I think we have a problem when we talk about Jesus as our king — analogous, perhaps, to the problem we have when we talk about gospel love.  We simply don’t use the words “king” and “love” the way Jesus used them.

For us, in every day American English, the word “love” is about what we feel.  For Jesus, the word “love” was an action verb about what we do.  We want to pair the words “love” and “hate” as opposites.  I suspect pairing the words “love” and “kill” would come closer to being opposites, as Jesus used the word “love.”  Because when you kill something, you understand that you are doing something to it.  And when you love someone, Jesus understands that we are doing something for them.  Both of them are action verbs.

I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that will make us hear the word “love” as Jesus used it, rather than how we use it today.  But we can at least be aware that there is a difference.  We might do better if every time we heard the word “love” in the Bible we substituted the words “took care of”  — like a mother takes care of her newborn — nurturing and bringing life.

Jesus mostly talked about himself as a servant. even a suffering servant, bearing the load for others — loving them — taking care of them.  Later Christians are the ones, really, who applied the word “king” to Jesus.  But Jesus did talk about the coming of the “Son of Man” in power and glory and judgement in the fulness of time.  And that does sound a lot like an ancient king.

Yet that’s not how Jesus lived his life.  That’s not the kind of life Jesus modeled for us and commanded us to live.  He commanded us to love and serve each other.  And he modeled that for us in his life.

So what are we to make of today’s parable of the sheep and the goats?

Fr. Dennis Linn, in the book Good Goats, talks about addressing the meaning of this parable with a bunch of retired Roman Catholic nuns during a retreat.  He asked the whole group:  “‘How many of you, even once in your life, have done what Jesus asks at the beginning of that passage and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison?’  All the sisters raised their hands.  Dennis said, ‘That’s wonderful!  You’re all sheep.’

Then Dennis asked, ‘How many of you, even once in your life, have walked by a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison?’  Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands.  Dennis said, ‘That’s too bad.  You’re all goats.’

The sisters looked worried and perplexed.  Then suddenly one very old sister’s hand shot up.  She blurted out, ‘I get it!  We’re all good goats!’”

One of the more fruitful ways to approach a bible passage is to imagine yourself in the story — to imagine what you would be feeling and seeing and saying and doing.  And the truth is, we can be sheep, and we can be goats.  Depending on the day and hour and minute in our life when we’re asked, we will identify differently at different times.

Pastor Holly Feather, from my lectionary study group, suggested yet another possible identification.  She suggested that we might most usefully self identify as one of the least of these — one of the naked or hungry or sick or imprisoned.  How many of us, even once in our life, have been in that position?  I’m betting that’s all of us too.

Robert A. Johnson, in his book Balancing Heaven and Earth, talks about how puzzled he was for many years that so many of the poorest of the poor who were his friends in India were happy, when there seemed to be so little for them to be happy about.  Eventually he learned that they had a kind of happiness that was beyond the vagaries of fortune or possession.  “The will of God is theirs for the simple coin of faith, and nothing can take that away from even the lowliest beggar … [nothing] can defeat the certainty that one is somehow carrying out the will of God …”

They, these desperately poor friends of his in India, are living lives where Jesus is their king.  Because they are living out the will of God.  Jesus makes a difference in their lives.  It is the difference between living lives of hopeless desperation and living lives of joyful fulfillment.  They look to Jesus in their lives, because they know they have nowhere else to turn.

James Russell Lowell, in his poem His Throne Is with the Outcast, talks about Jesus as “the King I sought” and found in a rude hovel with a naked hungry child clinging to him and a poor hunted slave who looked up at him to bless the smile that set him free.  Sometimes, at least, I think that’s how each and every one of us sees Jesus — as the smile that sets us free.  Lowell concludes his poem:

“I knelt and wept:  my Christ no more I seek.
His throne is with the outcast and the weak.”

Sometimes that’s us.  All of the roles we find in the parable undoubtably fit us at one time or another in our lives.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to serve and to be served in turn.  For all Jesus came to serve, he also came as a newborn baby who had to be clothed and fed.  During his life he often ate because of the generosity of others.  He was anointed for burial and laid to rest because of the care others had for him.  I find myself thinking of the words in The Servant Song:  “Brother, [Sister,] let me be your servant.  Let me be as Christ to you.  Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”

I say this to you in the Name of God:  Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.