Suffering and the Reign of Christ

            It doesn’t take much to invite a spiel from me about how much I love Dolly Parton. Growing up in Tennessee, she was always a constant in our lives; from Dollywood to the presence of her songs to the early days of her charity, the Imagination Library, which at the time was only in Tennessee, but has since become a global initiative to promote childhood literacy.  My love for her stems from ways in which she authentically owns who she is and uses her talent and platform to shine light on some of the tougher parts and paths of life, and it has led me to refer to her as the patron saint of kindness and openness. This week, I was excited when I heard that she was a guest on Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us. In the episode she spoke of her resilience, her compassion, and how her faith informs how she treats people. She talked about her song, “Would you know him? (If you saw him)” in which she names that Christ often shows up in unlikely places and through unlikely people.

            While Dolly doesn’t reference our gospel text exactly, it seems that she could have pulled the material for this song straight from this passage. Jesus has spoken to the people in parables that we have heard for the last few weeks, and now it is time for him to talk about what happens at the end. Perhaps he makes this shift to focusing on the judgement of the people because his long walk to the cross is about to begin. The verses following our text today begin the tipping point in Christ’s eventual trail, crucifixion, and resurrection. Before that begins, though, Christ names for the people the ways in which they were constantly attuned to or ignoring the son of God. When the very Christ was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison, those who were deemed sheep had seen Christ and tended to his needs, and those who are named as goats neglected the needs of the created one.

            Now this is a challenging text, and one that comes around every year as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday as we do today, on the last Sunday before Advent. I suppose it’s challenging because it seems harsh, or maybe it feels so challenging because the relationship between sheep and goats is really lost on us 2,000 years later. And maybe also because it is common for us to want to know how the story ends; I love the dark walk of Holy Week, solely because I know that hope is coming. This scene of eternal judgment might be challenging because many of us would like to know what label to put upon ourselves right now, or maybe we keep a tally of all the times we’ve been more sheep than goat, or vice versa. But to focus on the end won’t help us show up for Jesus in our current reality.

            The question that this text lays before us is not “what would Jesus do?” but is rather, “how would we treat Jesus?” especially if we don’t recognize the King of Kings as royalty. In the midst of the vast emotional experience of this text, I think that my favorite part of is the surprise. For both the sheep and the goats, Christ the King lays out the ways in which they tended to or neglected his needs, and both groups are equally surprised. When Jesus says to the sheep, “I was naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me….” the answer was “Lord, when was it that we saw you?” And when he goes through the same list, “I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…” the goats responded “Lord, when was it that we saw you?” For both of these groups they are surprised by the way that they have treated the least of these, and their surprise no doubt extends to how they acted, but also to the fact that Christ saw them as well.

            To see and be seen has always been a gift that we can offer to those around us, and this is just as true today as it was in Christ’s time. In that Brené Brown podcast, one of the things that Dolly Parton said that struck me with a gospel truth is that, “Some people can’t even recognize their own suffering, so how are they supposed to recognize suffering in other people?” When she named that, I couldn’t help but to think about how ubiquitous suffering is right now. It is everywhere, and right now, everyone is suffering in some way or another. Now, I’m not one to shy away from pain and grief, but the text this week left me asking, “but where is the good news?”

            In my prayer, as I focused solely on the end and the eternal punishment or life to which the sheep and goats are bound, I held a question about what exactly does the reign of Christ do? And, coincidently, it was Dolly Parton that helped point me to the answer. Because it seems that reign of Christ frees us from being consumed with our own suffering; it allows us to be present with others as they are hungry, sick, or feeling like a stranger. Our faith and our knowledge of the one who we call King of Kings allows us access to the unbelievable joy that in this weary world, we can literally see Christ in all that we encounter.

            That is not hyperbole, we can do that; but don’t worry, I’m not suddenly a sunshine and rainbows preacher, because I’m also here to tell us that we will fail; no one can see Christ in all that we encounter all the time. Sometimes our own burdens get too heavy, we ourselves feel unseen, or we just struggle with how painful it can be to gaze upon someone else’s suffering. But let’s not read this passage as a “them verses us”, and put all our energy into making sure we’re good enough to make the cut. Instead let’s rest on the fact that, yes, we will fail, but with the help of God, we might be able to see more fully. With God’s help we can actually stand with kindness, compassion, and openness near those who suffer as we tend to what is causing them pain.

            The world feels so brittle right now; it feels like a car window that has lots of cracks within it and one more hit and it will shatter to pieces. But every day, our faith calls us to stand in the thin, brittle places, where grace is scarce and love is undervalued, and every day we put our feet on the floor and we say our prayers and we get to work. With God’s help, we attempt to see the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison; with God’s help we will see not just the hunger or thirst, but to see the person experiencing the pain of hunger or the thirst, we can see the pain of being isolated in prison. It is our communal calling to see those created in the image of God and to treat them as if they were the very Christ. Thanks be to God for this calling. Because in the midst of the brokenness all around us, there is not a greater challenge or gift for those of us who call ourselves Christians than to see the light and hope of Christ in it all.

            And I know it’s been so long since I’ve seen most of you, but I know you. I know that your faith is capable of this. I know it. I know it because I’ve seen it. So, this week as we stand in the brittle places, I pray that you may see and be seen, that you may find and be found, and that you may love and be loved.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via livestream on November 22, 2020 for Christ the King A.

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