The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
So with that grand finale of a gospel reading, we come to the end of church year 2020. Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, is the last Sunday of the church year. Tell me: are you ready to be done with 2020? If we could only shout and sing out loud, I think we all would. This is one year where the church calendar could be a gift to the secular world: From here on through the beginning of January, it’s all New Year, all the time, and oh, my Lord, how badly we need it.
But we end our year not with dancing and celebration, but with thanks and gratitude, bringing our gifts for St Michael’s in our stewardship drive ingathering, and celebrating the feast with Thanksgiving this week. Yes, it’s all a little muted and downscaled, and yes, we can all name the wrongs and problems there have been this year, but we know that even so, we have much to be thankful for. We are here, alive; and we have something to share, materially, even just spiritually, with one another and with our community today. It is a beautiful day, the day that the Lord has made, and we are glad indeed. Thanks be to God.
So I am sorry that we’re having to hear today about eternal fire and punishment, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. As Advent approaches, the gospels get kind of heavy, and there’s not really an easy way out with this gospel reading. There is a big sorting out in the parable today – there are those who are righteous, and those who are not. But the criteria for the sorting is very clear, and quite simple. Did you feed the hungry; did you give drink to the thirsty; did you welcome the stranger; did you clothe the naked; did you take care of the sick; did you visit those in prison? If you did, even to one of the least of these, you did it to Jesus also. Come on in, you sheep, and celebrate.
It sounds almost too simple. The righteous seem surprised to hear it too – you can almost hear them asking, what? is that all it takes? There’s nothing, you might notice, about believing a particular doctrine, or being part of a particular faith or church. There’s nothing about big spectacular actions that change the world. It’s all very simple stuff, things that any of us might do to take care of needs that every one of us have. And I’d add, needs both physical and spiritual, for being sick and imprisoned and vulnerable can all be matters of the spirit as well as the body. The question seems to be, did you help someone today? Loving your neighbor as yourself turns out to be the main commandment; and loving your neighbor is about how you act toward them, not about how you feel about them. Pretty simple.
But on the other hand, it’s apparently also simple to wind up with the goats, the unrighteous ones. The usual rules of the world around us value making and keeping money, getting ahead and being successful, pursuing our own way first – and only then, if we have some spare time and some spare change at the holidays, we can be kind and help other people. Hearing that our acts of charity and kindness to others provide the ultimate and only litmus test at the final judgment is something of a shocker, but perhaps that’s what we need to place it more centrally in our lives: love your neighbor, or else. You could say that God makes it in our own self-interest to care for others.
Ok enough. For many of us sitting here in church, we’ve probably already bought into the idea that we Christians are supposed to help other people. We might even feel like we should be doing more of this than we already do. After all, there is so much need all around us – so much need, we can’t possibly address all of it. It can be overwhelming. If helping others is the litmus test, we might be thinking, then we fail if we don’t sell all we have and give it to the poor, if we don’t feed every hungry person, if we don’t spend all our time visiting prisoners and caring for those who are sick. But you notice, Jesus says, just as you did it to ONE of the least of these, you did it to me. The parable doesn’t require us to save the world or be a hero – simply, care for the people who come into your path. Do the next right thing. And then do it again.
Here’s one gift that 2020 may have given us, ironically. This is a year that has opened the eyes of many who before might not have always seen the needs there in front of us. If we were somehow avoiding the needy in our day-to-day life, 2020 magnified the needs so we could no longer look away. Suddenly it wasn’t just ‘some’ people who were lonely or isolated or at health risk or hungry: it was most of us. It wasn’t someone else’s job to care for the needy; it was ours. If we were pretending that we live in a post-racial society, 2020 made it clear that every one of us still has work to do. The explicitness of the threat to our common good and democracy became so clear that we all saw we had to change. If we thought we could get by on our own without having to deal much with other people, 2020 has proved that our lives are all bound up together, for good and for ill.
People of St Michael’s, you have risen to that challenge. We have made connections with one another and our community that we had never managed to make before. We have fed a lot of hungry souls, reached out to many stuck in their own isolated prisons, refreshed this world with cool water in a long, dry, barren time. None of it was spectacular. But every little bit of it mattered. Every bit was a light that shone, lighting the way for the world to find its way home. Every bit of it was part of God’s great work in this world.
The reason why God calls us to love our neighbor – our one neighbor there standing before us, be they friend, stranger, or enemy – and to care for them, is because when we do that, we care for God. We put God’s priorities as our own. We do what God does – just what Jesus announces as the reign of God, where prisoners are set free, the poor receive good news, the hungry and oppressed and destitute are welcomed and fed and loved. We collaborate with God, co-creating, using our gifts to help God build God’s kingdom in the world. God is not standing far off at the end of time, waiting to see if we obeyed our orders; God is there in the least of these, in each person we meet, needing us to care for them – and wanting to care for us as well. We might turn away from this need, but it matters to God what we do. And the judgment on what we do is right there to be experienced in the world we create and live in. If we love our neighbor, we work with God to create God’s reign, a kingdom of love and justice. Bit by bit by bit, the light shines more and more.
We let our light shine, and we will continue to shine in this new year. Love your neighbor, Jesus says, whether you like them or not…it’s pretty simple, and it’s everything. With the gifts we bless today on the altar; with the lights that we will light together throughout Advent and into Christmas and the new year; with all the ways we will be God’s people in the world at work in these times of need, we love our neighbor. Love is our work and our challenge; it’s how this world becomes a better place for all of us, here and now. May we live into the life Jesus showed us – and take part in God’s love for all of us. Amen.