31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 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?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving shares about her struggle with understanding race and racism and where she fits into it all, as a white woman. For years, she could feel this sense of racial tension in her life. “As a colleague and neighbor, she worried about offending people she dearly wanted to befriend. As an arts administrator, she didn’t understand why her diversity efforts lacked traction. As a teacher, she found her best efforts to reach out to students and families of color left her wondering what she was missing.” As a result, she wanted to develop her own diversity skills. But to do so, the first, but necessary, development was a painful one.
Debby had to realize that her approach to this whole topic was problematic. She says this, “What drove my pursuit was a desire to learn how not to screw up and embarrass myself so I could preserve my good-person image…(D)esperate to be a good white person and not say something embarrassing, I started seeking out diversity workshops.”
She was caught up in the sin Martin Luther calls being curved in on one’s self. In her own learning, her efforts to become more racially and socially aware were fueled not by her desire to learn about systemic racism and the way her neighbors suffer because of it, but by the desire to keep herself looking squeaky clean. And as a result, she says, her “mind was trained away from what I really needed to learn…I know understand that fear of doing or saying something offensive perpetuated my cultural incompetence.”
Debbie isn’t alone. Dare I say, all of us have some of this same sin within us. Especially around conversations of race. The sin of being curved in on one’s self – more concerned about our own self-preservation in the face of great suffering and great responsibility.
And if you ask me, it is that very same curved in on one’s self, self-concern that creeps up in us in Jesus’ teaching this morning.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last week in this liturgical year. Next week? Christian new year – the start of Advent. Today, we hear Jesus’ final teaching in the gospel of Matthew – the parable of the sheep and the goats.
When the Son of Man comes, all the nations – all the people – will stand before him and he will begin to separate them, like shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep – those who fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty. And the goats – those who didn’t.
And what’s our first inclination? To figure out where we are in the herd! Am I a sheep or am I goat? What sort of eternal report card do I have with the Lord at 8:54am on Sunday November 26th, 2017?
In fact, I thought briefly about putting out signs on the pews this morning – a section for goats and a section for sheep, just to see how you would sort yourselves out.
But that would only reinforce the curved-in problem that Debby Irving had– the assumption that this is about you and your good (or not-so-good) image. That this story is about you finding yourself so as to either congratulate yourself for being a well-behaved sheep, or redeem yourself from being an indifferent goat. An assumption that, I think, trains us away from what we really need to learn from Jesus today.
Because let’s be honest – we already know who we are in the herd. There is no debate. We are both.
I doubt that I need to tell you that there are times when you have cared for those in need. And I doubt that I need to tell you that there are times when you haven’t.
The question isn’t “Where are we?”, it’s “Where is Jesus?”
Because nobody can see him. Did you catch that?
All the nations have gathered before Jesus and he separates them depending on how they did or did not treat him in his time of need, and they all ask the same question, “Lord, when did we see you…?”
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38….Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?
Lord, when did we see you? That’s the question both groups ask. Before we praise the sheep and condemn the goats, let’s at least recognize that both failed to recognize Jesus.
And Jesus tells them, “Whatever you have done to the least of these – the hungry, the sick, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, you have done to me.”
Ten years ago, a dear family to me went through an unspeakable tragedy. The entire family was involved in a car accident on the way home from vacation, and as a result, the father and husband, David, died.
In the following months and years, the matriarch of the family, Karen, said some insightful things that I’ll never forget, but this one stands out.
She said, “You know, I barely heard a word that was said at Dave’s funeral. But I’ve listen very closely at every funeral I’ve been to since.” Because she knew the grief and the loss as if it were her own. She could feel it.
I’ve come to learn that whenever I’m preaching at a funeral, I’m never preaching at just one funeral. I’m preaching at the funeral for every lost loved one in the room.
Because the people in the room – they get it. They get what it is like to lose a father, or a grandmother, or a child, or an aunt, or a friend. And so whatever the preacher says to this grieving family, it’s as if it is being said to all people who grieve and their hurt. And it is a remarkably intimate connection to have with someone. To feel what they feel. As if it is happening to you.
