November 20, 2011 – Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, Proper 29A
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
About fifteen years ago, my father and I took a trip to Texas. I was nearing the end of my high-school career, and we headed west to look at Rice University in Houston and Trinity University in San Antonio. Since most of my college tours had been conducted with my mother at my side, a trip with my dad was a chance to mix collegiate investigation with a manly exploration of Texas culture. When we spent the night in San Antonio, it seemed appropriate for us to venture out to an authentic Tex-Mex restaurant.
We were glad to sit down at the table after a long day of driving and touring. Meals between a teenage son and his father are often uncomfortable, but this night everything seemed to be going right. My father ordered a margarita, and I ordered some sweet tea, and we began to look through the menu. “So many great choices,” my father said. I agreed as I scanned through the long list of dishes. Most of them were familiar to me, but a few were not. As I tried to hone in on my selection, my dad said almost to himself, “I can’t decide between the fajitas and the cabrito. What about you?” “Cabrito,” I replied, “What’s that?” “Baby goat,” my father said without hesitation, “It’s delicious.”
The seed had been planted. It germinated in my brain while I looked over the rest of the menu. Finally, when my father reached his decision, he announced that he would be ordering fajitas even though the cabrito sounded great. “Really? Cabrito?” I asked. “Sure, he said. It’s fabulous—especially in a place like this. But I can’t pass up the fajitas. I’m sure they don’t get much better than they are here.” “Ok, then,” I told him, feeling brave, “I’ll get the cabrito.” “Good choice,” was his reply.
After we both announced our selections to the waiter, who turned and walked away, my father let out a pronounced snicker. “What?” I asked him. “The cabrito,” he said, “I can’t believe you ordered it.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “I thought you said it was good!” “I’ve never had it,” he exclaimed. “I just wanted to see whether you’d order it.” I had been tricked, and I had chosen poorly, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Later that night, having barely picked at the kid on my plate, my father ribbed me incessantly, asking whether I could feel the cabrito kicking all the way down. “Thanks,” I mumbled in reply, “Thanks a lot.”
That goat, for me, was an unwelcomed surprise. Actually, it was probably delicious, but I never would have known it because my father had played a trick on me. I thought I was ordering something fabulous—something he had enjoyed in the past—something I, too, would surely enjoy. But the dish I was served turned out to be something that I didn’t expect—something I wasn’t looking for. And it was the surprise that did me in.
Today’s gospel lesson is about sheep and goats, both of whom are surprised at how things turn out. Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last Sunday before Advent—a Sunday that has become a celebration of the kingship of Jesus Christ. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing lessons about what the kingdom of God will be like, and today we read about that great and glorious moment when Jesus finally takes his seat upon the throne. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…,” Matthew writes, “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.”
I don’t know about you, and maybe it’s still my lingering fear of cabrito, but I get a little uncomfortable when I think about the day of Christ’s kingship being a day when people like you and me are separated like sheep and goats. And I’m even more uncomfortable when I read that those goats who were cast into the outer darkness were as surprised as I was that night in San Antonio to discover their fate. This gospel lesson makes me wonder whether I will be surprised on that day when Jesus comes. And, more importantly, I want to know whether that surprise will be pleasant or terrifying.
For me, the key to understanding this passage—and, indeed, the key to understanding what it means to wait for God’s kingdom—is held in the surprise itself. Both groups—sheep and goats—are surprised when Jesus comes and reveals to them their fate. The king says to those who are declared righteous, “Come, inherit the kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you visited me.” But the righteous ones ask, “When did that happen? When did we see you in need and reach out to take care of you?” And the king says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
The wicked also are surprised, though in the opposite way. The king declares that when he was hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned they turned their back on him. “But wait!” they cry. “When did we ignore you? When did we fail to take care of you?” And the king’s damning reply reveals that every time they ignored even one who was in need they were ignoring the king himself. Both groups—both sheep and goats—are surprised to discover what it really means to be a part of God’s kingdom.
When that day comes, I think we’re going to be surprised. I think this scripture lesson tells us that God’s kingdom comes in ways we don’t expect or even realize and that, when we’re given the chance to look back, we’ll be surprised to see where the king of kings showed up. We are supposed to be waiting for the kingdom as if we were waiting for a surprise. But how do you get ready for something you don’t expect? The whole point of jumping out and startling someone is that they don’t see it coming. How, then, can we prepare ourselves for God’s surprising reign?
Well, we look for it around every corner. We wait for it in every moment. We search for it in every relationship, and we seek it in every encounter. This passage isn’t about waiting for God’s kingdom as if it is going to jump out and scare us. It’s about realizing that God’s reign is made manifest on earth when we approach every moment as if God were present and seated on his throne. The surprising truth of God’s kingdom is that it’s already here—all around us—and that God dwells in every moment of our lives.
What does it mean to be righteous? What does it mean to be one of God’s sheep? It means being surprised to discover that we are a part of God’s kingdom and that his kingdom is already here. If we go through life thinking that the kingdom only comes to earth on the last day, then we’ll be surprised to discover that we’ve been missing it our whole lives. We are already God’s sheep. We are his beloved children. So let your identity as God’s chosen and beloved so transform your life that every moment becomes an opportunity for God’s kingdom to be manifest here on earth. Celebrate the surprising arrival of God’s kingdom in every minute of every day. Rejoice in that wonderful surprise that God’s kingdom is already here and that you are already a part of it. Amen.