This week I finished Sally Quinn’s memoir of faith called, “Finding Magic.” Quinn has led a fascinating life – the child of an army general, journalist and socialite in New York and DC, founding a website for the Washington Post on issues of faith, caring for a child with multiple physical and developmental complications, taking care of a husband, the famous Post editor Ben Bradlee, dying of Alzheimer’s. She’s had ample opportunity for herself and in conversation with others to engage life’s biggest and most important questions.
Sally and her mother stayed with family in Statesboro, Georgia, during World War II, and she remembers going to church, saying her prayers at night. Her father, a colonel in the army, had arrived in Dachau the day after liberation. He had a staff photographer with him and had begun to document the atrocities. Some he had put into scrapbooks he brought home with him, pictures of immense, unmentionable suffering in the concentration camps. Soon after, the family moved to Washington, and her father kept the scrapbooks in a small study off the living room. “I was four years old when I found them. They were in black cloth covers with strings holding them together. I don’t remember how many. No writing on them. No explanations. Just the pictures. That was enough.” The bodies. The death. She finally got up the courage to ask her mother, and later her father brought her in the study and they sat and looked at them together. After a bit, she writes, I asked him a last question. “Did God know about this?
In that moment, she says, her world was shattered. “God – kind, loving, all-knowing, powerful God – had let this happen. Those people must have been praying too. Their children must have been praying. Why should I think [God] loves me, cares about me, wants me to be happy?… Suddenly, it became clear to me…I quit saying my prayers. There was no God.”
Quinn had drawn a line. It’s one that many draw, at the heart of an ultimately unanswerable question that all of us, I suspect, still wrestle with. How does suffering and pain like this happen? Is God either limited in goodness or limited in power? Why Dauchau, why cancer, why abuse and assault and violence and war?
The Bible wrestles with this central question of theodicy in different ways, often arguing with itself. In some places good things happen to people who follow the law of God, bad things to the unfaithful. In some places bad things remain a mystery. In some – I’m thinking of parts of Ecclesiastes – it’s meaningless, it’s all vanity. In some places the God of the exodus and the exile wanders with us. In some places God upholds us, watching over the poor and the weak, the widow and the orphan and the outcast, making all things new. In the New Testament, we Christians welcome the God who joined us in this exhausting, beautiful mess. Jesus came, born in a stable with parents on a journey without a place to stay. This Jesus continues to accompany us from the very heart of our experience – the best, and the worst, this life has to offer.
This shows us that God isn’t at some far-off remove, presiding from a distance, deciding what strings to pull and where to jump in with a miracle. God journeys with us in a personal, intimate way, all the way to the cross. On that cross God draws the line in a different place, turning our questions of theodicy on their side. God says that I triumph over all of this death by first entering into, then by rising on that first Easter. Victory is proclaimed, but we know not complete. Even though in Christ God has triumphed over sin and death, we know hurt doesn’t disappear. We can’t dismiss it in a blithe, flip, “God does these things for a reason” kind of way. Yet we fiercely proclaim that the God who has come to earth, who was raised from the dead, journeys with us toward hope, equipping us in the HERE and NOW, as we do everything we can to follow him, as we reach for the day when God will break in and wipe every tear.
But in today’s text – and I’d argue in the Gospels more fully – Jesus wants to point us to yet another way to draw the line. Tom Long writes that, “In Matthew, Jesus is the great teacher, and this parable is his…the parting lesson…” Right after this, things tumble toward Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest. When the Son of Man comes, he says, angels surround the throne. The camera pans back, nations gathered. The Son of Man begins to separate, as a shepherd the sheep from the goats. You, over here…. you two, that way…. Those listening wonder: How do these lines get drawn? Who goes where? Are the sheep the ones who believe the right things? Folks who seem to have it together, who work the hardest, make the most?
The King stands. Come…For…. I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. Imagine how surprising these categories would be, how surprising they remain, in our world where cameras follow celebrities around for doing nothing, as we desire more and more, the spoils going to the proud, the loud, the forceful. The righteous saw a brother or sister anywhere: in the pew beside you – take a moment and look around – in the shelter line, on the street, under a bridge, in the jail downtown…as someone who mattered, as a human being, a creation, beloved of God, worthy of care. Truly I tell you, the king says, whenever you cared for any one of these, you cared for me.
The king continues. YOU, he says to those on his left, the goats, in the judgment pile, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and no drink, a stranger and naked and sick and in prison, the exact same list we have heard twice and will hear again, and you did nothing. Everyone stands in silence for a moment, then the sputtering begins….but, but, but, king, I mean, when was it that we saw You in any of those circumstances, we didn’t see YOU, I mean, we saw them, but that is them, those people, not YOU. We would have noticed you. We didn’t see YOU. “Truly I tell you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away, Jesus says, into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. When the Son of Man comes, Jesus says, this is where the lines will be drawn.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final day in the church year. Christ the King has its genesis through the decree of Pope Pius XI in 1925 who called for a special service in order “to celebrate the kingship of Christ as a way of combating the destructive forces of this age.” Coming off a devastating world war – the war to end all wars that we know didn’t – the pope felt called to have the church proclaim who was REALLY in charge. Because with all of the divisions and brokenness we see, we wonder. We are a people who draw lines, who sort in and out.
As Jill Duffield writes: “Migrant, refugee, undocumented, citizen, rich, poor, worthy, unworthy, in, out, welcomed, excluded, Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, free – the categories we impose and enforce are endless. God’s categories, on the other hand, are limited to two: those who fed, clothed, cared, visited and those who did not. Apparently, how Christ our King sees and sorts us depends upon how we saw and sorted others.
Did we see and respond with compassion to “the least of these”?
Did we see the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick, and treat them as we’d treat our King, or did we put them in another category entirely?
When the time comes, that’s the only test question we will have had to answer correctly – not with our words, but with our lives.
Regardless of the important questions we have and ask, questions that remain. Regardless of all the lines we draw. Serving others, relentlessly living a life FOR OTHERS, is how we proclaim who is truly king, who is REALLY in charge.
That is how God measures us, Jesus says in his final parable. Might we be given the courage and the faith to proclaim this One, Christ the King, in the hungry and the homeless, in the outcast and the despised, the widow and the orphan and the refugee. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Sally Quinn, Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir, (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), pages 19-21
 Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), pp 283-284.
 From the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s paper on this text at the 2012 gathering of The Well, in Austin.
 From the Rev. Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook – Looking into the lectionary for November 26, 2017