The Final Exam

a sermon for the Christ the King Sunday
(Proper 29A)

 

Imagine the most important final exam any of us will ever take. There’s only one question and its completely open book. And Jesus even gives us the question before hand: how did we treat him? The only catch is that nobody knows what he looks like.

 

 

 

I just wanna be a sheep – baa, baba, baa.
I just wanna be a sheep – baa, baba, baa.

Pray the Lord my soul to keep. I just wanna be a sheep – baa, baba, baa.

I don’t want to be a goat – nope, nope, nope, nope.
I don’t want to be a goat – nope, nope, nope, nope.
’cause a goat ain’t got no hope. I don’t want to be a goat – nope, nope, nope, nope.

 

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, which we mark by celebrating “Christ the King” or “the Reign of Christ.” Today’s Gospel is an illustration of Judgement Day: Jesus sitting on a throne, separating all the people who ever lived into two groups – sheep on the right, goats on the left.

Episcopalians don’t talk very much about Judgement Day, but we should. It’s something we say we believe in every Sunday in the Nicene creed: We believe he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. And so it seems only appropriate, on this the last day of the church year, that we think about the end of time, when we all will be judged… kind of like a final exam of sorts. Imagine the most important final exam any of us will ever take. There’s only one question and its completely open book. And Jesus even gives us the question before hand: how did we treat him? The only catch is that nobody knows what he looks like.

A good friend of mine is the pastor at First Lutheran Church in Nashville. Yesterday, she told me about woman who had been living in Nashville for the past 18 months. I’ll call her “Mary.” She came up from Louisiana when her mother died and decided to stay. At some point, she took ill and had to be admitted to the hospital. Afterwards, she moved in with another woman for a while, until that woman’s estranged husband returned. Then she found a couple on Craigslist who turned out to be too weird, and so she was living on the street. Last Wednesday night, just before Thanksgiving, she was beaten and robbed. She lost her cash, her credit cards and her ID cards. The police took Mary to Vanderbilt hospital where she was treated, kept over night and then released. But she had no place to stay. So a friendly policeman put her up for a night at a fleabag hotel and she began to call all the usual places for aid. When nothing was available, she started calling all the churches in town, including First Lutheran Church. She left a message asking for help.

“You were the only people to call me back,” she said when they found her. They bought her some food and some Aleve, and a bus ticket to her friend in Louisiana.

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I think the most interesting part of this story is that the sheep didn’t know they were doing good deeds, and they certainly weren’t thinking about getting into heaven. And the goats really didn’t didn’t do anything wrong – they just didn’t do anything particularly right. So both of them were surprised when Jesus showed up with the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the most marginalized people in society. And both of them said exactly the same thing: We didn’t know it was you, Lord. We only did what we’ve always done, nothing more and nothing less. We didn’t know you were even there.

God always shows up just where we least expect God to be. Not in Jerusalem or Rome, and certainly not in Washington D.C., but in backwater Bethlehem. Not riding a white horse, wearing in armor leading a mighty army. But in the vulnerable flesh of a baby. Not in power but in weakness; not in conquest but in crucifixion. Again and again, through Jesus Christ, God shows up where we least expect God to be – to surprise us, disarm us, overturn our expectations and judgments. God does this not to trap us or trick us, but to invite us to give up our own attempts to redeem ourselves instead of relenting to God’s surprising, redeeming, uncontrollable love.

If the bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and the ones Jesus calls “the least of these, my sisters and brothers” God is standing on the other side of the line with them. God predictably shows up in those who live in the greatest need, the people who tend to get overlooked, mocked, despised, and deemed unworthy of attention by the richest and most powerful nations of the earth. Our calling as Christians, then, is to love and serve these people even when it is unpopular or unpleasant to do so.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve heard a lot of parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like: like the rich man who lent his fields to his servants, or the ten bridesmaids who didn’t have oil for their lamps, or the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and killed everyone who didn’t show up. But today is the first time Jesus tells us what Judgement Day is all about without speaking in riddles or parables. He tells us the only question we’ll have on our final exam: How did you treat the least of those around you?

I wish I could tell you that I definitely would have returned Mary’s phone call. But I’m ashamed to say that too often, I fail too. Either I’m suspicious of a person’s motives, or I’m too busy, or afraid, or just don’t have the time or money.

In the end, all of us will be judged by the one who created us and loves us unconditionally, based on only one question: How did we treat the least among us? And this is the answer: Love one another, no matter what the other person looks like or smells like or has done. Take care of each other, and look for the Christ in the eyes of the poor, the homeless, the hungry and imprisoned. And remember, whenever we start to draw lines between us and them, God is standing on the other side of the line with the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the lost.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

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