Sermon preached at Church of the Holy Cross in Murfreesboro, TN on 11/23/14 (Proper 29A) by the Rev. Katie Hargis.
Here we are. The last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday! The year has gone by fast, hasn’t it? In the last few weeks of Year A in the lectionary cycle, we’ve been reading the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and listening to Jesus give his disciples some farewell instructions before he faces his death. He’s been telling them to be prepared for his return, something they never will know when to expect, an event that may come suddenly, or may be delayed. In either case, he says, be wise, be watchful, be ready. And during that “meantime,” don’t just sit around waiting. Use the gifts God has given you, like bold and enterprising stewards, so that they multiply for the sake of the reign of God. Don’t just sit on what God has given you.
As we reflect on the scripture from this last Sunday in the liturgical year, we can see hope. It is simultaneously a looking back and a looking forward, isn’t it? A chance to look back on the year and imagine where, why, and when Christ’s ideal of the world has had power in our lives. At the same time, it is an invitation to look forward and see how you want that to be true.
So while we reflect on this Gospel reading, maybe this is an opportunity for us to construct New Year’s resolutions. Don’t wait until January. Make this Sunday the New Year’s resolution Sunday! Look back on God’s reign in your life and imagine how you want to be a citizen in the Kingdom of God, filled with hope. Just think about it.
Where is the house in your neighborhood where all of the kids play? The place where there seems to be either a mom with unlimited patience or one who is on Valium?
Think for a moment about that house; where was it when you were growing up? For me, it was my house. Our house was a white, single story, 100 year old farmhouse sitting on more than an entire acre of land (about 8 city lots) right in the middle of town, about 4 blocks away from the school. We had 20ish trees in the yard, great for climbing, a great big open space that worked as our football/soccer field, a cement basketball court that doubled as our small rollerblade hockey rink, a wooden playhouse, and a toy room separate from the rest of the house, where we held lots of dance parties there growing up. I don’t know how many kids would go through our yard in a week, but I do remember that my mom was never flustered by all of the scraped knees, games of cops and robbers, and intense sports games. She always seemed to maintain calm…no matter how rowdy we were.
Now that I’m grown up, I recognize what a gift she gave us by letting us take over the house and yard. There had to have been times when she wanted peace and quiet, but she gave that up. She knew, not just that we needed a place to go, but we needed a safe place to go…a place we could feel non-threatened. A place where we could be free to be kids, with everything that meant. When my brother and I were walking home from school, we didn’t hesitate to invite random kids over. “Come on over….Mom won’t mind!” Never did we worry that our mom would turn to us and say “Hey, that’s one kid too many, everyone needs to go home.” There was more than enough room and more than enough grace to go around. It was truly a great place to be. A little taste of heaven…if I get in, that is…
Today’s passage from Matthew gives us glimpse of those who get in to heaven, and those who don’t. Matthew gives us a glimpse of….(insert scary music here)….Judgement day!
Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is clear cut. The sheep are on the right, the goats are on the left. Jesus affirms the sheep, “You guys did great! When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink, you clothed me, you visited me in prison. Good job!”
The sheep look back at Jesus, “When did we do all of those things for you. We don’t remember that!” But Jesus says, “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” And the sheep look at each other confused.
Then Jesus looks at the goats on his left. Instead of affirmation, they get admonished! “You guys really messed up. I was hungry and you didn’t feed me, I was thirsty, you didn’t give me drink…(long pause, so Jesus continues)… you never visited me, you didn’t give me anything to wear.”
The goats look back at Jesus, “When did we not do these things? We never even saw you!”
But Jesus tells them, “You didn’t do it for the least of these, therefore you never did it for me.” (the goats look at each other, confused.)
You know, as many times as I have heard this story, I can never get past a couple of things. First of all, if all of the nations of the world are being judged. ALL the people….who are the “least of these”? Are they up there getting judged too? Second, both the sheep and goats are blindsided by Jesus’ statements, and consequently, at where they will spend eternity.
If this is really a judgement story, as I have been told all of my life, wouldn’t we understand what we are being judged on? As much as I can buy that Jesus may have to point out to us where we messed up, would he really have to tell us where we did well? After all, if we are part of the kingdom of God, part of the elect, part of the group Jesus died for, shouldn’t we be aware of what we’re doing to insure that we get into heaven in the end? What makes the sheep so special that they automatically get in, especially when they didn’t even realize they were doing the right things?
I believe it comes down to one word. Security.
Through the Old Testament, through the Prophets and into the New Testament, God’s people are called sheep. So, who are the sheep on the right? God’s people. The one’s Jesus died for. The ones who have been made righteous before God. The ones who have been set apart as a royal priesthood. That’s us!
