A famous scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" shows two grimy peasants digging in a field. One of them sees King Arthur.
"There goes the King."
"How do you know he's the King?"
"'Cause he's the only one who hasn't got shit all over him."
We do prefer our kings and queens to look the part -- powerful, dignified, clothed in a way befitting their station.
But what Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday is that his presence among us is going to be in the guise -- the distressing guise, as Mother Teresa put it -- of people who look more like those ordure-caked peasants than like the triumphant Christus Rex many of our churches have suspended over their altars.
Want to see Jesus? Look at the Sudanese woman gang-raped and beaten by Jenjaweed thugs on a furtive trip to the well to get water for her family, whose plight has fallen off our radar because we've moved on to the next International Tragedy Du Jour. Want to be with Jesus? Spend some time with the poor family who've not only lost their apartment lease in New Orleans but are also being kicked out of their evacuee apartment because they haven't received their FEMA check on time. Want to honor Jesus? Go to a hospice and sit with a dying person who garners little sympathy from the public because his illness has been judged to be his own fault, whose Medicaid benefits are in jeopardy from a taxpaying public who are tired of dealing with him and people like him.
Jesus is the crazy woman wandering the alley behind the supermarket, staving off alien death rays as she forages for discarded food. Jesus is the bleeding Iraqi in triage, who may be a terrorist or may be "collateral damage." Jesus is the abused child cowering under a chair as she hears the approaching footsteps of her abuser. Jesus is the angry, scapegoating small-town guy with no job, no skills and a family to support in a new economic reality that doesn't need him. Jesus is the hooker sitting in jail until her pimp bails her out. Jesus is the chemically ravaged, hollow-eyed scarecrow of a human being tweaking on a park bench.
Today's lesson is sometimes read as a prooftext for a works-based spiritual meritocracy -- what my friend Cory calls "earning points by doing stuff." But if you read closely, the "sheep" -- the people doing all the good stuff -- are unaware of what they've done. Their Good Works Meter hasn't been running; they haven't been keeping score. Why? Because they do what they do out of love. Dumb, crazy love. The same kind of love that would lead a God to empty Godsself of divine prerogative and become one of us, just to show us that God isn't some impersonal bundle of energies or dispassionate Cosmic Watchmaker. Sisters and brothers of Christ, members and co-inheritors of the household of God, share the family value of loving freely and extravagantly.
Christians who affirm the historic creeds affirm the idea that someday, in the denouement of our history, Christ will return -- will be present to all in a definitive, unmistakable way. And when that happens, what he will care about is not "What did you do?" but "How did you love?" The paradox is that such a love is not something we work ourselves into, but rather something that is worked into us by the Holy Spirit as we allow ourselves to be led in a Godward direction, following the lead of our King. When I examine my own "generosity of eye" in seeing Jesus around me, I know that, oftentimes, my spiritual myopia clouds my vision -- especially, ironically, when looking at the people closest to me -- but I also know that, as the saying goes, the Great Physician isn't finished with me yet. In the words of the hymn, In your hearts enthrone him/there let him subdue/all that is not holy/all that is not true/crown him as your captain/in temptation's hour/let his will enfold you/in its light and pow'r.
Artwork: "Christ the King," sculpture by Jean Julien Bourgault; "Lord of the Universe," William Morris stained glass, Calvary Episcopal Church, Summit, NJ, at Stained Glass Photography