wanting his son to be happy.

The King I knew best from the Bible, on the other hand, was King Herod, clearly the bad guy in the Christmas story. In the Christmas Pageant at my childhood church, he was played by one of the biggest boys, enthroned in the choir loft, the mighty organ pipes his throne. In Matthew’s gospel, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under 2 because the Wise Men told him about a baby born to be King of the Jews.

What’s your first thought when you hear the word king? In our time, kings are characters in Disney movies and fairy tales, or worse, foolish people whose social lives and missteps play out in the pages of glossy magazines. Jesus used kings as illustrations in his stories because just like vineyard workers, or mustard seeds, or the lilies of the field, kings meant something to his listeners.

The kings who reigned over Israel in Jesus’ lifetime were not part of some historic dynasty, nor did they have the typical power of kings. They had been imported by the occupying Romans, their loyalty purchased with the understanding they would live in relative luxury and not cause trouble.

Historical kings of Israel, as described in the Old Testament, weren’t much better. Some were successful in battle, like Saul and David, or famous at but failures in their personal lives. Others were terrible leaders, and on the whole they did a poor job of maintaining their small nation, often at risk of being overrun.

Still, a king mattered, and good or bad in real life, a king was an image everyone understood: a person who sat high above all the rest, with supporters at his disposal; a person with the authority and power to decide who was in and who was out.

In some ways, then, it seems appropriate to think of Jesus as the king in the story we just heard, but in other ways it really doesn’t. The last Sunday of the church year lifts up that tension. We call it Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday. King is an odd image to apply to Jesus. He had no earthly kingdom glory. Instead, he turned the expectations of the world upside down, winning not a throne but a victory over death.

What kind of king was Jesus?

Newer hymnals in your more progressive denominations, ours included, have taken a lot of the King language out of our hymns, but I’ll be honest with you: I like it. I like the king language because it reminds me not only that I worship Jesus Christ, but also that he got so little of that kind of attention in his time on Earth. He walked everywhere except for that entry into Jerusalem, which means he wasn’t on horseback, or carried in a litter, or driving a chariot, none of the things a regal person would have done. He didn’t live in a castle or a palace.

What kind of weird king was he, the carpenter from Nazareth who stirred up all the trouble?

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

Jesus spent those last days in Jerusalem with his closest followers, which would have included the 12 disciples, and other hangers-on, and a group of women who provided the funds to feed and house the whole crowd. These were the days leading up to the Passover celebration. The city would have been crowded with faithful Jews from all over the known world, coming to observe one of the most important holidays of the year, and given the foreign military occupation and the influx of believers in the Jewish God, the situation was tense.

From what we know now about that era, Jerusalem would have been crawling with revolutionaries, some with more inclination to fight than the rabbi from Galilee. There were palace coups and Temple intrigues. Everyone who mattered played some kind of game of getting along with the occupying Romans, and most everyone else just tried to stay out of the way, but a few people stirred up trouble, hoping, wildly, that they could change the apparent course of history by killing someone in power.

Naturally, those who were in power, those who had found a way to collaborate, however uneasily, with the Romans, did not want the status quo upset.

Here came Jesus, who did not fight with weapons, who was not stealthy, who came into the middle of the Temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers. He told the people in power – and the people who worked for them – that they had it all wrong, that God would not approve of the way they managed things. ­­

The stories he told in what we now call Holy Week are hard to read. All the passages in Matthew at the end of Year A ask the same sorts of ultimate questions. What are the essentials of our faith? What does it mean to be the church? Who does Jesus expect his disciples to be?

We turn our heads sideways trying to puzzle out his meaning. But maybe it’s quite simple.

"The Good Shepherd," Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
“The Good Shepherd,” Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
Ezekiel portrayed God as a shepherd, committed to gathering the lost and the lonely, the weak and the injured. That great shepherd is kind and tender, but also means business, calling us out for not taking care of one another.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezekiel 24:15-16, 20-22, NRSV)

Jesus makes the same point in the lesson of the sheep and the goats, which is not a parable but rather an eschatological vision, a story of the end of the world as we know it. His listeners would have recognized the idea of a mixed flock, one with sheep and goats, and the separating of the two animals would have been a familiar idea. Here the cosmic shepherd, in all his glory and attended by his angels, will come to divide the herd, to separate us like sheep – the more valuable animal – from goats.

