Sermon on Christ the King Sunday, 2017, Year A (Matthew 25:31-46)

By The Reverend Scott Painter, Curate

“People who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door.”

This is the observation of J. D. Vance, author of last year’s New York Times Bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir of Vance’s life growing up in an Appalachian family transplanted to the Industrial Midwest.  Vance was the first generation to be born in Middletown, Ohio, his grandparents and their offspring—including the woman who would eventually become his mother--having moved there for the promise of well-paying employment in a steel factory, which his grandfather did obtain. He chronicles the perpetual struggles of childhood, and eventual adulthood, in a chaotic family system exacerbated by substance abuse, mental illness, and deep generational poverty.

Near the end of the book, Vance reflects on the dynamics within his family and their “hillbilly” subculture (his word, but I use it freely, having also grown up in an Appalachian family transplanted to the Midwest).  He translates the almost-insurmountable odds against folks moving beyond the desperation of their systemic poverty, addictions, and dysfunctional relationships into education, sustainable economic stability, nurturing and lasting relationships.

The pervasive desperation for that kind of freedom, under the weight of so many entrapments, fosters a fog of false starts and poor choices. 

“People who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door.”

What we encounter in the Gospel of Matthew today are Jesus’ final comments in a long conversation he has been having with his disciples since the beginning of chapter 24.  That conversation began with Jesus making a startling statement about the Temple: not one stone will be left upon the other; the Temple is coming down.  This was alarming to his disciples, who were already feeling intense political and economic pressures as people living under foreign authoritarian rule. And they respond by asking a question that betrays their fears and anxiety in the midst of these tumultuous and uncertain times: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus recognizes their desperation, their longing, however impotent, for things to be different.  But he knows that those who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. And so he responds in such away that his friends may stop lurching, may cease clamoring for the end or the exit.

He warns them: First, to be wary of charismatic would-be Messiah figures who claim to have all the answers and promise more than they could possibly deliver. Maintain faithfulness to Jesus, even when Jesus is distant, his plans seem impotent, and what he seems to be delivering is a disappointment.

He cautions them against being afraid when they hear about wars and rumors of war, and inherent in the warning is the power that fear will hold in determining their decision-making and actions if they yield to its sway.  Don’t be afraid, don’t be motivated and controlled by fear.

He advises them against discouragement.  Don’t think this is an easy path, or a short one.  “You will be hated for my sake, the love of many will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  Keep on this path: steady, patient, hopeful.

Warnings can be helpful and all, but… As many of us know it is often not that helpful just to receive warnings against hanging with the wrong crowd, or being afraid of the dark, or “encouraged” to just keep on keeping on.  I suppose Jesus knows this, too, because he goes further in this Gospel conversation, beyond advice and admonitions: He connects the unknown of the future—to the very real, tangible, known experience in the here and now. 

Jesus refuses to answer the disciples question of “When?”  However, today he does go all apocalyptic on them—and us.  He shares a disturbing vision of the Son of Man in glory on a throne with angels, with all the nations of the world gathered around. And the Son, on the throne, divides those gathered—not according to tribe, or race, or economics, or religion, as would be most common then and now—but according to what they did in the earthly life with which they were entrusted.

On the right of the throne are those who paid attention to those the world often deems as least and the last and the lost– neighbors without food to eat or water to drink or clothes to warm them, those who do not belong, those ailing and afflicted with illness, and prisoners.  The Son says to those – “I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.  I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”  Sheep.

But on his left are those who ignored- the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner -in this life.  And in this “goat scenario”, those who ignored the poor and needy in this life have done nothing to prepare for the end. And there is no place for them.

My friends, this is what Jesus’ offers to those who are in trouble, who are burdened, who are afraid of the future.  This is how Jesus’ helps us when we are lurching desperately for some kind of exit (even if your exit isn’t particularly religious or superstitious about the afterlife).  He shows us that he is the door, but not a way of escape.  Jesus is the way into purpose, into mission, into a life of ministry to others.  He invites us into a life that is so preoccupied with serving others in the here and now, that we might even forget that there’s anything to come.

And when an end comes--whatever that looks like, whatever form it takes—“what we, and God, get out of our lifetime, is chiefly the person we have become in doing rightly and justly in this world.”[1]

Today, on this day of Christ the King, when we honor Jesus’ reign over all the universe, over all creation, over all the earth—even all the crazy and disturbing things we see and hear on the news—we are reminded that the realm of his peacable Kingdom is extended by our willing participation in it.

So we’ll stop lurching for the door, and accept the work in this life—sometimes hard and tedious work—given us to do.

Let us pray.

Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.[2]

[1] Willard, Dallas. “The Divine Conspiracy.”

[2] Collect for Christ the King, All Saints Pasadena