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Christ the King 2005 -
Don't leave it to others to serve God
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Some months ago I was driving out of Derby with Isobel and just by the one-way system where the A6 and the Kedleston roads meet, we saw an old man lying on the pavement by the side of the road. I wasn’t able to see him properly, but – barely consciously – the thought went through my mind – “he must have had too much to drink – he’ll come round sooner or later” – and I continued to concentrate on the driving. Certainly I’ve become used to seeing dishevelled men sitting on the side of the road in Derby with bottles and cans around them. Isobel, however, said, “Shouldn’t you have stopped? what if he’s had a heart attack?” So I went round the block, found somewhere to stop, and went to have a look at the man. By this time a couple of other people were there, and the man was just awake, muttering incoherently. None of us really knew what to do, but at least he was alive. We stood there for a few minutes, reassuring ourselves that he wasn’t seriously ill, before deciding that it wasn’t really up to us to get involved any more.
The man probably was just coming round again after having had a few too many. But that incident made me think. What if he really had been critically ill? As Isobel said, what if he had been a diabetic and was in hypoglaecemic shock? What if it really was up to me – and the other two people who’d stopped – to keep him alive and get him to hospital? It made me realise how tempting it is to “walk by on the other side”. No doubt in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite also had their reasons for not stopping to help. It is so easy to find instant reasons for not getting involved – the most attractive probably being “it’s not my responsibility – someone else is better able to help than I am” – or “there’s probably nothing seriously wrong anyway”.
Something similar happened more recently. You may have seen the woman who sits near Boots selling the Big Issue. A man from Southampton who had been visiting Ashbourne emailed me one day to say that he had seen this woman, and wondered why the churches couldn’t do anything to help. This was someone who hadn’t walked by on the other side – he had noticed a person in need, realised that he couldn’t do anything long-term to help, as he didn’t live locally, and so he took the initiative of finding my email address and contacting me. I wrote back to him saying that I thought that this woman was one of those people from Eastern Europe who are dropped off in Ashbourne by a minibus which is run by a refugee support charity, and who are picked up in the evening and taken back to their home or hostel – possibly quite a distance from Ashbourne. So there was probably a limit to what we could do here (and we had in fact tried to help another such refugee with gifts of money and food).
Since then, however, I haven’t seen this woman. I have given her a little money in the past, and once bought her some soup and a roll. But the email from this man in Southampton made me wonder – ‘what if something has happened to her? what if she has become ill or been sent back to the country she came from?’ I realised that I had seen her several times without stopping, and begun to assume that, as in the case of the man in Derby, I couldn’t do any more. It was someone else’s responsibility.
We’ve just heard the well-known account of Jesus, returning to earth in judgement, separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus was referring to the fact that in ancient Israel, the custom was to keep goats inside at night, and to leave the sheep outside. So at the end of the day the shepherd would separate them from each other, and make sure that each was in the right place for the night.
But of course this parable is not really about sheep and goats. Jesus is saying that we will be judged by how we respond to the needs of those in distress. In caring for others we are in fact caring for Jesus, who said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me”. In the same way, when we fail to show this care to those whom Jesus calls ‘his brothers’ we fail to do it for him.
The problem of course is to know where we should draw the line. When it is up to us to help someone in need, and when isn’t it? When is it best to keep a distance, knowing that we don’t have the expertise to help in a particular situation, and may actually make things worse or get in the way? When is it best to leave it to the professionals? There are good reasons, then, for not rushing in to help everyone we see who is in need – not least because we might be being driven more by our own feeling that we need to help, than for the real help we can bring.
Good reasons for not getting involved, though, have a tendency to turn – without our realising it – into arguments we use to ourselves to justify our taking the easy way out. And before we know it, we have developed a habit of walking by on the other side – of not really caring.
Today is the Sunday before Advent, known as the Feast Day of Christ the King. It is the day on which we remember and celebrate that Christ is King of the whole of creation – the eternal Christ who came to earth for a brief period to show the world the way to God, and to open the doors of salvation for all those who believe in him. But he is also known as the “servant King” – because, as he said, he came ‘not to be served but to serve’. And perhaps the most telling example of this was the time when he washed the feet of the disciples, a job normally done by a slave. The gospels also describe many times when Jesus did not walk by on the other side – but stopped to heal those who were blind, crippled, possessed by evil spirits, or suffering from other conditions.
And the reason why we heard the reading about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats today is that it is about Jesus’ call to each one of us to follow him, the servant King, by doing what we can to serve those who are in distress – and by serving such people we are, as Jesus said, serving him. Now it’s easy to hear this and say to ourselves, “Well, that’s OK, I’m a caring kind of person, I give to charity, and there are plenty of people I help”. But the reason I talked earlier about the man lying on the pavement in Derby and the woman selling the Big Issue in Ashbourne is that it is always so tempting to go only so far, and no more. What if my decision not to stop for the man in Derby had resulted in him never becoming conscious again? What if the woman in Ashbourne had one day decided to kill herself because nobody seemed to care?
So the message on this Sunday of Christ the King is that there may be more times than we realise when it is up to us to help and that our initial reaction to people in need shouldn’t quite so often be to leave it to somebody else. It may just be that we have been put in the right place at the right time to make a critical difference. And if that doesn’t prove to be the case, then nothing is lost - except perhaps some of our fear of the unknown.
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