The standard for that separation will not be what we acquired in life, or how pretty we are, or how many verses of scripture we have memorized, or even how regularly we have attended Sunday School.

The standard has two parts. First the king says, you will come into my Father’s kingdom because you took care of me when I needed help, when I was hungry or thirsty. You welcomed me when I was a stranger. You visited me when I was sick or in prison. This seems straightforward, if limited. All those who took some kind of care of Jesus are in good shape.

But even in his story, the people he offers the reward are honest; they don’t take credit for doing something they don’t remember. “When did we do it, Lord?”

Now the standard becomes more subtle: we will be judged on our treatment of “the least of these members of my family,” the people who needed our help.

Does this mean we are being rated based on our treatment of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and those in prison? The second part of the story certainly suggests that. The people not in favor are just as clueless as the ones who will enter the kingdom; “When did we see you and not give you water or food?”

What kind of king is this?

"Jesus Reconsiders Goats" by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor
“Jesus and Goats” by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor

The nations are gathered before him, and it is not wealth or political policies or doctrinal positions being assessed. “How did you care for the least of these,” he asks, “the little ones, the members of my family?” This king is the one who healed lepers and protected prostitutes and visited the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees and other assorted sinners. This king is the one who would sit down to dinner with his friends knowing one of them would betray him. This king is the one who would carry his own cross to the hill where they would execute him alongside common criminals – the very least of these, for certain.

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

With his very life, and in the manner of his death, our king says, “The way you treat the least of these is the way you have treated me.”

He is still turning over the tables. Will we?

*****

I preached this a week early as we will be off the lectionary this coming Sunday at Faith United Church of Christ, celebrating the church’s 60th anniversary by following the order of service from that day in 1954.

Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 95, Reign of Christ, Sermons

All the other gods

(A sermon for Reign of Christ A — November 13, 2011 — Psalm 95:1-7a; Matthew 25:31-46)

I was driving my little Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel with a little fellow in the back seat. We stopped at a red light, at the intersection of Preble Street and Marginal Way in Portland, where I looked up the hill and then heard 2-year-old Edward asking, “Did God make everything?”

“Yes, Honey.”

“Did she make all the buildings?” (Pronounced “beeldings,” to make it even cuter.)

They start early in my family, trying to work out just who God is. Human beings have been doing it ever since there have been human beings. For the Psalmist whose words were paraphrased in our Call to Worship, God is the “rock of our salvation,” “a great King above all Gods,” our Maker and our Shepherd.  That’s just in Psalm 95. And I can find more than one reference to God as Divine Architect, so maybe I didn’t give Edward the right answer, theologically speaking, but they always tell you to answer children at the level they can understand.

So, on that long ago day at Toddler University, I said to Edward, “No, God made people, and people figured out how to make the buildings.”

God gives us what we need, as a collective human community, to do the things that will benefit all of us. We have minds and bodies and the power to coordinate our efforts and an inherent appreciation for the new that leads us to try and succeed at things our great-grandparents never contemplated. We have the power to provide food and shelter and care for those who need help the most.

God also gives us the free choice to do those things, or not. And while other people may not see it in our lifetimes, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for our choices and our actions. In this last of the challenging parables Jesus shares with his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, we are shown a sharp contrast between those who respond to God’s desire and those who do not. If we don’t listen to anything else Jesus has to say in Matthew’s gospel—although I hope we have listened—if we don’t hear anything else Jesus says, we need to hear this.

We’ve moved on beyond hearing “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” followed by a story that might have been clear to 1st Century listeners, but which is opaque in the extreme to most of us. There’s an argument to be made that parables about the Kingdom of Heaven are instructions for how to live now, as
opposed to a picture of what heaven will be like. But here Jesus is speaking of ultimate matters:


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. (Matthew 25:31-3, NRSV)

It had to sound pretty funny to his disciples, this talk of glory; they had seen the company he kept. Jesus did not have afternoon tea with King Herod or the Roman Governor. He did not curry the favor of the authorities. He did not associate himself with people who had earthly glory and power. Truly, he associated with the low and the unacceptable. He touched the untouchable. He pointed the finger at the ones doing injustice and was preparing himself to face the consequences of those actions in the arrest that was coming, in the death he would suffer at the hands of the earthly powers.

