MATTHEW 25:31-46

Two weeks ago I went to hear The Atlanta Symphony.  I did not buy a ticket in advance, so I had to go to the box office and stand in line along with all the other procrastinators.

When I paid, the nice young woman handed me my ticket and said, “Enjoy the concert, sir.”

I looked at my ticket and replied, “Oh.  You’ve given me the dog seat.”

She tilted her head and replied, “The dog seat?”

“Yes,” I said, “the dog seat, row K, seat 9.  That’s seat K-9: the dog seat.  Get it?”

She was not amused.

I went to the symphony to hear the symphony chorus and soloists sing The Verdi Requiem.  The text of the Verdi Requiem is based on the traditional Latin mass for the dead.  The core of the Requiem is the second movement: the Dies Irae.  It’s all about The Last Judgment.

It begins: Dies irae, dies illa, day of wrath, day of doom.

The Dies Irae text is frightening, and that’s the point.  Like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, it’s supposed to scare you.  It’s supposed to scare you into behaving yourself so that you don’t get sent to hell for eternity.

In The Verdi Requiem the bass drum player stays busy.  The bass drum gets banged again and again and again and again.

Dies irae [bang, bang], dies illa [bang]. *

And if you don’t already have the fear of God in you, you get it real soon.  Day of wrath.  Day of doom [bang].

The fear of God: that’s one way of looking at The Last Judgment.  Today’s gospel offers another way.  Did you notice?

I have a picture of my first grade class at C.B. Greer Elementary in Brunswick.  We’re seated at our little desks, hands neatly folded on desk-tops, first grade smiles on our faces.

The girls wear frilly dresses, hair bands, and black patent shoes with white socks turned down at the tops.

The boys have crew cuts.  They wear t-shirts with horizontal stripes, blue jeans from J.C. Penney, and tennis shoes.

At the back of the third row there’s Margie.   Margie was, shall we say, not the most well-adjusted first grader.  She had issues with our teacher, Miss Hutchinson.  Today we might call Margie a “strong-willed child”.  Back then she had what they called “temper tantrums.”  She would scream and roll on the floor and such.

* with each “bang”, the preacher bangs loudly on the pulpit.

One day Miss Hutchinson left the room.  When she did, Margie decided it was time to go home.  She chose to make her exit through the window.  She propped it open as far as it would go and began to shimmy out, screaming all the while.

Margie didn’t get far.   What she got was stuck.  I’ll never forget Margie stuck in the window, her little legs kicking, her loud voice screaming.

The rest of the class considered this scene hilarious.  We pointed and laughed our heads off.  Bottom line: we saw Margie’s underwear.

There’s nothing funnier to a first grader.

Also present in my first grade picture is Bill.  He wears thick glasses, and he’s bigger than the rest of us.  Bill was held back a few years.  He was a poor reader.  His reading was poor because Bill was practically blind. Bill had the same books as the rest of us, but his were always bigger.  The print was larger so he could read it.  Even so, he still needed a magnifying glass.

In my first grade picture you’ll find Henry.  Henry had a funny hair-cut.  His clothes were always old and usually dirty.  He smelled funny.  He was shy.  He was small.  Henry always had a runny nose.  He was poor, really poor, dirt poor we used to say.

I knew this because Henry rode my bus.  I saw where he lived.  He and his family lived in a shack on a dusty dirt road. 

When you’re in the first grade there are many things you don’t understand.  But you understand some things.  You can tell when somebody’s poor.

Looking back, I suspect Henry had a bad hair cut because it was cut at home, perhaps by his mother or a sibling or himself.  I’ll bet his family had no washing machine.  I wonder if they had running water.  Maybe Henry was so shy because he was so ashamed, so small because he was so undernourished, so sick because his house was so cold.

Even as first-graders we didn’t laugh at Henry.

At Christmas time Miss Hutchinson discreetly organized our mothers to help Henry and his family.  Our moms gave food, clothing, and toys so Henry and his family could have Christmas.