I believe that Jesus is saying to God’s people through this passage, “This is how my sheep act. Here is what they should be. Here is how they treat others. And how it looks when they minister to the least of these.”
Yet, personally I feel so far from that. Not that I don’t help others but there are times when I help someone, that I walk away and tell myself what a good person I am. Or I give a dollar to a homeless person and feel so pumped up about my good deed as I make my way to my warm house and a full dinner.
And I tell myself, that I can’t do anymore. Then I read this passage. God, I really am a goat! I’m never going to get it. My intentions might be good when it comes right down to it, I don’t want to be uncomfortable either. Even my meager generosity is really just a camouflage for my selfishness.
But come one! You can almost sympathize with the goats, can’t you? They were shocked too, just like the sheep. They didn’t know they were hurting Jesus. And even after they are cast into the gnashing of teeth place, there is nothing in the text to say that they understood what had just happened. And not for nothin’…how much is enough to give anyway? How many homeless can you really help make a difference with? And aren’t we supposed to be able to enjoy life without embracing poverty ourselves?
Here’s the difference, at least in the best way I can understand this passage. I don’t think it’s how many people we can give to, or how many homeless we help, or whether or not we give everything away. The point is we need to recognize that we are sheep!
Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no.
Lets think about sheep. How do sheep behave with the shepherd? First, they are totally dependent on the shepherd. I don’t know if they realize that as sheep, but I know that the shepherd is there to protect them from predators, make sure they arrive to the grazing grass safely, get enough to eat and enough water to drink. Without the shepherd leading them, they would be at the mercy of their own will. Unprotected, lost.
Another interesting thing about sheep. They never worry about whether or not the shepherd will take care of them or whether the shepherd loves them. They already know he loves them. That knowledge brings a freedom that enables them to be relaxed, free from fear, from worry, from trying to insure a place with the shepherd. They are secure in both who they are and whose they are.
Oh to have that kind of security!
But in truth, that is the kind of security that God offers us. What would you be like or how differently would you behave if you truly knew your place in the kingdom of God was secure and that you couldn’t lose it? Oh, I know that’s what we’re taught. That there’s nothing we can do to earn salvation, keep it, or lose it. Well, then why don’t we act that way? Why do we continue to hurt each other? Why do we want to exclude people that don’t fit our view of a good Christian type of person?
If we were truly secure in God’s love, if we were so secure in the fact that God’s love for us was unconditional, we would be free to truly love and wouldn’t have to think about comparing ourselves to others, pointing out what others are doing wrong. You see, we would be like the kids going to the house in the neighborhood where all of the kids play! We would be inviting people along the way, because we know there is room for everyone there. We would know that everyone is welcome and everyone is included!
So what about the feeding when hungry, and the giving drinks to those who thirst? Well, that is a natural result of living in security. You know you will always have your needs met, so it doesn’t matter what you give away. You are sure that the shepherd will care for all of you, and that since everything we have comes from God, we aren’t concerned about what we will put on, or what we will wear. We know that God will provide. And better than that, is that in feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, we are sharing Christ with them. We are able to minister to Christ when we allow ourselves to minister to others.
And it’s not about helping others in order to get recognition or to say, “Look God, see what I did for you?” Or even secretly saying, “WOW! I did a great thing for the kingdom today by going to that soup kitchen.”
When you are truly secure in your own place with God, you don’t worry about helping because you think you’re picking up recognition or eternal merit. You help because you can’t stop yourself. Because it’s the natural, instinctive, response of a loving heart touched by the love of Christ.
While I can choose to continue to measure myself by this passage, and name all of the ways I don’t live up to Jesus’ description of the sheep I’m supposed to be, I choose instead to listen to the words of Jesus, confronting me as HIS sheep. Pushing and nudging me onward, saying, “Come on Katie, we’re going to do this again, I’m showing you all of me, bit by bit. You’re still mine, still in the fold, no threats. I don’t work that way. It’s called love. Take more of it, so you have more to give out. I love you. I accept you, even with your faults. You are my sheep.”
Wow. After hearing all of that, these could be some seriously different New Year’s resolutions. And at the heart of what Christ the King is all about. That God’s reign in our lives matters. That we are so deeply a part of this. That God calls us to a different way of being in the world.
At the end of the day, to claim Christ as King, to believe in God’s reign, has to be a claim on our present, and not just the future glory of “thy kingdom come.” That how we decide to live matters. Not just for ourselves. Not just for those immediately around us. But for the sake of procuring the reign of Christ here and now.