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Christ The King

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Edward F. Markquart

Christ the King
Going Incognito

Christ the King     Matthew 25:31-46

Almost all of us in this room have had the experience at one time or another of going incognito. That is, we have pretended that we are someone else. Now, the first time that we did this was a long time ago when we dressed up for Halloween. Do you remember those old days when we dressed up as witches, pirates, pumpkins, and skeletons? We may have simply pulled an old paper sack over our heads and went to the neighbor’s house and said, “tricks or treats.” The neighbor then played the game and responded, “Whose little kid are you?” Do you remember those days? Those were some of the first times that we went incognito.

Time passed; we became adults; and someone invited us to a masquerade party. Did you ever go to masquerade parties? I did. Once or twice. We had a masquerade party years ago when we first came to this church, and my wife and I came dressed up as Adam and Eve. We dyed long underwear a pink color and put large green leaves over sensitive spots of our bodies. We came looking like Adam and Eve. I saw a dated and faded picture of this event recently, and we certainly looked young and foolish. … I remember another costume party, and a hairy gorilla arrived on the scene. This hairy gorilla was snorting around at everyone and would only snort in such a way that we didn’t know who it was underneath this costume.  Gradually, we figured out that this gorilla snorted like Pastor Petersen, our first female pastor, waddled like Pastor Petersen and even acted much like Pastor Petersen. Maybe it was Pastor Petersen.

Going to a masquerade party and dressing up incognito is also an honorable occupation. We have had a few policemen through the years that had to cover up who they really were. A number of years ago, it was Jack Firestone in our church and he used to be an under-cover cop for King County. Jack worked on the waterfront. At that time on the waterfront, certain people were stealing Honda bikes, by the truckload or by the container load. So Jack began to grow his beard and hair. He soon had long, shaggy hair and a long shaggy beard and would saddle up to a bar with a big belly going incognito. He was wearing a natural mask. His true identity was covered up. If they had known his true identity, a cop, the folks would have treated him differently, both at the bar and on the waterfront.

Another story. There was only once, perhaps twice, that I really went incognito, and it wasn’t at a masquerade party. I was a junior in college and full of pranks. I had finished working as a canoe guide up in northern Minnesota; and after the summer, my beard and hair were long and bushy. I put on dark glasses, old crummy clothes and looked very much like a 1960s hippy. I knew my older sister Beverly was flying into Minneapolis airport, and I decided to surprise her at the airport. I had the long hair, the long beard, the old clothes, the sunglasses, and the posture that could fool her. She came off the airplane and I approached her saying, “Lady, you got a dime for a cool cat like me?” I persisted. She ran. I persisted more, grabbed her arm, and sharply said her name, “Beverly.” It was then she first recognized me and exclaimed, “You brat.” My point is, she would have treated me differently if she would have known my true identity.

Knowing that I had a good thing going, I decided to try this “new look” out on my aunt and uncle on the farm, Aunt Gudrun and Uncle Clarence. I drove to their farmhouse, parked my car down the road so they wouldn’t see it, approached their door and knocked. Aunt Gudrun opened the door. I asked, “Do you have a meal for a hungry person like myself? Lady, I am desperate for food.” She looked at me and said, “Just as minute. Clarence? Clarence?” she called, as she closed the door and went into the house. I waited for what seemed like an eternity. I walked around the house and looked up into the neighboring field and there was my Aunt Gudrun running for life. She had climbed two fences and was running as fast as she could away from the farmhouse. She was mad when she found out who I really was. She also has told this story often. The point is: Aunt Gudrun would have treated me differently if she knew who I really was, if she had known my true identity.

It is with this theme of going incognito and wearing a mask; it is with this theme that you would treat me differently if you knew my true identity; that we approach the gospel lesson for today. The parable today is about the sheep and the goats. Now, this is one of the most famous parables of Jesus, but is not one of the all time favorites. That is, we love the parable of the Good Samaritan and we enjoy the parable of the Prodigal Son, but this parable about the sheep and the goats is more acidic, painful and stinging. This parable makes us feel more uncomfortable.

