Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King
November 26, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
It was wonderful to see Dad last week. My brother and I flew up to visit him and his fiancée at their new home outside Toronto. Her mother came too. Together we had an American Thanksgiving in Canada. One of the things the three Hays men did together was look through old family photos and keepsakes. Dad had kept most of this stuff in boxes and drawers after he and Mom got a divorce 13 years ago and was more than ready to hand some of it off.
And as we went through packet after packet of photos, one thought kept crossing all our minds: why did we take a picture of that? Anonymous buildings, blurry landscapes, clumsy shots of landmarks that had been photographed by professionals thousands of times. All in double prints, of course. But then we would come to a photo of a person or a group and we’d slow down and remember a vivid moment, a colorful personality, perhaps a loved one lost. When we held the camera so long ago, one kind of thing seemed most important, but with the gift of perspective, there was no question as to where true value lies.
We took photography for granted when we used film with only 24 precious exposures per roll, and even more so now. Now we don’t even have to sort through digital photos; computers can recognize faces, not that that’s creepy at all. But in the ancient world, only the most privileged could ever expect their likenesses to be recorded. Jesus did something about that. In words that still command our attention, he painted a portrait of God’s most beloved people that time has proven powerless to dim.
Jesus’s picture is a group photo. We hear this story and we immediately think Jesus is talking about individuals because of our cultural biases and assumptions. But Jesus is thinking bigger. As he begins to paint the picture, he starts with the Son of Man on his throne, and then moves on to those who are gathered there. And Jesus explicitly says all the nations will be gathered before him. Nations, not individuals, are the sheep and the goats. As the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton points out, “Reward and punishment as a motivation for goodness is a dead-end street; we end up focused on ourselves and wondering if we’re being good enough, and if we’ve done enough, etc. Jesus says, ‘Forget yourself and focus on doing what you can for the other, it’s that simple.’ ”*
Today just within America, we can identify many nations. We are blessed with diverse ethnicities and cultures, indeed, and this diversity makes us resemble the eschatological Kingdom of God, where God intends every person to experience the fullness of life, love, and joy in the distinctiveness in which God made them. But we are also divided, polarized, into factions of left and right, rich and poor, elite and powerless, and these divisions and the senseless animosity that grows between them do not seem to resemble anything God intends for us. We lack perspective, a sense of what, or rather who, is really important. Time and again, we waste the moments of our lives, our 24 precious exposures, on things that don’t matter, things that no one will value when we review the prints.
And God will judge the nations. God will place no weight on the purity or vigor of our ideology, nor even, alas, the quality of our theology. Actually, that may be a good thing. The extent to which we follow human institutions, norms, and impulses matters not to God. Indeed, they tend to distract us and interfere with our doing and being what matters to God. God will flip right past those photos. What matters to God is God, and never forget that God is present in each of us.
God is the photographer, the admirer, the image, the light. God looks with special longing on the most vulnerable, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the powerless, the despised, for they are most aware of the reality that every soul depends on God, and God alone. And God becomes close when we greet those Godly souls with Godliness, with a glimmer of the light of the love God has for them. As nations are collections of souls, so shall we be judged.
This sounds scary, but we have every reason to hope and celebrate because God’s judgment is not like human judgment. Like Saint Paul, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power.”
The point is not earning favor with God through individual works, but becoming more like God, together, corporately. When we love one another, especially the least of these, we weaken the boundaries that needlessly separate us from others, we get closer to the deep and sacred unity that exists with the Trinity, and the unity of purpose God has for us, which is the reconciliation of all nations to God and thereby to each other.
Our King is not like our rulers. Our judge is better than our nations. We know this because God has given us a self-portrait: Jesus. Before, in, and after Jesus, God has revealed that grace, mercy, and forgiveness are not only God’s expectations of us, but also God’s approach to dealing with us — always and forever.