It’s New Year’s Eve; the last Sunday of the Church Year. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a good time to take stock, look back on where we’ve been, think about where God is calling us in the coming year.
That’s what’s happening in the gospel today – taking stock. We can get so wrapped up in wondering whether we’re sheep or goats, though that we may be missing the point? First, let’s just accept that we’re all both sheep and goats. Notice that neither group realized that they were encountering the King in the people who were poor or suffering.
In the spirit of taking stock, this has been quite a year in the life of the parish and in the life of the world for that matter. As you reflect back on this year, where and how have you seen Christ at work in the world, in this parish. Where and how have you encountered Christ in your own life?
I have seen Christ in your faces – coming together to worship in a new, but becoming familiar, way; the Daily Office, Sunday Morning Worship. I have seen Christ in the people I see on the news, telling their stories of loved ones struggling to survive COVID; sometimes making it, sometimes succumbing. And the ones telling us what it’s like to work in the ERs and ICUs and then go home to their families; facing down their fears in order to help others live while praying they don’t take it home to their loved ones.
I see Christ in those of you who long to return to programs like Art Heals and those who are caring for our neighbors on the street. I see Christ in your care for the building and grounds and in your concern for the financial stability of St. Paul’s, providing for your ability to continue to serve your mission as a community of faith.
I see Christ in the people working at the grocery checkout and in the faces of my friends who are teachers doing everything they can to help the children in their care to learn and thrive despite all the challenges of on-line learning and the changes in family routines of the students. I see Christ in each and every one of you and I pray that you, too, can see Christ in each other.
Now let’s look at the contrast of kingdoms as told in Matthew. Here we have Christ the King who is found with the lowliest; the kingdom that cares for the lowliest. Compare that with the Power of the Roman Empire on full display in the Passion story that begins in the very next chapter. A power of occupation, oppression, of execution.
Matthew’s audience knows the power of Rome. They’ve seen the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of their Temple. Some of them may have been persecuted by the occupying power or ostracized by their own religious community. They are a minority, possibly feeling powerless, defenseless. Except for this: The emperor is not their King; Christ is. That makes all the difference.
We see this image in Ezekiel as well. This people, too, has seen the Temple destroyed, their country overrun, and their people scattered. They are living in exile in Babylon, stripped of their power (they had been the leaders), stripped of their land, their home, their freedom; everything!
Into that, Ezekiel speaks GOD’s word, “I myself… will be your shepherd, your King.” Human rulers have been inadequate. GOD will seek out the scattered sheep the lost sheep. GOD will care for them, give them good food and clear water; bind their wounds, and protect them from danger. GOD will bring them back together and bring them home to their own flock, their own land.
In exile, they discover GOD is still with them. GOD is not confined to the Temple or even to the city. They learn new ways to worship and to pray.
We are not persecuted. We are not in exile. Our Temple has not been destroyed. The building is still here. It’s still lovingly cared for. And we will be back. In the meantime, GOD is with us, caring for us, hearing our prayers, supporting us in our mission. St. Paul’s is open, though the building may be closed.
This is the King we celebrate today, the Christ we see in each other. A king and a kingdom unlike any earthly ruler. A king we find, not in power and might, but with the most vulnerable among us. A king who invites us to meet him there, to see Christ’s face in the faces of every person we meet. A king caring for us, loving us more than any of us can possibly imagine.