The setting of this parable was this: the disciples had asked Jesus, “What is it going to be like at the end of the world?” Jesus replied, “I will tell you a story. It will be like this. There will be a king up in heaven and all the people of the earth will gather around him, and this king will divide the people into the sheep and the goats.” Now, if you were a disciple in those days, you understood this metaphor immediately. At night, when the shepherds came down from the hills into the valleys, they would divide the sheep for the sheep pen and the goats for the goat pen. The disciples understood this metaphor and it was familiar to them. Jesus continued, “The sheep will be on my right, and the king will say to them, ‘Come into my party. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me.” They said, ‘When did we ever do these things for you?’ The king replied, ‘Whenever you did these things for the littlest people, you did it for me?’ Then the king addressed the goats on the left. ‘Depart from me into eternal damnation. I was starving and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was lacking clothing and you did not cloth me. I was in prison and you did not visit me.’ They said, ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently. If we only had known your true identity, it would have made all the difference. If we had only known it was your face behind the face of the refugees; if we had only known it was your body in the infirmary; if we had only known it was your body starving in Africa; if we had only known it was you, it would have made all the difference.’ The Lord said, Depart from me into eternal damnation.”

It was Mark Twain who said it first. “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do not understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”

When Jesus finished that parable, they liked the story of The Prodigal Son and they loved the story of the Good Samaritan, but they weren’t so sure that they liked this story of the sheep and the goats.

One of the first lessons that grows out of this parable is the awareness that our God, the true God, the one God, who created the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; that our true God is a hidden God who hides himself. God goes incognito. God wears a mask.

Our God hides himself most completely in the faces and places of suffering. The awareness that our God is a hidden God who hides himself in suffering is a stark contrast to other religions of the world. In all the other religions of the world, they talk about their god who reveals himself in the beauty of the sunset, the birth of babies, and in the bounty of nature. But our God is the only God in the whole wide world who hides himself under the faces and places of suffering. Let me explain.

A number of years ago when our children were young and small, we used to play a game almost every night for a while. My car would come down the driveway and they would hear the car and go and hide. Joel would hide underneath the kitchen table. Anne would hide behind the door in our bedroom. I would come in the front door and shout, “Where are the children?” Then I would look underneath the sofa, the dining room table, the curtains, and all around, still calling out, “Where are the children?” Anne and Joel would make noise, I would find them, they would shout, “boo”. The point is: the children would hide in obvious places.  But every once in a while, they would seriously hide and go down into the basemen, way down into the utility room, into the storage room, back behind the water tank, back there and they would hide. I would come and I couldn’t find them. I couldn’t find them at all.

By analogy, in all the religions of the world, their gods hide themselves in the obvious places. Underneath the kitchen table. Underneath the bed. Behind the back door. These gods hide themselves in the beauty of the sunsets, the birth of babies, the bounty of nature. But our God, the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our God does down into the basement. Our God goes down into the basement and hides himself in a place that people don’t know where he is hiding. God hides himself in the midst of suffering. The place that our God hides is in the water and wine and wafer, but the primary place is in the cross. No other God in the whole wide world gets himself crucified. When our God is crucified, our God is the most hidden. When our God is being crucified today, he is the most hidden. So, a primary understanding of this Bible passage for me is that our God is a hidden God.

But the real point is not the theological lesson that our God is primary a hidden God. The real lesson of this parable today is an invitation for you and me to seek God. To seek God when God is found. Not in the beauty of the sunsets or the birth of babies or the bounty of nature. Not to find God in the obvious places such as the beauty of Mt. Rainier or Puget Sound and conclude that there is a God. The real lesson of this parable is to seek God where God is to be found and God is to be found hiding behind the faces and places of suffering people.

