Changed forever

Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

In the name of God: inspire us with your majesty and change us with your glory.  Amen.

I’ve often reflected on the trend from several years ago – where a lot of teens were wearing these rubber “WWJD” bracelets.  And by several years ago, I mean like when I was in high school and college.  I don’t know what it was like up here, but where I was, down South, it seemed like everyone was wearing them.  They were big among kids who went to Baptist or other Evangelical churches, so the concept was always a little foreign to me (not that I was ever one to know about the latest trends…).

But the thing about all trends – including trends about religious topics – is that it quickly became more about the trend than it ever was about the message.  I’m sure these things became popular because youth pastors were passing them out in their churches in the hopes that kids wearing them would consider the acronym’s question from time to time: “What would Jesus do?”  And, I’m sure the hope was that considering that question would influence their moral decisions.

But as the trend took hold, it seemed like the moral implications associated with it mattered less and less.  It was a lot more about identity than it was about morality.  Wearing the bracelet made you a part of the trend group.  That was its main focus – at least among the people I knew who wore them.

Eventually, the trend was adopted by any number of other “causes” – I remember the yellow Lance Armstrong “livestrong” bracelets.  Then the trend abandoned the causes altogether – those same rubber bracelets are still around in all manner of color configurations.  The colors became the focus.  The trend outlived any connection to the causes.

The thing is, though, the whole “What would Jesus do?” idea is pretty easy to answer.  In the teaching we heard from Jesus today, the answer is pretty plain.  “Just as you did [good things] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And conversely, “just as you did not do [good things] to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

In one of the commentaries that I read in preparing for this sermon today, the writer went on and on about feeling guilty for ignoring the least and the lost.  “How many homeless people do I pass on the streets each day and not help?” he asked.  And, “what am I supposed to do about all the ones I can’t help?  I can’t save them all alone!”

To be honest, I couldn’t finish the article.  It just didn’t seem to be adding much to the conversation.  The whole thing could be summed up with an acronym on a rubber bracelet: What would Jesus do?  The moralist reading of this story seems to be mostly about making us feel bad for not doing enough to help the lowly.  The fact is, we’re not doing enough.  We all know it.  But as much as this story can be summed up with moralism – it’s certainly been done that way for a very long time – I think there’s a deeper point here.

Today is Christ the King Sunday – or “Reign of Christ Sunday”.  It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year and the whole focus is about celebrating the mighty, majestic Jesus Christ, Son of God.  Our collect today – the prayer that we use at the start of the service to set the theme of the day – drives this point home.  “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule…”

It would be hard to lift Christ up on more of a pedestal than that.  And next Sunday we dive into Advent, before resting in songs of praise and choirs of angels singing the glory of this child’s birth.

But if you can peer beyond the moralism of the teaching that Jesus offers us today, you’ll hear something else.  Just as much as those WWJD bracelets became a symbol of identity, Jesus is telling us how to identify him – how to see him, even when we can’t see him.

I love the story of Moses, longing to see the face of God.  He begs God to share with him the glory of his countenance.  God eventually gives in, but not to show Moses God’s face – because that would be too much.  Instead, Moses sees God from behind.  You can probably imagine the laughs we had about that in seminary…  But even that – his backside – was enough to leave him glory-scarred for the rest of his life.  His skin shone brightly, so much that the people he was leading were afraid to look at him.  He wore a veil to protect them.  He saw just the tiniest glimpse of God – not even God’s face – and it was enough to leave him changed for the rest of his life.

Part of what Jesus is teaching in this parable – beyond the dos and don’ts of how to behave – is how to see God; how to see Christ.  Even when we can’t see them, we’ve been given this tool to see them.

All we have to do is look to the lowliest.  Look to the least likely.  Look to those whom society has forgotten.  That’s where you’ll see God.  Not on lofty thrones.  Not within the finest, most ornate vestments.  Not hidden behind jewels.  You’ll see God in the hungry.  You’ll see God in those who lack the most basic needs for survival.  You’ll see God in those whom the powers of the world have cast aside and hidden away.  That is God’s identity.  They hold the key to God’s glory.

So yes.  We should care for them.  Of course we should care for them.  But not because we believe we ought to.  Not because we think it’s the right thing to do.  We should care for these people who are farthest from the reaches of the center of society, because that’s how we’ll see Christ.  That is how we will look God in the eye.

Like Moses, we will be changed.  When we truly see God, we will be changed forever.

The parable sort of ends with a threat.  Nor caring for the least will leave you cast out into eternal punishment.  Caring for them leads to eternal life.

For me, that’s not the best motivator.  Maybe it’s what you need to hear.  But for me, the best part of this is about finding a path to encounter God, and then seeing what God plans to do with me next.  I know, in the times when I’ve found God, I’ve been changed.  And we all can be.  That’s what the world needs right now – even more than people who are willing to do good deeds, the world needs people who are willing to be changed forever by having seen God.  And that is eternal life.  At least a part of it.  At least the part we can find today.  The rest will grow once we know God.  Amen.