SJF • Proper 29a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory... and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
We come now to the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year — you know our calendar doesn’t quite match up with the secular and civil calendar that starts in January. Our church year starts on the First Sunday of Advent — next Sunday — and so this church year ends this week.
It ends with a celebration that goes in some places by the name of the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a reminder of who our King is, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one under whose feet, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, all things are put in subjection.
Our gospel today shows this our King in action. The Son of Man comes in his glory, sits on his throne, and executes judgment. Talk about an executive order! For this is not just an order, but a judgment; and a chilling judgment it is. For those who are rewarded are not great heroes and martyrs. No, the reward of blessing is given to people who did very ordinary things: who fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who cared for the sick and visited prisoners.
And those who are judged guilty, are not perpetrators of horrible crimes — those who here are sent away into eternal punishment are not mass murders and terrible villains. No, they are people who simply failed to do the same things the blessèd ones did: who gave no food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who shunned the stranger and provided the naked with nothing to wear, who didn’t care for the sick or visit those in prison.
And the reason these two groups of people are judged as blessed or cursed is because those they served or rejected were not just anybody — they were the King himself in disguise.
+ + +
We’ve all heard stories about kings in disguise. It is a daring enterprise for a leader to put on a false beard and eyepatch and a humble garment and wander among his subjects. He had best have a strong will and a solid ego, for the things he hears may not be to his liking. Without his crown, without his royal robes of state, a king may be treated just like anybody else — for good or ill depending on who is doing the treating. One of my favorite stories is that of King Alfred, who was hiding from Danish invaders back in the ninth century. He hid undercover for a while in a peasant’s hut. One day the peasant’s wife told him to keep an eye on cakes baking on the griddle while she went out on an errand. With all of his troubles, his mind wandered, and he allowed the cakes to burn. When the woman of the house returned she gave him a ferocious tongue lashing — not knowing, of course, that she was speaking to her king.
+ + +
But we don’t have that excuse. We’ve been given the warning of who our King is. Jesus, our King, has told us in words of one syllable that as we treat the least of those who are members of his family, so we have treated him. When we fail to give food to the hungry, when we neglect to give drink to the thirsty, when we don’t welcome the stranger, or fail to give clothing to the naked, when we don’t care for the sick and ignore the prisoners: we are doing it to him.
We at Saint James Church have a number of opportunities, not just as individuals as we walk through the streets day by day, but as a congregation, to honor our Lord’s royal presence among us. Let me just mention a couple with immediate impact in the next few weeks.
First of all, this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and as we have done for the past several years we will have a midday worship service and then serve hot meals to any who come to our door that afternoon; and I invite all of you to come and help in that service and to share in that fellowship.
Second, your vicar and deacon have at our disposal a small fund which comes from the loose plate offering received several times each year. It is called “adiscretionary fund,” and it is used entirely for charity and outreach. When someone off the street comes to the office door and asks for something to eat, or help filling a prescription, or money for the train home to Yonkers, it is from this fund that we’re able to give a fare-card, or a few dollars. Deacon Bill has been using part of his discretionary fund to provide food to the hungry through the Elijah Project: it’s a wonderful and creative way to share, and involves members of the parish in the work of sharing. And believe you me, it is at this time of the rolling year, as the winds grow cold, that more and more people are in need of help. So today’s loose plate offering will be set aside for that purpose, and so I ask you to be generous, helping us to help others in your name. There is an old saying that the ministry of hospitality may lead you to entertaining angels unaware. Believe me, when we serve any who are in need we are not just serving angels, we are serving Christ our King as well.
These are just two concrete and real things you can do to honor our King in disguise as he spends time among us, in the here and now, so that in the day of the great “then” he will recognize us as having treated him as he deserves.
+ + +
I mentioned King Alfred a moment ago. Well, a story is told of another English king, George V, who planned to pay a visit to the northern industrial city of Leeds. The town council was very excited, and posted banners announcing the royal visit throughout the city. Multitudes flocked in the streets to celebrate, waving the Union Jack and cheering to the sounds of the brass bands. A children’s school was fortunate to have its schoolyard right on the route of the railway train upon which the king would leave the city. It was agreed and arranged that the children would be outside in formation to greet the king as he went past, and he would wave at them in return. The children were, of course, terribly excited. The great day came and the children were ready to sing their song of greeting. Down the track, out of the long tunnel, the royal train came into the bright sunlight, the engine steaming and chugging its smokestack, the steam whistle loudly announcing the arrival. The train slowed as it came by the schoolyard and his Majesty King George V emerged from the coach at the end of the train and took up his place on the platform where the assembled children could see him. He was dressed as he normally did: in a black morning coat, striped trousers and vest, and a silk top hat. He waved politely to the children with his pocket handkerchief, and then the train picked up speed and he slipped back into the coach. The cheering of the excited children subsided, until there was only the sound of one little girl who was weeping her heart out. A teacher asked the little girl why she was crying. And the child looked up, and through her sobs and tears bitterly complained, “I thought we were going to see the king; but it was only a man in a top hat!” She was expecting to see the king looking as he did in the picture on the classroom wall, with his crown and red robe trimmed with ermine. That’s what she was expecting, but that’s not what she saw.
+ + +
What do we expect our King to look like? As we pass by a hungry person on the street do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his crown?” When we see someone cold and shivering in a threadbare coat, do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his regal robe?” When we hear that someone is sick and alone, do we assume, “This could not be our king, for a king would have courtiers and officials to take care of him.” When we see a stranger, do we say to ourselves, “This could not be our king, for where are his ambassadors?” When we hear of a person in prison, do we think, “This could not be our King, for no king would ever be convicted of a crime and sent to prison!”
What do we expect our King to look like? He has told us exactly how he looks. He looks like a man — a man hungry or thirsty; he looks like a woman — a woman far from home and looking for help; he looks like a child — a child sick and alone. For our King is King even without his crown, even without his robe of state; even without his top hat and morning coat! He is our King even when he is hungry, even when he is thirsty, or sick, or naked, or lonely, or in prison. He is even our King when he is nailed to a cross — and he did that for us.
What shall we do for him? He has told us. “Oh, that today, you would hearken to his voice.”+