Let me give you an example from church history. It is the story of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who was riding high in life. As a friend would say about him, he was a high type of person, with a high type life style, and he was riding high on his horse one day like a knight in shining armor. St. Francis was feeling very good and very cocky and very confident, but underneath it all, he was also feeling very empty. As he was riding along on his horse one day, he stopped and there was a beggar at his feet. Francis looked down at the beggar and the beggar had leprosy. His body was filled with open sores and wounds from the leprosy. Francis looked down, got down from his horse, bent down and picked up the man and looked into the man’s face. He then did something unusual. Francis put his arms around the beggar, put his face against the open wounds, and hugged the man. Francis embraced him, and then pulled his head away, and he looked into the face of Jesus. Francis then became St. Francis. A revolutionary change had occurred in his life. This story is an invitation for us to reach out and to hug, embrace, pull close into us, those who are hurting in the world.

This story is an invitation for us to embrace a suffering humanity, just as St. Francis did, just as Jesus did.

In contrast to all of this were the Pharisees, the self-righteous Pharisees. The Pharisees were willing to look for God in the most obvious places. In the beauty of the sunset on Puget Sound, in the face of a beautiful baby, in the bounty and fullness of nature. The Pharisees saw God in the obvious places. They went to church, tithed, enjoyed their sacraments of circumcision and the Passover. They searched for God in the obvious places, upstairs. The Pharisees never searched for God downstairs. They were unwilling to go into the bowels of the earth, and find Christ wearing a mask and going incognito. I can hear those Pharisees, right now. “Let the pastor do it. That is what we pay him or her for. Besides, all I do is work all day. I am at work at seven in the morning and get home at seven at night. I am so exhausted. I go to church on Sunday morning, meetings at church at night, Bible study, choir, and altar guild. I am so busy with church activities. Besides all those poor people, if they showed some initiative, they would be all right. They have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and solve their own economic and social problems.”  For a whole variety of reasons, the Pharisees never did go downstairs. Never. Jesus said, “Take a turn and go into damnation.”

What does this mean for us? What does it mean to embrace a suffering world?

First, it means to have the love of Christ inside of you. You cannot be this kind of loving person unless the love of Christ is living in you. It is not you. It is not me. It is the love of God living inside of us. You can’t embrace hurting people unless the love of God lives in you.

It begins at home, in the unconscious acts of generosity to your husband, wife, family. You don’t even realize you are doing it. I can give you hundreds of examples, but I will only give you a few. Gary and Carolynn Spies were down at the hospital for weeks, taking care of their sick child, as were many other parents caring for their child in similar circumstances. You say to these parents, “You are loving your son in a special way.” They reply, “What is wrong with you. We are doing what any loving parent would do.” They don’t even realize the good that they are doing. The same is true as Dorothy Smith cares for her mother at the nursing home, as do Doug and Joan Anderson with their mother and so many of you doing the same. You think nothing of it, except that it is a lot of work and the way that love works. Neil Bender has taken care of his wife, Eva, for decades as she is home as an invalid. He just lovingly does it. Neil didn’t have to go to Bangladesh to find a ministry; he went no further than his own bedroom and kitchen table. If you suggest to him he is a good and loving person, he would laugh and then cry. So would Bill Bentzen as he cares for his wife, Hulda, with Alzheimer’s.  What I am suggesting is that this quality of love begins at home with these unconscious acts of generosity.

When Jesus addressed the sheep about going to heaven, the sheep didn’t even realize that they had been generous. They were not even aware. That is the way it is with love, the true love of God. You yourself forget yourself in loving and caring for another person.

This quality of love then spreads from your home. To the neighbor down the street and the man had a stroke. To a person who had a car accident and is all crippled up and for some reason, you become involved.

This love spreads. You begin to realize that your brothers and sisters in Africa or Asia or Latin America or in our ghettos are hungry and starving. This quality of love cannot help but reach out to them. Of course I reach out to them. Why? I don’t know. My brother is starving. My sister is starving. Of course, I reach out to help. We are family. The love of God living inside of us begins to reach out to all kinds of people and we don’t even know it.

You see, the truth about the gospel is that our God is a hidden God. And more than that, we are invited to seek God where God is to be found. I like the story about Jack Firestone going incognito as an undercover cop. That story tells me a lot about our God. Amen.

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