Have you ever felt that? Have you ever watched someone go through something, and you can feel it so closely as if it is happening to you? And maybe you even see how that person is being treated in that moment – whether kindly or unkindly – and you can feel it in your body as if it is happening to you. Maybe you’ve been that kid who struggled in sports and you watch how coaches – kindly or unkindly – treat a struggling player. Or you’ve been that person drowning in debt and now you see someone’s credit card rejected at the grocery store and you feel that ache that is all too familiar. Or maybe you’ve been the new family in town and you know how hard it can be to break in to the social circles that are so well established and how lonely and isolating it can be and now you see a new family in town with that same look in their eyes that you had back then. And you get it. Immediately and intimately.
And that’s what Jesus is teaching us about God today. That every time God sees the hungry, and the naked, and the sick and imprisoned, God gets it. God feels it – closely. God is with them in a way that however they are treated is how God is treated.
Whenever you feel your heart beat in sync with the heart of another in need, you can be sure that that’s where God is. Right there in that moment.
People ask all the time, where is God? Where is Jesus? And today Jesus says, “I’m here already. I’ve come to you hidden in the hurting human. And I’m waiting for you to see me.”
So often we’ve been taught that Jesus shows up in those who help. In those who care for the needy. But today Jesus says, I am the need. I am the heartache, the weakness, the cold and abandoned. There you will see me. You don’t need to hike some mountain or go on some Zen meditation retreat. You do not need to spend hours in prayer or travel halfway around the world to what they call a “thin place” to meet God. According to today’s gospel, the farthest distance you have to travel to see God is the distance from your heart to the ache in the heart beating closest to you. That’s where you will see God.
Lord, when did we see you? I’ve said this before but in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is really concerned with the health of your eye.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?
Lord, when did we see you? They all ask. He wants to correct our vision. He wants us to see with kingdom-of-God eyes.
Some of you may know this, but my son Elliot has to wear an eye patch for about three hours everyday. He has what’s called amblyopia – decreased eyesight due to abnormal vision development. Thanks to pre-kindergarten screening, we were able to learn early on that for most of his life, Elliot has favored his right eye and as a result he was virtually blind in his left.
And get this: we had no clue. None. You see, sometimes it’s easy to hide our vision problems, and those around us have no clue.
And so in order to strengthen the muscles around Elliot’s left eye and to strengthen the brain to eye connection, what do we have to do? We have to block out his dominant way of seeing the world. He has to try seeing the world through his weakness, through a way that is a little awkward and doesn’t make sense, where everything is out of focus, and it’s even a little scary because you might bump into something you didn’t see. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the more and more dominant this new way of seeing becomes.
Friends, I’m afraid we all have decreased eyesight due to abnormal vision development. What would happen if we practiced seeing the face of Christ in everyone we meet? If we covered up our dominant way of seeing the world – a world where weakness and need are seen as failure, and power and domination are seen as success – to try seeing the world as the kingdom of God filled with the people of God that it already is.
Would we experience the presence of God more fully? Would we no longer have to ask, “Lord, when did we see you?” If we just risk it, I think we’ll see that it’s true.
This past summer, some of our high school youth went to Nashville for a mission trip. And one of the assignments they were given was to split into groups to feed a hungry person on the streets. To give them a bag lunch and talk to them for a little while.
And do you know what they said it felt like? Awkward. Out of their comfort zone.
Yup. Learning to see again with new eyes is awkward.
But then our youth also said that after awhile, there was something more that developed. Something beyond the awkwardness. There was something deeper – some connection shared between human beings that was humbling.
If you ask me, it was the presence of Christ. It’s like their eye was adjusting to the light of Christ they could see in this fellow human being and they could see more clearly.
People of God, the surprise of this teaching is not where you or anyone else will end up, it is where Christ will meet us – over and over again. In the broken places of this world. In the places of great need, but also in the small places where we hunger and thirst for new life to grow in our own lives.
What would happen if we practiced seeing the face of Christ in everyone we meet? Perhaps the greatest hurdle in that is seeing the face of Christ in the person you meet in the mirror each day. Are you willing to see yourself and your hurt, your ache as a place where God would choose to dwell? I wonder how Christ is longing to be revealed there.
Today isn’t about where you do or don’t measure up. It’s about showing us the heart of God. A heart that beats in sync with those in any need.
May we have eyes to see this king we have in Jesus. Amen.
 Debby Irving, Waking Up White, back cover of paperback edition.
 Ibid. 126
 Ibid. 129