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The Undercover King

Matthew 25:31-46

Undercover Boss is a reality TV show where CEOs of companies pretend to be new entry-level employees and visit one of their store locations. The local employees have no idea that the new person they’re training is actually the CEO of their entire organization. There’s one episode where the CEO of Coffee Bean, John, goes undercover and is trained by a local manager, Deanna. During the episode John has trouble working the coffee machine during a rush of customers, but Deanna graciously helps and encourages him. Later, they talk about her life, and we learn about her struggles. Deanna reveals that she dropped out of high school and was an addict, but she got off drugs and Coffee Bean gave her a chance and saved her life. Now she’s a hard-working single mom struggling to provide a good life for her children. She had just lost her father and was recently diagnosed with cancer. But she still works with a smile on her face every day, and says that she always tries to make somebody’s day. At the end of the episode John reveals who he really is and gives her $20,000 for herself, offers to help her finish school and provide another $10,000 when she graduates, and sets up college funds for both of her children. She is moved to tears and expresses tremendous gratitude.

There’s a lot of feel-good stories on Undercover Boss. But occasionally you get a disaster too! One example is when Eric, the founder and CEO of the gym Retro Fitness, went undercover at one of his locations. The woman training him was condescending and mean. She told Eric that the gym members were stupid, and he watched as she wasted ingredients to protein shakes which she admits to doing all the time. When Eric was making protein shakes for gym members, she insulted him and some of the customers even commented that they felt bad for him and hoped his day would get better. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse, the woman started yelling at a gym member in front of everybody. It’s a disaster day at the gym and the episode ends with this employee being fired, to which she responds with continued rudeness and vulgarity.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells his own story of an undercover boss. He tells a parable about a king who separates his people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To the ones on his right he says that they took care of him when he was in need, and they are invited to come inherit the kingdom. They don’t remember ever taking care of him, but the king insists that whenever they fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, or visited the sick or imprisoned, they did it to him. Whenever they took care of a seemingly unimportant person, they cared for the king. And then the king calls out those on his left for not caring for him. When they object, he tells them that whenever they did not feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit the sick or imprisoned, they did not do so to him. Whenever they neglected to care for a seemingly unimportant person, they neglected to care for him.

The text we read today is the very last public teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. The next chapter begins with the drama of Judas’ betrayal, the Last Supper, and Jesus’ arrest and trial. So Matthew bookends Jesus’ public ministry with the Beatitudes at the beginning and this story at the end. Perhaps this means we should pay extra close attention to what we read here.

And in addition to being the last parable in Matthew, this Sunday is the last of the church year. Next week Advent begins, and we start a new liturgical year. This final day is called Christ the King Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate Jesus Christ our King and learn to put a new meaning onto the word “king.” Typically we don’t like the word “king” in 21st century America. After all we were founded as a nation that rejected kings and royalty. People of most times and places probably did not like the word and feared the person behind it. The word king brings to mind men who hoarded wealth and power while their subjects starved. The word king brings to mind patriarchy and imperialism. The word king brings to mind war and violence and exploitation. So there’s good reason for people to be uncomfortable with our applying this title to Jesus.

But an important fact about this holy day is that it was founded in 1925 and purposely used the term “king” as a counter to the rise of nationalism during the decades between the first and second world wars. Pope Pius the 11th established the day for Catholics and many Protestant denominations soon followed. Hoping this day would remind Christians who our true king is and help prevent the worship of national leaders and political ideologies. This text is chosen for Christ the King Sunday because it shows us a new way to think about a king. And we end the church year emphasizing this new understanding of the word king, and how it applies to Jesus Christ the King of the Universe.

Jesus tells this story to inspire his disciples to serve those in need, promote justice, and do good in the world. To show them what the kingdom of God is all about. When we do acts of compassion and kindness, we are being servants of the kingdom of God. We are manifesting the kingdom in the world. And when we ignore those in need, when we’re too caught up in ourselves to show kindness and compassion, when we’re too self-serving and neglectful, then we live in such a way that we have no connection with the kingdom. And so it’s only natural that we’ll be left out of it. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned is what the kingdom looks like—and if we’re not involved in living out this kingdom reality then we have no part in it.

To all those present the king says that even though they didn’t think it was him they were serving or neglecting, it really was him after all. Jesus is saying that when we care for those in need, we are truly caring for him. For his body. There is a mysterious and profound unity between Christ and creation. So much so that when we care for a person in need, we are caring for God Almighty.

An interesting part of this parable is that the righteous don’t seem to know that they were serving the king. Could this be suggesting that even people who lived their lives without knowing Jesus is King could be welcomed into the kingdom? And then those who say, “Lord when was it we saw you in need and did not take care of you?” seem to understand who the king is and yet are not welcomed into the kingdom because they did not serve those in need. Could this be about those who claim to believe Jesus is King but do not put their words into action?

This parable also begs us to ask the question: how are we doing when it comes to serving those in need? Would we be set on the king’s right or the king’s left? Would the king tell us we have served him well or that we neglected him? We can’t really know for sure. But what we can do is strive to follow Jesus’ example in living lives of compassion and justice. We can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned. We can support justice and promote peace. We can be involved with feeding people on Friday nights at Grace Lutheran in Hartford like our Confirmation class did last week. We can pack shoeboxes full of Christmas gifts for children around the world, like we did with Operation Christmas Child last Sunday. Or you might want to join our team to help with the refugee family living in the parsonage apartment right now. Or you can support ELCA World Hunger and the Good Gifts campaign where you buy items for those in need and give someone a holiday donation card, telling them what was donated in their name. There are many, many ways we can help. And it is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus.

Obviously, this passage has a clear teaching to love and serve our neighbors as if they were Jesus, because as Jesus says, they are. But one thing about this text that’s troubling is how it appears to teach “works righteousness.” The idea that you need to do good works to get to heaven. Does Jesus really require us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned in order to be acceptable to him? Those are all good things we should do of course. But is it really true that if we don’t do them, we’ll be banished into eternal punishment? And if it is true, then how can we ever know if we’ve done enough? How can we ever feel secure about our salvation? How can we ever be sure that we’ve done what it takes to avoid the king’s punishment? That we’ll be ok?

That was the question that drove Martin Luther to despair during his early years as a monk. And it was his fear of not doing enough that eventually led to his rediscovery of the good news that we are saved by grace not by works. Luther understood that it is by the love and grace of God that we are saved, and that it is by the love and grace of God that we are transformed. Transformed into people who embody the love and grace first given to us. Luther understood good works not as something we do out of our own wonderful will power, but as the natural brimming over of the goodness God has first given us.

And so when we read this parable, we should not fear. We should not worry about whether we’ve done enough to get rewarded or avoid punishment. We know that we are saved by grace. But when we read this parable, we should be inspired to live out our Christian calling to do good works for our neighbors in need, to share the love God has first given us.

This is because we have a king who himself went undercover: God became incarnate out of his love for us. Christ is the king who did not come to be served, but to serve. The king who would rather suffer and die than lose his people to sin. The king who calls us to live out his kingdom of love. Love that saves us. Love that transforms us into people who naturally do good works for those in need. Love that changes the world. Love that makes all things new.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian, Sunday, Nov. 26th, 2023.

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