On Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before Advent, we always read from Matthew’s gospel, the twenty-fifth chapter — Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment. At the end, when the King sits on the throne, all shall be judged on the basis of how well we responded to the needs of “the least of these.” Christ is encountered in giving the cup of water, the loaf of bread, in visits to the sick and imprisoned. Jesus is served by deeds of mercy to the “least of these.”
The parable is typical of the Savior who was born in a stable, the King of Kings who came among us as one of “the least of these.” Christians learn to encounter Jesus incognito, in the form of those who are marginalized, pushed to the bottom, neglected.
In my visits to dozens of United Methodist congregations this fall I’ve been impressed by the sort of people who are formed by listening to stories like the Great Judgment and the babe who is born in a manger. They are people, these Methodists, who, though their church is tiny, gathered a ton of food for Angel Food ministry. They got organized and built this year, by my count, about a dozen Habitat Houses. They welcomed the homeless into their churches and they continued work on the devastation of Katrina. In a year of economic stress, dozens of our churches, large and small, have postponed anticipated building expansions or staff increases and pastors have forgone salary increases so they can pay 100% of their fair share of Conference ministry support. They have put the needs of poor children, and overseas missions, and a wide array of benevolences ahead of their own.
Why, in a society that encourages much self-centeredness and personal acquisitiveness, did these Christians buck cultural trends and take responsibility for the needs of people who weren’t among their own family or friends? I think it was because they know by heart the story of the Nativity, the story of a God who came among us as a helpless, needy baby, born to peasant parents, lying in a feed trough.
“There are many of you,” Martin Luther scolded his sixteenth century German congregation, “who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the little baby!’…You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem…. Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.”
Christ gave us himself, present in the needs of our neighbors. The one who was born in a Bethlehem stable commanded us to care for “the least of these.” We cannot see Christ, we do not truly worship him or follow him without obeying him in our acts of mercy to those in need. Thanks be to God there are thousands of Alabama United Methodists who not only believe the Bible, but obey it as well, who not only love Christ, but see him in the neighbor.
I’m convening a Bishop’s Summit on Ministry to the Marginalized on the morning of February 19, 2009, here at the United Methodist Center. If you are working in ministries with those in need, please mark your calendar now.