It never fails that the Sunday of Thanksgiving and The Reign of Christ the King Sunday fall on the same week year after year after year. Yet, every year - without fail, this fact surprises me, catches me off guard and leaves me puzzling about whether to focus on Thanksgiving or Christ the King because surely it would be noisy and disjointed to focus on both. This year, we are going to be noisy and disjointed. No matter which direction we focus, something is missed.
Thanksgiving Day is a day we set aside to be grateful. It is a day we set aside for eating copious amounts of food and watching football. My grandmother would have detailed lists surrounding the preparation and cooking of the Thanksgiving day meal. She would start days and days in advance shopping, chopping, and preparing to make a large, elaborate meal. While the rest of us were sleeping in, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, playing outside and munching on snacks. My grandmother was up before it was light out to put the turkey in the roaster and get the sides put together and inside the oven so that we would have a delicious Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving day meals do not just happen. They are a lot of work. It was my grandmother’s act of hospitality. She worked and worked and planned and prepared so that we enjoy a great meal together. Thanksgiving is also a day of hospitality. A day we open our homes, and set our tables and share a great, meal.
As we come into this space together and regularly gather at the table of the Lord, we also acknowledge that hospitality is part of our life together as well. For early Christians, hospitality was central to their life together. But today, hospitality is understood a little differently. It is a little more of a Disneyfied and Martha Stewartized version of this once radical practice of graciously welcoming one another, especially welcoming the stranger, as God has welcomed us.
Today’s lesson is often talked about as the judgement which will accompany the Reign of Christ. We wonder if we are a sheep or a goat and perhaps even determine the label of those we know because, we believe, there will be a day when some will be labeled sheep and invited closer while others will be labeled goat and sent away. But, what if this parable is not one of judgement. What if this parable is a lesson of encouragement to see, experience, and respond to the world in new ways. What if we are supposed to search the face of every friend and stranger for the aspect of Christ that he or she most uniquely reflects. Indeed, I hear Jesus' words today reminding me that I simply don't know when I will encounter the face of Christ next: thus making nearly all ground holy ground. In the end, maybe that is precisely what Jesus meant for his words to do.
Flannery O’Connor has a short story entitled Revelation about a large Southern woman named Ruby Turpin. Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters she is stuck inside her own narrow way of viewing the world. Ruby believes her actions and decisions are superior to “black people” and those she labels “white trash.” As the story opens, Ruby and her husband Calud enter a crowded Dr’s waiting room. She insists her husband take her chair and immediately notices a dirty toddler with a runny nose lying across two seats. She is appalled that the child’s equally dirty mother does not make him move over so she can sit down.
While in the doctor’s waiting room, Ruby strikes up a conversation with a “pleasant” woman
who is there with her college-aged daughter, Mary Grace. She is studying a book entitled Human Development, and only looks up to glare hatefully at Ruby. Ruby and the pleasant woman chat about the importance of being hard working, clean, and having a good disposition. They also talk about being grateful and how it is important to be thankful for the good things you have been giving in life.
As the pleasant woman and Ruby chat, Mary Grace seems to grow angrier. The pleasant lady begins to speak about Mary Grace in the third person. I know a girl she says in a clearly frustrated voice whose parents would give her anything and this girl should be grateful for all she has in life. Claud then pipes in that the girl ought to be paddled.
Mary Grace becomes outraged at the conversation and throws the Human Development book at Ruby and hits her above the eye. She lunges across a table and grabs Ruby’s throat before she is given a sedative by the doctor. In all of this commotion, Ruby begins to believe that Mary Grace has a message of truth for her. She confronts her before the sedative kicks in saying What you got to say to me? Ruby sees some kind of revelatory light in Mary Grace’s blue eyes. Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog. Whispers Mary Grace as the sedative takes effect and she is taken away.
Ruby finds Mary Grace’s comment to be unsettling and wonders if it may have been a message from God, who may be trying to intervene in her life. She decides she hates that notion and returns home while she is still upset.
Later, she is hosing down her own hogs in their sty while obsessing on what she is terrified may be an intrinsically true message from God. She rants inside herself as she scolds God, demanding to know how she could possibly be the good, upstanding, polite Christian she sees herself to be AND a warthog at the same time.
As rays of the setting sun become a kind of lavender road from the earth to the sky, Ruby has a vision of redeemed souls winding their way to Heaven as if on a highway of crimson light through a field of fire. What is telling about her vision is that she, Claud, and the proper white Christians are at the back of the throng.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom [Ruby] recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything, and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.
Flannery O’Connor’s striking point is that no matter who we are, no matter what we do or have done, there isn’t another line to stand in. Sometimes we identify the least of these as the poor and downtrodden, the outcast. Certainly that was true in Jesus’ context, it was true for Ruby in Flannery O’Connor’s story, and is true for many of us as well. But, scripture does not narrow it’s definition of least of these to the people only those groups. The least of these can be any person or group you scorn, judge, or politely tolerate. For Christ, the least of these is defined as those for whom you feel the least responsible.
Elizabeth Newman reminds us that hospitality is deeper than friendliness and polite niceties. The hospitality of Christ begins in worship where the Children of God are invited and gathered by God. And, in this hospitality, God re-creates Gods children through the people and places we are given. When its all said and done, we will all be sitting at the table of Christ, we are all the least of these - a motley group of the weak & wounded, sick & sore, and especially those for whom we feel the least responsible. What does the hospitality of Christ ask of us? At the very least, we must open our eyes and search the face of all we meet for the face of Christ, we must reach out our hands and realize that the least is not fundamentally different than we are but someone just like us. And when we open our hearts to Christ’s hospitality, we will be re-created.