Fifty-six years later I wonder what happened to these first grade classmates.  Did Margie ever come to terms with authority?  Or is she in prison somewhere, still trying to break out after all these years?

And Bill: did he get an operation for his eyes?  Can he finally read the fine print?

And what about Henry?  He’s the one I think about most.  What happens to kids like Henry?  When grow up, some break out of the cycle of poverty.  Many do not.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. In today’s Christ the King gospel King Jesus sits on his throne of glory.  The nations are gathered before him, and he judges the people.  Like a shepherd, he separates the sheep from the goats.

The sheep will inherit God’s kingdom.  The goats will inherit eternal punishment.

For believers, the key question boils down to this: how does King Jesus distinguish between sheep and goats?  What makes the difference?  Are the sheep those who are baptized?  Those who attend church regularly?  Those who have kept the Ten Commandments?  Those who have been nice all their lives?

Not in today’s gospel.  In today’s gospel the sheep are those who respond to the needs of needy people: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  They may or may not have been baptized church-goers who kept the Ten Commandments.  Maybe they were nice people, maybe not.  We don’t know.  We’re simply told that these were righteous people.  In this parable the righteous respond to those in need: those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”

“Truly I tell you,” Christ the King says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Did you notice the most astonishing thing about this parable?  The righteous never realized they were righteous.  When they served those in need, the righteous never knew they were serving Jesus.  Which is to say this: they didn’t serve others in order to gain their own salvation.  They served others simply because they cared.  Something inside said “respond”, and they listened.  Most importantly, they obeyed.  In so doing they became who they already were.  They were sheep, not goats.

It’s Christ the King Sunday.  Today Christ reveals the priorities of his Kingdom.  His priorities are very basic.  These are his priorities: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.

Do you share the priorities of Christ’s Kingdom?

A lot has changed since 1961.  Some changes are good.  Some are not.

Here’s one change that troubles me very much.  As a society, we don’t seem to care about people in need.  Back in 1961 we felt sorry for poor people.  I don’t know that we responded much better than we do today, but at least we felt a little compassion.

What troubles me is this: as a society, we’ve become so hardened.  Many people express contempt for the poor, if not out and out hatred.  We no longer pity the poor.  We blame the poor.  We punish the poor for being poor.

What has happened to us?

For one thing, we’re much more mobile today.  People move around, and we seldom get to know our neighbors very well.

When you know your neighbors and some of your neighbors are poor, you treat your poor neighbors differently.  They have faces.  And when you look closely you may see the face of Jesus.  “When you did it to the least of these… you did it unto me,” Jesus said.

In 1961 children were taught to care for their neighbors.  We cut the grass for the elderly retired lady down the street.  We took food and clothing to the people who lived across the tracks.  We visited nursing homes.

We didn’t do enough, but at least we did something.  We learned not to hate the poor.  Today so many people seem to hate the poor.

A lot has changed since 1961.  My first grade classmates and I grew up.  Yet somehow little Henry is still with me.  I see him in the faces of people in need.

Have you known someone like Henry?  Do you still see that face in the faces of people in need?  Could it be that, in eternity, his or her face will turn out to be the face of Jesus?

I still see Henry’s face very clearly.  It wouldn’t surprise me if his face turns out to be the face of Jesus.

But what will I do in the meantime?  Will I respond to the Henrys of this world or not?  That’s up to me.

And what about you?  Will you respond to the face of Jesus as it is revealed in the faces of the poor?

Who are we anyway: sheep or goats?

In today’s judgment day gospel, that’s what matters to Christ the King.  The sheep demonstrate compassion.  They respond to people in need.

The goats do not.  They never even notice. 

Let us pray.

Oh, God, when I have food, help me remember the hungry; when I have work, help me remember the jobless; when I have a warm home, help me remember the homeless; when I am without pain, help me remember those who suffer.  Oh God, destroy my complacency and stir my compassion.  Make me concerned enough to help, by word and deed, those who cry out for what I take for granted. [Samuel F. Pugh, adapted]


If you would like to respond to this sermon or receive future sermons by email, contact me at

Leave a Comment