Sunday, November 23, 2014

The End of the Church Year: The Servant King

Today was the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year. Next week the cycle of the church year starts over with Advent. But first, on this last Sunday, our ceremonial "New Year's Eve", we remembered that Jesus is in charge. Period. End of discussion. Well, sort of. Especially on the years in the cycle when we read the assigned Matthew scripture:

Matthew 25:31 - 46 “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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This happens to be the Scripture passage that has been my watchword practically since I first heard it well over 50 years ago. I find it the perfect ending for the church year because it reminds me again of what it means to be a Christian. In this remarkable parable Jesus doesn't ask what you believe, whether you have been "born again" or have accepted him as your savior. Rather he simply tells them what he has seen. That's it. Forget the words. Forget the preaching.
Here, Jesus says, let me tell you when you served me.
And they were all surprised because they never noticed they were (or weren't) doing these things. They just went about their business each day doing what they felt was the next right thing. It turns out that in so doing some were actually serving Jesus- and some were outright ignoring him.

Jesus is rarely this clear in his proclamations. Most of them can be open for interpretation. This one leaves very little wiggle room. (I know there is some, but it is built on very shifty sand!) When I get this kind of message from God, I really do try to follow it, though very imperfectly, I must admit. I am sure I have passed Jesus by often this past week when I didn't stop for the homeless guy at the highway ramp. That's one I am still working on.

There I sat this morning feeling pretty damn good about what I was hearing. I started thinking about some of the stuff in the news over the past weeks- the guy arrested in Florida for violating the law that forbids feeding the homeless, for example. But the one that kept running through my mind was the big explosion over the immigration issues. I wanted to do something like the following:

When you don't take care of the least of these, you are not caring for me.

My mind then went to all those politicians who have been using this issue- and these children- as a political football. Many of these have professed to be real Christians (as opposed to us "liberal" Christians who really aren't.) They even found it disgusting that Obama would stoop so low as to quote the Bible about this issue. After all, doesn't the Bible only care about abortion and condemning gays?

In short I was feeling quite smug and secure. (Okay, self-righteous might apply.)

But one thing I do try to do is prepare myself when I go to church to be made uncomfortable. I really believe that "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" is a basic standard of Jesus. Even so, I wasn't prepared for it when it happened. Why would I be? All I was doing was praying the liturgy. When along comes the Lord's prayer:
...forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Who me? You talking to me again?

Of course Jesus was. I suddenly realized I was treating those "other politicians" in a way that I wouldn't treat Jesus. What might Jesus say when he came upon this part of my story?

Ouch. That hurts!

But it is not in comfort that I learn how to be a better person. It's when the shoe pinches, the message gets too close to home and the metaphorical 2x4 connects with the metaphorical side of my head.

I need to do something differently. I need to stop doing what I am "accusing" those others of doing- judgement, self-righteousness, and treating others less than I would like to be treated. In that sense it doesn't matter what they are doing (or not doing). What matters is what I am doing since I am the only one who can change me.

Therefore I'm going to use an old recovery meme. I am going to take two weeks to pray for those I am judging as being on the "wrong side" of the issue. I am going to ask that they be blessed and supported. No, I will not pray that they change their mind or heart. That's not mine to decide. But I am going to spend the time simply asking that the grace and spirit of God bless them. Period. Nothing more and nothing less.

After all, when the King comes in all his glory I already know what he's going to say. He told me this morning.

As usual I was brought up short and reminded that humility is something I should think about practicing more often.

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