Ezek. 34: 11-16, 20-24
The other day, I woke up and I went to pour myself a bowl of cereal and the expiration date on the carton of milk caught my eye. It said November 28. Can you believe it? Can you believe that it’s almost the end of November? It feels like time is flying by! Here we are, almost to Thanksgiving. In our liturgical calendar, Advent starts next week, which means that today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in our liturgical year. In other words, today is New Year’s Eve, as far as our lectionary calendar is concerned, and I want to take a moment to reflect on the past year with you.
This year has been an exciting year in the life of this congregation. In addition to upholding important traditions, such as gathering around the Christmas tree and singing carols, the Children’s Christmas Pageant and offering gifts to the missions we are invested in, we started off last year’s Advent by trying a few new things. On Wednesday nights, we gathered for a simple dinner and an in depth discussion on what it means to prepare for Christ to be in our midst. We incorporated a ‘Lessons and Carols’ service into our Sunday worship. And, we worshipped together, seeking God’s light in the midst of the darkness of the season in a Blue Christmas service. This appreciation for traditions and openness to newness set the tone for the rest of the year, and I, for one, have had a wonderful time witnessing the creative Spirit among us.
As we journeyed through Christmas and Epiphany, we gathered in small groups, over meals in homes and we shared with one another, more intimately, why we worship and what this community of Western Church means to us as individuals and families.
During Lent, we gathered on Sunday nights and we explored various spiritual practices – walking the labyrinth, painting, writing, singing, praying. The Deacons began bringing communion to our homebound members, and the mission committee swelled with enthusiasm to discern the passions of the congregation moving forward. At the end of the semester, the doors of the church were opened and this congregation surrounded the students of GW with prayerful support as they studied for exams in our quiet space in this building.
Easter came and as we celebrated the empty tomb, the resurrection of the body, this community celebrated the ministry of ministers past, honoring what was and has been and we grew energized about looking ahead to the new thing God is doing in our midst.
And then Pentecost came and this community spent the remainder of the year actively discerning the presence and will of God, listening for guidance and wisdom and acting on that voice.
This congregation sent a team of 7 on a mission trip to the Appalachian region for a week to insulate a room in the home of a family with whom we built a relationship – this church’s first mission trip in over a decade. This congregation partnered with Miriam’s Kitchen and the National Capital Presbytery to support the Young Adult Volunteer Program and have provided a church home for Mallory. Church finance conversations have been percolating here for 20 years, and this year, the Session intentionally is leading and fostering the finance conversation among us in a new and dynamic way in order to discern how we might be good stewards of God’s gifts. Five seventh and eighth graders began their Confirmation Class this year – embarking on a journey of exploration of their faith and of the faith of this church. On a sadder note, this congregation lost 5 members over the last year. In the midst of the sadness, this congregation celebrated together the gifts of their lives that God bestowed upon us with tender compassion. And, again, pastoral leadership transitions marked this year, as it did in years past, yet the refrain of “God’s steadfast love endures forever” rang through consistently and faithfully this year. This year has been an exciting year and I encourage you also to ponder the year behind us as we prepare for another year ahead. And, I want to encourage you to do so through the lens of our text for this morning.
Our text this morning comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew – our final reading of the Gospel of Matthew for the next 2 years or so. I encourage you to hear these final words that Jesus offers just before the Passion narrative and reflect on how you have experienced the kingdom of God over the past year and how you might into the future.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, startle us. Surprise us with your love. Amen.
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Deep breath. OK – Sheep and goats, eternal life and eternal punishment – this is the only detailed depiction of the final judgment, or the “end times,” in the New Testament. We’re not accustomed to texts like this – particularly out of the mouth of Jesus. But here we are. We have been journeying through Matthew all year long from the countryside to the city and we have listened as Jesus taught from the Sermon on the Mount through the parables to the Temple in Jerusalem. And, now, we have these last public words of Jesus before Christ’s death and resurrection. So, let’s dig in.
