When Did We See You?
by Louise Westfall
Next Sunday is the first day of the Christian calendar, the beginning of a season called “Advent,” when we eagerly anticipate not only the sweet baby of Bethlehem but the “Victorious Christ,” who will rule a kingdom of peace and justice on earth as it is in heaven. That makes today the last day of the Christian calendar, and it’s a doozy. Christ-the-King, or (because we Americans are a little nervous about the implications of rule by royalty) “Reign of Christ.” We celebrate God’s sovereignty over the entire world, the end of human history and its sad record of wars and violence and terror, and the inauguration of a day when all will dwell in peace under the reign of God.
Christ-the-King Sunday was first added to the church calendar in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church in response to the plight of Mexican Christians, under the tyrannical rule of a regime which demanded complete and utter allegiance above any other. The Church in Mexico resisted, holding public marches and assemblies in which they held to the primacy of faith, proclaiming “Cristo Rey!,” “Christ is Ruler!” Pope Pius XI made that declaration the basis of a Holy Day to be observed throughout the Church, affirming “Christ, Ruler of the Universe.” [Taylor Burton Edward, Discipleship Ministries]
So today our voices come alongside those persecuted for their faith, including those Mexicans in the early 20th century, the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany which refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and people who put loyalty to God ahead of political alliances even to this day. With them we affirm “Christ is Ruler! Cristo Rey!”
Our morning Scripture text envisions the dawn of Christ’s rule as a kind of Big Sort, sheep from goats, those who have served the King and those who haven’t, the blessed and the accursed. Frankly, the line drawn is so bright my gut reaction is to shut my eyes and turn away. Mark Twain once noted “It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” I’m pretty sure this text qualifies. A reading from the gospel according to Matthew in the 25th chapter, at the 31st verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me. [Matt. 25:31-46]
They come, always on the busiest day, yet somehow, magically, in the fifteen-minute break between appointments and meetings. I don’t want anything, just talk to the pastor, maybe she could pray for me. But of course they always do want something: a place to stay, because the family shelter in LoDo has bed bugs; a hot meal because they have a condition that requires food at regular intervals; money for a bus to head back to Louisiana or Texas where their beloved aunt is dying. We’ve had street people ask to use our bathrooms because the public ones set up on Colfax are “hideous,” request just $9 which is all they’re short for a night in a motel that even has a hot plate, and once, if I would watch her baby while she cleaned a nearby apartment.
And the thing is, we cannot help everyone. We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the time. And frankly, we have to be smart about a lot of hard-luck stories being dressed-up pleas for money for a bottle of Thunderbird, a bag of white powder that will make the troubles go away for a little while. So I feel tired when I hear Jesus say When you did it to one of the least of these, members of my family, you did it to me. Jesus didn’t screen these members either or distinguish the “truly needy” from the scam artists. He just said to take care of them in their vulnerability and powerlessness. And that somehow this is more an indication of one’s identity and loyalty than adherence to any creed or belief system.
… and even more jarring than that is what the text says about the One who rules the universe. God is not remote and far off in heaven, but right here in the messy, complicated lives of the people on earth. Rather than rule from a distance, this is a Deity who will be found in the lives of the hurting and hopeless; the sick and broken and refugee and prisoner. Mother Teresa said it explicitly: Whenever I meet someone in need, it is really Jesus in his most distressing disguise. I see him in every person I touch, it is as simple as that.
Friends, it cuts both ways. If our care for the needy brings us face to face with God, then our worship and adoration of God will have practical, down-to-earth consequences. The “many crowns” with which we are to crown Christ (as we sang earlier)? — they will include affordable health care, refugee resettlement and a pathway to citizenship, robust rehabilitation programs for incarcerated men and women, shelter and job training … because those are some of the ways we care for the least of these in our troubled times. Worship and service are intimately connected. If we seek Jesus in the frightened face of the Guatemalan man who has made a dangerous trip to escape oppression and make a new life, can we really build a wall stopping him dead in his tracks? If we look upon the face of God in the single mother of three now pregnant with her fourth, can we sustain the integrity of our faith by cutting her access to health care and medical services? If I look into the eyes of the guy who interrupts my busy day and see Jesus, can I really dismiss him quickly in the press of all that I have to get done? Not if we believe the word of One who said, When you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Though the division between sheep and goats is made on the basis of their actions, the curious thing about this scenario is that neither the sheep nor the goats understood who they were serving or not serving. When did we see you …???? They were just living life, oblivious to its significance. Maybe the force of Jesus’ words is not so much a prescription of future judgement but a cautionary tale to live with eyes wide open. To see God in other people because God is present there, in sheep and goats alike? And when you get right down to it, isn’t there some of both in every one of us? Goat-like selfishness when we are so wrapped up in our own needs and agendas, we become the center of our universe, a little god unto ourselves. But also sheep-side compassion when we are moved beyond reason to care for a little one, ahead even of our own self-interest.
You show that characteristic regularly. The number one mission priority the congregation identified in interviews and surveys from the Task Force for Central’s Thriving Future was to “take the church and the good news out into our community.” I wonder if you realize how funds raised through the capital campaign might help us do that. You’ve seen the fly through, and plans to bring entrances down to street level. That’s partly about accessibility and aesthetics. But it’s also about mission. Purple Door Coffee is a local enterprise that takes at-risk young people and gives them training and skills to be baristas here in a city where food services are big business. Remodeling the first floor space as a hospitality center and coffee shop could offer us potential for serving high school drop-outs, young people who have no clear purpose or sense of belonging, what some might describe as “the least of these.”
Imagine: the Jesus we might drink coffee with on a sleepy Monday morning is none other than Cristo Rey, the God who rules over all. Love is the rule of God: patient, grace-filled, generous, redemptive. Love is the only thing that will save us from the hell of self-absorption. Love is the way, the truth, and the life.
When did we see you …? Look around, friends. Look around.
Charge and blessing
Go into the world in peace to love and serve … Jesus. Bless three people who don’t deserve it. And make sure one of them is you.