Here at what felt like the end of all things, the last chance to teach them anything, Jesus told it straight. When the Son of Man comes in his power, he is going to sit on a throne of glory, accompanied by angels, and he is going to tell us the truth about our lives. And Jesus wants us to know what matters.
He wants us to know what is going to matter and how we are going to be assessed. And he goes on to make it plain that we are not going to be judged on our acquisitions or our accomplishments or our wealth or our beauty or (sadly for some of us) our way with words.

But that’s not how it feels when we live in this world, is it? It’s pretty certain that in this earthly kingdom, we worship other gods. Just go to the mall, or watch the advertisements during a football game, and you’ll know what I mean. We worship money and getting ahead and beauty and romance and sex appeal and celebrity and shiny new technology … and sports.

I didn’t go to a football school. The College of William and Mary was known more for academics and access to really good shopping for visiting mothers. The first and last campus demonstration I attended was a protest organize by student leaders who did NOT want money to be spent on a more fabulous football stadium. I’ve never worshiped football.  So it’s hard for me to understand the response of many Penn State students and alumni this past week.

We give power as a culture to anything that makes a lot of money, and football is one of those things, even college football. We use many earthly metaphors to describe God: King, Father, Shepherd, Architect, Captain, maybe even Coach. But we should never give a coach the power of a god. We should never give that power to a person, not a coach or a teacher or a politician or a star athlete or even a pastor. And maybe if we talk about how earthly power has been used to harm innocent people, we can learn something from each other.

On Friday, President Obama said,
 “…I think it’s a good time for the entire country to do some soul-searching — not just Penn State. People care about sports, it’s important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected.” 

Former Washington Redskin linebacker and Penn State alum LaVar Arrington spoke at a prayer vigil at Penn State on Friday night:
“The worst crime that we can commit right here is to leave here and forget what happened…Tonight, let this be the start of the greatest story ever told. The challenge, due to the evil acts of an evil person and evil people, the challenge has been issued,” he said. “Now, let it be known that we wage war as Penn State to make a difference. Do not walk away from here tonight and say, ‘I had an opportunity to hold a candle and look at somebody and listen to people talk.’ Leave here tonight with a resolve and understanding that you possess the power to change things.”

Those are good words, for Penn State, and I especially appreciate the way he actively calls on those present to act, to be empowered to set things right instead of saying, “I am only one person,” or “Someone else has the real power.” No, he exhorts his beloved community to act together to change the world.

They are very good words.

But I would argue about what should be the greatest story ever told. The greatest story ever told is this one: the great King over all the other gods does not care about our earthly power. The great King over all the other gods values hearts that care for those in need, the poor and the hungry and the naked and the ill and the imprisoned. The greatest King over all the other gods experiences our love and our worship in our acts of love toward other people. And our hero, our Savior, exhorts us to be *his* beloved community, the sheep of his pasture, the ones who act together to change the world.


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.’ (Matthew 25:37-40, NRSV)

When we search our souls, we have a clear choice.

We can be like the goats. We can turn our attention to the values of this earthly kingdom and its twisted sense of power without service, of power that takes advantage, of power that serves selfish needs simply because the same power means there is no fear of accountability. We can worship all the other gods.

Or we can be like the sheep. We can look at one another and see the face of Christ. We can look especially at those who are suffering and in need and offer the love and care Jesus offered, once and for all—for all of us.

May we follow the God who made us, the Shepherd who guides us, a great King above all the other gods. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(And yes, I know I’m a week ahead in the lectionary. We’re using the Thanksgiving texts next Sunday, and I didn’t want to miss this one.)

Matthew 25:31-46, Poetry, Reign of Christ

cornucopia

cornucopia

what riches!
so many things we can buy,
dream about, 
wish to receive,
worship

our cornucopia is overfull
(our landfill)
with iPads and Xboxes
programmable coffeemakers
refrigerators with TV screens
we can’t count them all

our shelter is overfull
with men and women
veterans, children
hungry, cold–
can we see them?





(We’re a week ahead of the lectionary, doing the sheep and the goats this Sunday. Thinking of using this on the bulletin cover. What think you?)