Christ the King surprises us. We celebrate it year after year, as the last Sunday of Pentecost before we begin our church new year with Advent next week. Though the appointed scripture texts for Christ the king are different year to year, they always surprise me, because they don’t often depict Christ as the kind of king we imagine, or the kind of king the world would imagine, then or now. The kingdom of God is full of surprises, just as all those in today’s gospel text experienced.
What strikes me most about this parable is that neither the sheep or the goats knew what they were or what they had done to receive the judgement they did. Both groups ask a different version of the same question. For the sheep, it was ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ For the goats, it was ‘when didn’t we…’ Both had encountered Christ numerous times and didn’t even realize it.
Earlier this year, I realized I had encountered Christ in someone very unexpected and didn’t realize what was happening at the time. I was chaperoning for a youth gathering with my church in North Carolina, and we had about ten of our middle and high schoolers there with us. Our youth group was hanging out in the hotel lobby during free time, and a seventh-grade boy came up to us and started making conversation. He and his sister were the only kids there from their church, and he didn’t know anyone else at the gathering. He was very, very talkative, and really didn’t pick up on social cues very well, but our whole group shared our giant box of goldfish crackers, dealt him in to our game of uno, and made conversation with him best they could for the rest of the hour. I could tell some of the older high schoolers weren’t thrilled to have him there, but they were patient and inclusive regardless.
The next night, there was a big dance party, and I noticed one of the younger girls from my church was missing, so I went all over to look for her. I eventually found her sitting in a corner of a conference room, hugging her knees to her chest, and having a panic attack. I got her some water and tissues, sat with her for a while and after a while we were able to get her breathing under control. She was still crying, but not panicking.
As I sat and talked with this girl for the next hour, lots of other youth passed by and just politely looked away. But one person decided to come sit with us. It was the boy from free time. The one who I thought had bad social skills, who I was proud of my kids for being nice to. He was the one person who saw us and decided to come over. He sat on the floor with us, put a fist full of Hershey’s kisses in front of the girl, and said calmly and kindly as ever “Hey, it’s gonna be okay. We all go through this sometimes. You’re an awesome person and I know you’re gonna be alright.” Then he smiled at me sheepishly, fist bumped us both, and walked away. I never saw him again.
But in that interaction, I knew I had just encountered Christ, in the person who I thought I was being Christ for. I didn’t understand how every encounter I had with this boy was an opportunity for both of us to experience Christ in one another. Even with scripture teaching us and reminding us that in every member of Christ’s family we meet, we meet Christ, the practice of actually living in response to that is far more difficult than we give it credit for.
I once heard a story about a reporter who interviewed Mother Theresa towards the end of her life. The reporter was not religious at all. As he interviewed Mother Theresa, he asked her what the key was to running such a successful ministry and community. She answered that she simply saw Christ in every person she encountered. The reporter went on about how that was great, but there must be some secret – some methodology or leadership strategy, some business model or SOMETHING that led her to be so much more successful than so many other ministries. Again, she told him, she truly sees Christ in every person she encounters, and treats them as such. The reporters disconnect was similar to that of the people Christ tells of who didn’t feed him, clothe him, visit him, heal him. The reporter could not comprehend seeing Christ in another person, so the idea of a lifetime of service based on that understanding like Mother Theresa’s was incomprehensible to him.
I struggle to do this myself. I hear the gospel, and take it to heart, and yet I’ve walked or driven by people begging for food countless times. I’ve never even been to a prison. I’ve encountered Christ more times than I could count, and yet have only realized a small handful of those instances. I imagine that many of you might be in a similar boat.
All those who Jesus tells about in our gospel text for today didn’t realize the weight of what they were doing when they were doing it either. So today, instead of telling you to go start a leper colony in Calcutta like Mother Theresa, instead of worrying with you rather we’re sheep or we’re goats, I offer you an invitation. Hear this gospel, take it to heart, and find one new practice to help you see every person in need as Christ himself. That practice could be that every time you go to the grocery store, you pick up something extra to set aside for SOS. It could be taking one opportunity to volunteer somewhere new. It could be training your internal dialogue to look at people who are different than you and think “beloved child of God” instead of “homeless”, “immigrant”, “thug”, “felon”, “idiot”, or any other label or name that helps you to justify hatred, disdain, or even indifference towards another person, no matter who they are. It could be calling or writing a card to someone who has been isolated during this pandemic because of their health. Or it could be something else entirely.
Just choose something. Let the Spirit move your heart to new action, in whatever way God is calling you to. I encourage you to remember that every single time you do this, you are doing it not for the sake of checking boxes, of doing enough good deeds to be a sheep and not the goat. Do it not for yourself, but for Christ, who has already done and continues to do so much for each of us. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving, to honor Christ our King, than to turn our thankfulness into action for the good of our neighbor, that Christ’s Kingdom may break into our world even just a little bit more. Whatever you choose, however you push yourself to take on just one more practice, I pray that in doing so, you may be surprised by the joy of encountering Christ in our midst. And I pray that others may find the same in encountering Christ through you. Amen.