Ever had a “full circle” experience?
This past summer we took a trip to Ireland, and got out into the countryside. I was very happy to have someone else doing the driving. I am a child of the flatlands of the great plains, where everything was laid out in one mile sections. 3 miles, north, 2 miles west, another ½ a mile north and you’re there.
But in Ireland the roads were narrow, built over peat bogs and around hillsides and following ridges and valleys beautiful countryside of hills and ridges and valleys, laid out by the hand of the creator, not one mile sections laid out by a township board. In such a landscape it is easy to get turned around, or misdirected, or come full circle, to be confronted with the same signpost you saw half an hour ago.
The experience of coming full circle can be either a relief, or a frustration, and sometimes a little bit of both. As you find yourself back at a familiar intersection, you can rejoice that at least I knew where you are! But it is also frustrating to think that you may have to try this all over again.
We all have full circle experiences. People who live in time, and who are ruled by order cannot help but have them. Your job has a certain flow to it most of the time. Families have cycles of activity, and recurring expectations for holidays and gatherings. Coming full circle is sometimes a good way of ordering things for the next time around.
The church year too, has a full circle event, and this is it.
This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the old church year, the end of Pentecost.
Next Sunday we begin with Advent, a new church year.
We come full circle this day. We celebrate the Once and Future King, Jesus, who came to earth once and who promised to come again and to put things in order. The gospel lesson for this day is a reminder of that promise and a glimpse into how that day will be.
As Jesus describes the final judgment here, he places very specifically into time. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…..”
At the end of time, when the Once and Future King comes and we see him with his angels, sitting on the throne in heavenly glory. That is a statement of power and of time. Judgment happens when the book on this creation is finally brought to a close….and not before.
That is incredibly good news! For you see, the first thing we are tempted to do when we hear this gospel lesson is to figure out who we are in it. “Am I a sheep? Am I a goat? Have I done what God wants me to do?” Almost universally we would find ourselves lacking, if we were to judge on this day.
But this is not the day of Judgment! All accounts remain open, everyone mixed up together yet. On Christ the King Sunday it is pure gospel to be reminded that it is Jesus who is Lord and King, and that he alone judges! He judges in this manner of sorting folks out when creation is called to an end, and not before!
That is pure gospel, for you see, there are so many who want to have judgment in the here and now. And judgment in the here and now always simply leads to fear and division.
I hear various messages from many self proclaimed authorities, and I’m sure you do as well. Maybe it’s a railing voice on a radio. Maybe it’s an author who writes a book about how we are entering the “end times.” In every time and place it seems that there are folks who are willing to point to all manner of worldly events as signs that judgment is near. Natural disasters, are pointed to, Tsunami, floods, hurricanes tornados earthquakes economic melt downs, eroding morals, nations trading leaders, etc, etc. There are no shortages of catastrophes, and it seems that at each and every one someone is willing to point to it as “judgment.” Usually, judgment upon someone else for what they have been doing. Seldom to the harbingers of judgment bring it down upon themselves.
But Jesus in the parable makes clear who is in charge of that and who will execute it. Jesus alone is placed in the role of Judge, and not until he returns and creation is brought to an end do we have to worry about judgment taking place.
Until then, there is time for hope, and life and freedom from the fear of being judged by others. The fact that Jesus is the King, and the Judge is Gospel. It is good news and a relief. It is like find a familiar place in the road when you are lost. Yes, Jesus is Judge, but we know a few other thing about Jesus too. We know about his love. We know about his mercy, and his ability to sacrifice. This is not a judge to fear, but one to look for when you’re lost in the wanderings of life.
This is a full circle event, you know again who is King, who is important, and who can guide your life. Oh, like coming to the familiar place in the road, it’s a bit frustrating, you need to start all over again… but that is what this King allows you to do! Because the Judgment is “not yet”… now is the time for living in Grace. Now is the time for being able to start afresh. Christ the King offers us the opportunity to look back, to see what we have done, left undone, and to look ahead in Grace. You have yet another chance to choose the right path. You have yet another opportunity to make decisions that are pleasing to God. Judgment will come, to be sure, but you are neither sheep nor goat yet. You are not labeled yet. You live in grace, and are free to become a servant of Christ in this world.
And then there is the matter in which this judgment takes place. Sheep and goats, all mingled together, and they can’t help being what they are!
When the judgment does happen, neither one knew what it was that they had done, either to win the Shepherd’s favor, or be separated right or left.
What are we to make of this?
I think it has to do with how clearly Jesus can see the distinctions, not we. I don’t know if I’m a goat or a sheep at this time. And, as a good Lutheran, part of me wants to say that I can be a bit of both, or either, depending upon the day and the circumstances. The old “Simul Justis et peccator”… at the same time justified saint, and wretched sinner.
That is how life is for us. We are sheep and goat, all at the same time, and we switch back and forth depending upon….well, depending upon what is at work in our hearts at that moment, right? There are days when I have a quality of mercy that simply won’t let me say “no” to a request, even if I’m being taken advantage of by that person.
Then there are other days, when I override the quality of mercy with justifications, facts, figures, criteria. The person may be hungry, but this is the third time this month that he’s come to me with a request, at some point in time you just have to say “no.”
The person may be in prison, but I’m sure there are fine prison chaplaincy units able to meet his or her needs, someone else with that calling.
Maybe the person does need some help in these economic uncertain times, but where do you start and where do you end? Better to let the established agencies take that on…
It’s those days when the quality of mercy is in question that I worry about, because as I look at the judgment event unfolding here, what it appears that Jesus can tell as clearly as sheep from goats is those who had mercy, and those who did not.
““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?” The sheep ask, oblivious to those times that they acted out of mercy and were ministering to Jesus himself. 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.’
“”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? The goats ask, searching for a time when they did not recognize Jesus in their midst.
‘”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.’
The quality of mercy is what separates sheep from goats. The quality of mercy is what the Judge is looking for in the end. And, that is a messy proposition.
No one knows, you see, with any certainty, when their actions are right.
Sometimes, it’s like driving around Ireland, this matter of mercy. You strike out on a road, you help a person, you make a difference, or you get taken, or a little of both. There is joy in this life when you can see that you have served the master. There is frustration when what you thought was the right way, the right path, just brings you back around to where it seems you started.
You will get this right sometimes, and wrong sometimes.
You can, in fact, do some things that will make for better efficiency, for better outcome in dealing with the hungry, the prisoner, the naked so that they do not end up on your doorstep repeatedly, but do not let your hearts be hardened so that mercy is forgotten. For that is the quality that Jesus the King is looking for, and the quality that God sent his Son to give this cold, hard world so long ago.
It is Christ the King Sunday. We come full circle. Next week we begin the journey toward the manger again. And this week, we have a chance to take a new direction, a new path.
May it be one that leads us into mercy.