Suzanne G. Roberts, MD, MDiv
Sermon for Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King
November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
It was late in the afternoon, there was a bit of a nip in the air because fall had truly arrived, and I was walking down Congress Street on my way back to the Cathedral. The sidewalk was unusually full for Portland, but ahead of me I could see that my fellow pedestrians were splitting into two groups as they walked, parting to the left and the right because there was a man standing still in the middle of the sidewalk, and he was turned to face us. As I approached I heard him say: “All I am asking for is 13 cents, and 30 people must have walked right by me!” I stopped. We made eye contact. I said: “13 cents?” He said: “Yeah, I just need 13 cents.” He was perhaps in his mid 30’s, and by the cuts and bruises on his face I’d say that he had recently taken a beating. I fished through my change purse and said: “Well I don’t have 13 cents exactly, but you’ll take a quarter, won’t you?” and he said yes. As I handed it to him he asked for my name, and then said: “Thank you Suzanne.” I asked for his name and responded: “I hope you have a good afternoon Nick.” He wished me a good afternoon as well, and we both walked on, but now we were both smiling. The entire exchange took perhaps 15 seconds.
Now, I am not offering this story to make myself look good, or to spark a discussion about whether or not it is helpful to give money to people who beg on the streets, I am telling this story because what I want to emphasize is the importance, the beauty, and the joy of finding Christ in unexpected interactions. I didn’t stop to help Nick because I was the only person walking by who had 13 cents—I’d wager that every single person who had swept by without giving him a glance had at least 13 cents in their pockets— I stopped because when he said “Thirty people have walked right by me” I understood him to say that 30 people had treated him as if he was less than human. All I did was recognize that he is another human just like me; that we are both made in the image of God —– and I walked away from our brief exchange happier. I pray that he felt happy briefly as well.
This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the liturgical year and the end of our time with the Gospel of Matthew. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, and following Advent we will begin our study of the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps it is fitting that the last we will hear from Matthew is a parable about Judgment Day, since Matthew was clearly very concerned about the Second Coming of Jesus. The parable of the sheep and the goats is probably familiar to all of you. With its emphasis on the importance of good works this parable is a favorite of Christians who are concerned about social justice, and I do not want to downplay the importance of that message — actions do speak more loudly than words and God is certainly paying attention to our actions — but that isn’t the message that struck me this time as I read this parable. Instead, what struck me was the element of surprise — both the sheep and the goats were surprised at their fate because neither group had apparently paid much attention to the way that they had responded to their less fortunate brothers and sisters, the people whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these.” And this time as I read the parable their question: “When was it that I saw you?” struck me as really sad. It struck me as sad because if you have to ask: “When was it that I saw you Jesus?” then that means that you are really not paying attention. If you have to ask: “When was it that I saw you Jesus?” then that means that you are not able to recognize the Kingdom of God in your life. And if you cannot see God at work in the world around you then that means that you don’t believe in your Baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”. If you cannot recognize that God is still working at God’s creation and that you are an integral part of it, then that means that you don’t believe that your actions can make a difference. And if you believe that your actions don’t make a difference then you have lost everything, your common humanity, your faith, and your hope. You really are lost, confused and stumbling through life, bleating like a sheep or a goat, led by the whims of the herd, and searching for a shepherd.
Unlike Matthew, most Christians today don’t spend a lot of time wondering and worrying about Judgment Day. Perhaps after over 2,000 years we have learned that Christ’s return almost certainly will not come during our lifetimes, perhaps our doubts and questions about the afterlife get in the way, or perhaps we are simply more focused on the life we have now and less worried about what happens afterwards. But even if we are less worried about standing in front of the Judgment Throne, none of us want to arrive there only to ask “When was it that I saw you Jesus?” because to ask that question is to admit that one has missed the countless opportunities that God gives us each day to become part of God’s work. How sad to think that a person can walk through life so self absorbed, distracted, or busy that they miss those opportunities! Human to human interactions, the times when I see Jesus in others, are the joy, the reward, the fulfillment of both of my vocations, and to miss out on those because I was too busy or distracted would be to lose the very reason why I exist as a human being and as a Christian. But I probably don’t have to tell you that it is very easy to get too busy and distracted. Remaining open to finding Jesus in others can be difficult, and for most of us it is actually an intentional spiritual practice that must be cultivated. Each one of us needs to walk through life with “Christ seeking eyes”, with “Christ expecting eyes” every day, so as not to miss our opportunities to be Christ for one another. We need to make prayer that we will be open to the work of God and the Holy Spirit a part of our everyday routine. This is vital not only because as Christians we are tasked with being God’s hands on earth, but also for a reason that at first sounds more selfish, but I will say it anyway: because being open to finding Jesus in unexpected places and faces will bring us joy. That’s right—joy. Right here and right now, not on Judgment Day, not when we are standing at the foot of the throne, joy right now. And the amazing and grace filled thing about the joy that we find when we discover Jesus in unexpected faces is that this type of joy isn’t selfish after all — it is exactly the type of joy that God wishes for each and every one of us.
So, this morning go out into God’s beautiful creation and don’t be like a goat or a sheep, blindly following the flock and unable to recognize Jesus —- instead go out with eyes seeking to encounter Jesus in unexpected faces, because whenever two children of God interact with love, joy is bound to follow. AMEN.