Greeting to you on this The Feast of Christ the King (one of my favourite Sundays in the year) and incidentally the final Sunday in the annual church calendar – of course, we begin a new church year with Advent next week.
I’d like to begin my sermon this week by telling you a short story that you may have heard before.
An old woman was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, she could see someone moving about a bit like a dancer. As she came closer, she saw that it was a young man picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the sea.
“Young man, why are you throwing starfish into the sea?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,” he said.
“But young man, do you not realise that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young man listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference for that one.”
A short, but very poignant story and I will come back to it later.
One of the greatest temptations when exploring passages of scripture such as we have heard in our gospel this morning can be to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back, or read it and be ashamed for all that we haven’t done.
I am hoping this morning to help us get to a softer place somewhere in the middle – maybe a little uncomfortable, but also a little comforted.
I think it’s really important to look at the passage we’ve heard today as a part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are ‘bookend’ verses that I think we need to hold in our minds as we read much, if not all, of Matthew.
The first occurs near the beginning – Matthew 1:21-23.
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’”
And at the other end – Matthew 28:18-20
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).
Earlier this week I was contacted at school by a local resident asking if I knew of any families who would struggle to buy presents this Christmas – the resident’s intention to provide presents for parents and carers to give to their children. Several such families immediately sprang to mind but of course, it would not have been appropriate to tell the generous benefactor who they were, so I suggested that they might make their donations and allow us at the school to contact parents in a sensitive and confidential way, distributing gifts on the donors behalf.
I was really sad to hear in their response, the ‘charitable’ donor insist that they wanted to check which families donations were going to because and I quote – “there are some people in this village who are just cheating the system and are out for all they can get”.
Regretfully I had to decline our offer of assistance in this case.
As I reflected on the conversation I had had, what occurred to me was that in some way, as a society, we have come to a place where it is the ‘norm’ for those in need to have to prove that they are deserving of help. Whether it’s filling in a particular form or going through the indignity of baring all your financial comings and goings, spending habits and addictions.
I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine and have some sympathy with the view that we need to make sure the limited resources we have get to the right people. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need have to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.
“How can that person be poor?” we ask, “He has an iPhone.”
Or “If things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Radley handbag she carries.”
Maybe you’ve heard “All (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders”. All refugees – All BAME people – All teenage mums – All whatever…
I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or publically display their infirmity or disability.
Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare to ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter what their ‘label’ is. We may be too busy looking for a King to serve, that we miss the realisation that our King is in the face of the pauper.
At the beginning of this sermon I shared a story about starfish and the reason for that is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But we shouldn’t forget that while yes of course, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviours of the world (We already have one of those in Jesus Christ), but we can make a difference to one or two in the world.
To be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring that we are all afforded human dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care and we’ve also been the ones in need of care.
Christ the King calls us to care for what He calls “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, then we are caring for God when we care for each other.
We need to see our fellow human beings not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine.
Imagine what the world might look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the people.
Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, native, refugee married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And my friends, allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.
Of course, this isn’t easy work, but if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. Our gospel reading this morning evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need to be cared for. We have all done the caring. We are all hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a saviour. We cannot save ourselves.
In this Eucharist, at this altar, we meet that saviour – Christ the King.
But the thing is he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man sat on the street in Inverness with the cardboard sign asking for money. He looks like the woman in the Council Service Point for the third time this week trying to get her benefits sorted out. He looks like the refugee illegally working, sending 90% of his money back home so his family can have a better life.
Christ looks like those across the world who are falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting for justice. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “You matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this Eucharist, we are reminded that we all matter. Our status here on earth is not important, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.
May God Bless you and all those you love this coming week.