It was the Sunday after a series of street protests had roiled the city of Charlotte, NC, near where I serve. In my attempt to be as timely as I could be, I addressed the events of the week in my sermon that morning. "Preacher," he said to me after the service. "If I were you, I'd stick to religion. Keep your politics out of the pulpit."
One can imagine then the reservations with which we clergy might approach this particular Sunday. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the most political Sunday of the Christian calendar. This morning the church gathers to acknowledge the One for whom "all things were created...whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers" (Col. 1:16) and before whom "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Phil 2:10-11) As many scholars have noted, to say "Jesus is Lord" in the first century was the seditious, political equivalent of exclaiming "Caesar is not!" Today we hail the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
And what an odd sort of King he is by our political standards. This time last year, our country finished yet another exhausting election season in which all the candidates who wished to rule over us promised to represent our interests. And by "our interests" we expect that to mean our middle-to-upper-class economic interests. We have come to demand that our would-be kings secure and promote our (affluent) standards of living, all without personal sacrifice.
Yet, here in Matthew, sits King Jesus in final judgment; and whose interests does he represent? "All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man," Jesus says. "And he will separate the people like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats." To the ones on his right hand, the sheep, the King will say, "Come, you who are blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing. Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me." Then to those on his left, the goats, he will consign to eternal punishment, saying, "You gave me no food or drink nor did you welcome or visit me. Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do to me."
Hearing this, a few Catholics declared, "But we adored your Blessed Sacrament!" The Lutherans cried out, "But we emphasized salvation by faith alone!" Then the Methodists said, "Wow, so you really do judge!" The point is that according to the One who sits on the throne, our entrance into the jurisdiction of God, our salvation, will depend on whether we, like King Jesus, not only represented but even identified with the interests of the poor, the stanger, the prisoner, the least of these. What sort of political platform is this?
Notice what Jesus never said here. Notice he never said to the sheep, "You had the right political opinion about the least of these" or "You studied liberation theology!" Even the goats could have affirmed God's preferential option for the poor. No, he said, "You fed me, you visited me, you welcomed me." The good news here - as the great preacher of antiquity, John Chrysostom, put it - is that Jesus never said, "I was sick and you healed me or I was in prison and you broke me out." King Jesus will hardly judge us on whether we accomplished extraordinary feats for the most vulnerable. He'll only hold us accountable on the simple, ordinary acts: giving a meal, paying a visit, offering welcome. To do these things, however, does involve what has become a greater challenge for so many of us. It involves a certain proximity to them, a closeness, a friendship, and where I live that level of closeness has become harder and harder to come by.
I preach in a fairly affluent area among a fairly affluent people. My schedule on a typical week can go as follows: gather with a Board on Monday, meet with the staff on Tuesday, teach a small group of laity on Wednesday, sermon prep on Thursday, fellowship breakfasts on the weekends. See the issue? It's impossible where I and so many others live to go days without seeing anyone hungry or thirsty or imprisoned. Doing so nowadays often requires effort: driving a church bus downtown or booking a summer mission trip with the youth. We have succeeded - at least in my part of the world - to render the poor invisible among us. Lord, when did we see you and fail to take care of you? We never saw you at all.
A gate came between them, said Jesus in another sermon. Lazarus, a beggar, lay on the outside of that gate, covered in sores, while a rich man fared sumptuously behind it every day. At death, their roles reversed: Lazarus went to the paradise of Abraham's bosom, the rich man to Hades, and both men in the afterlife found themselves separated once again by another partition. Only this time there was less a gate coming between them than an unbridgeable chasm. The rich man, like the goats in our lesson today, did nothing harmful to the poor. He and they simply did nothing at all. They did not feed, did not welcome, did not visit. Theirs was a sin of omission. The rich man and the goats in today's lesson both got in the next-life what they seemed to have preferred in this life: separation, distance from the poor. Only, separation from the poor, they found out, is separation from King Jesus himself. Not God's will, but theirs be done.
Now, you will see no gates surrounding my property, thank you very much - well, at least none of the visible kind. My gates just happen to be of the invisible kind: a certain zip code or school district or property valuation insulating and distancing me, even if unintentionally, from the least for whom King Jesus has such visceral concern. And I'm the one who may be the most impoverished because of it.
Anne Lamott recently tweeted, "Who was it who said that to get into heaven, you needed a letter of recommendation from the poor? What a buzzkill." It sure sounds that way until you feed, clothe, visit, and welcome to least of these yourself. Then you realize they have as much dignity and humanity as anyone else; that we are just as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life as they; and our heart enlarges because of it. Then it hits you. It's hardly about charity; it's about conversion.
"For our part," said Mother Teresa, "what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich." Or as John Wesley, the Methodist pioneer, observed, "It is always better to carry aid than it is to send it." The saints know the poor hardly need our pity. They need our friendship and, for heaven's sake, we need theirs. The poor are the hope of the world if we take this lesson seriously. For through them we encounter the King who was hungry in his temptations, naked and thirsty on his cross, a stranger among his people, and a prisoner by judicial decree. The King of Kings was and still is the poor stranger among us.
As for the sheep in this parable, there was little effort on their part. There was no sophisticated liberation theology driving them into the presence of the most vulnerable. They simply loved their King, and in loving him, they loved the least among them as a natural consequence without ever thinking about why. In the end, such ignorance really will be bliss.
Soon and very soon we are going to see the King! And if we love him, we can find him, visit him, and welcome him even now. Long live the King.
Let us pray.
King Jesus, give us eyes with which to see you in the guise of the least, and in seeing you, help us be unafraid to receive you, and those whose interests you hold dear, into our friendship. Amen.