On this final Sunday of the church year, the feast of Christ the King, our Gospel looks to the future, and paints a picture of how it will be when Christ returns in glory.
Jesus presents this picture sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph. He is teaching in the temple as the day of his death approaches.
The scene he describes is marked by surprise. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are shocked to discover that the needy people they helped or they ignored are regarded by Christ the King as his sisters and brothers, members of his family. What’s done for them he takes as done for him. Where they are neglected, he regards himself as neglected. And what the righteous do and the unrighteous fail to do turn out to have eternal ramifications. Humanity will be divided into two groups. The king will function as a herdsman who sends the sheep in one direction and the goats in another.
Consider for a moment the criteria for this judgment. They are deeds of mercy. Food, drink, welcome, clothing, nursing care, visitation.
Something that impresses me about the list is how each one can be done in a wholesale way or a retail way. The hungry can be fed by establishing a soup kitchen or taking a panhandler to lunch. It appears that the same blessing rests on each action; in each case, Christ takes the service as done for him.
Thus no room remains for excuses. If you can establish the soup kitchen, do so. If you can take the panhandler to lunch, do so.
Sometimes people avoid any contact with the wholesale approach because they find this less rewarding to them than when they can look the beneficiary in the eye. They avoid supporting international assistance programs, mouthing cliches about helping our own first. This attitude is a mistake. Mercy is not meant to satisfy the giver. It is meant to serve Christ, who waits in distant lands for our help as truly as he waits across town.
Another mistake commonly made is to refrain from demonstrating mercy because you judge your action to be too small. You dismiss your opportunity as inconsequential. It may be true that a modest check cannot, by itself, stop world hunger. But it can stop somebody’s hunger, at least for a time, and according to Christ, this by itself may merit the final and eternal blessing.
To profess the Christian faith means more than to have your theology right. It means to act on that faith, not knowing what the consequences of our actions will prove to be. And in much of life, what makes the difference, what tips the scale, is often something which in itself is small.
Food, drink, welcome, clothing, nursing care, visitation. This list is not exhaustive. It is suggestive.
Christian tradition has added another item to the list to make it seven, namely burying the dead. What we have then are seven corporal works of mercy, corporal because each has something to do with the body, the Latin word for which is corpus.
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Another list has been developed of seven spiritual works of mercy. This list includes:
• Converting the sinner
• Instructing the ignorant
• Counseling the doubtful
• Comforting the sorrowful
• Bearing wrongs patiently
• Forgiving injuries
• Praying for the living and the dead.
These works of mercy can also be done in ways wholesale or retail, and I don’t doubt that to each of them Christ attaches a blessing.
Any of us might well take off from here and develop our own list of favorites. Each of us can consider where and when we have been on the receiving end of mercy, whether that mercy was retail or wholesale. Somebody changed our flat tire. Or fixed our computer problem. Or put up with our procrastination. Or gave us a metaphorical kick in the pants when we needed one. These also can be works of mercy that Christ will honor on the last day, and for which we can be grateful right now. Big or small, wholesale or retail, we can be grateful for the mercy shown to us, and we can extend mercy to others. Jesus thought this was important enough to talk about as his final week of life drew to a close.
It’s time for a sports story! Back in the 1940s, it was Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke the color barrier in the major leagues. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers, was looking for an African American player with guts enough not to fight back. He found that player in Robinson, a man not known for ducking a fight. Game after game, Robinson stood strong against racist jeers and catcalls. It was tough out on the field for Jackie Robinson.
One day, during a game in Cincinnati, Robinson at second base committed an error, and even his fans began to threaten and heckle him. He must have felt very much alone as ugly shouts rang out against him from all over the stadium.
It was then that his teammate, Pee Wee Reese, walked over to Robinson from his shortstop position and put his arm around him. The two men stood together facing the crowd. The jeering stopped. The crowd grew quiet. The game resumed.
A simple gesture, one might say. What matters, though, is that Pee Wee Reese did it, a retail act of mercy. And later on, Robinson reported that it was Pee Wee’s arm around his shoulder that kept him from quitting—that saved his baseball career.
Reese had the highest regard for his team mate. Later, looking back over their time together, Reese said of Jackie Robinson,
“I don’t know any other ballplayer
who could have done what he did.
To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him.
He had to block all that out,
block out everything but this ball
that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour.
To do what he did
has got to be the most tremendous thing
I’ve ever seen in sports.”
This is the time of year when people fill out pledge cards and make financial commitments to their church. Is making a pledge a work of mercy? I believe it to be so. For by standing up for the Gospel, the church offers mercy in many forms to many kinds of people.
We may view our stewardship of money as wholesale or retail, depending on the money available. Bill Gates makes huge amounts of money and gives away huge amounts. His donations are wholesale. The rest of us function more on the retail level. We may even dismiss what we can give as though it were unimportant. That simply is not true.
Every pledge is a work of mercy. When we fund the Church’s mission, it is Christ we are serving: Jesus present in the members of our congregation, Jesus in newcomers who will turn up in the future, Jesus in people the church will serve through our support without us even knowing their names. And so every pledge receives a blessing.
The commitment you make is nothing less than you going out on the field and putting your arm around Jesus. It is what enables him to stay in the game where he desperately needs to be.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).