On this Christ the King Sunday, the text begins with an image of grandeur. Jesus tells the disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” We can picture this text, can’t we? We can easily imagine what this would look like – a king on a throne in the sky, billowing clouds emerging from beneath with rays of sunlight emanating from behind. All peoples gathered before the throne and divided into groups of good and bad. This is what was expected. This is what the people were waiting for. They had every expectation that the coming of the Lord would be a grand, awe-inspiring event, in which the Lord would identify the righteous and punish the unrighteous. A savior in the form of extravagant greatness who delivers swift justice in terms as clear-cut as diamond on glass. So, Jesus starts with this image. He starts with the image they were – and frankly we are – expecting and preoccupied with, and Jesus then spends the rest of his account of the kingdom reorienting us to the kingdom of God that is.
“What you have done to the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.” In one fell swoop, Jesus turns the human expectation of divine judgment on its head. As we hear in the text, those who the king claims will enter the kingdom did not know that when they served the marginalized, when they had served Jesus. In the same way, the ones who were condemned to punishment were unaware that they had not served God. Within the parable, those who sat on either the right or the left, those that were the sheep and the goat, were all surprised to learn of the king’s presence in the lowly. “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” “When was it that we saw you imprisoned and did not take care of you?” Regardless of individual behavior, everyone in the text today—and perhaps we can empathize—everyone was surprised by Jesus’s description of the Christ coming in glory. And once again, as we have seen throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the people of God are surprised by the dynamic and creative realm of God in their midst.
The acts Jesus uses in this text are simple and known across human experience, in all times and in all places. These are experiences of the world – experiences such as hunger and thirst, sickness and imprisonment. And, it is in these places, Jesus tells us, where God resides. God is not sitting on a throne in the sky – God is within the walls of the prison. God is not sitting upon a great judges bench, but rather God dwells within the charts in a doctor’s office and between the barbed wire of borders. These are the places where the kingdom of God breaks forth, and these are the places where we find the coming of the glory of the Lord. Jesus draws our attention and love to these places, as we seek the kingdom of God.
This is an incredible revelation – and, despite being a social justice-oriented community – I think it is often hard for us to acknowledge the truth and power in this revelation. It is often easier to believe in God as a great judge who clearly draws lines between the good and the bad. After all, we generally feel like we are good, caring church people. We may feel that if God draws a line between good and bad, we would fall safely in the ‘good’ camp. We often want the kingdom of God to exclude all of the messiness of this world. We want the kingdom of God to be peaceful and pristine. But that is not the message Jesus shares through our text today. Instead, Jesus provides a message that is far more realistic, beautiful and hopeful and applicable to our lives today – because the kingdom of God is not simply a throne in the sky in some far distant land in some time yet to come. Rather, God enters into our broken world and loves us here, building up the kingdom of God with us. God chooses to enter into the ambiguity of life, the reality of humanity, the experiences of life that we would rather leave behind, and Jesus kindly shepherds us with generous love. Jesus invites us to be participants in God’s vision of the kingdom. Jesus challenges us to hope for more than we could have imagined because God has equipped us for more than we expect, even without our knowing. Jesus helps us understand that it is here, among the faces of the ones who need compassion and care, where God dwells and reigns in glory.
So, what does this mean for us as a community of faith? Occupied with our piety, our orthodoxy, our governance, our creeds, our theology, we spend much time seeking to define these structures in an effort to be among the sheep. But here, Jesus offers only one criterion – one criterion offered as the mark of faithfulness. The one criterion is whether or not you recognized Jesus in the face of the one who needs you, and served them before yourself. The one criterion is freely sharing love of God which has been so generously imparted on us by God, regardless of whether we know it or not. It is not simply being a moral person and tending to the vulnerable. And, this has implications for us as a Church – meaning, church with a big ‘c’ – and this has implications for us as a community of faith.
On the grand scheme, we as a community of faith are called to pay attention to our neighbor. We are called to see the presence of God within the needs of the world and to serve our brothers and sisters well. The resource of love and compassion is provided for us by God and we are gifted with the opportunity to steward God’s resource generously among the community. Jesus calls us to engage in the work of justice – to work to make homelessness a thing of the past; to engage in immigration reform and seek always to welcome strangers into our midst; We are called to accompany those who ail and support the efforts of providing equal access to medical care for all; We have no excuse for ignoring the imprisoned and we are called to labor towards a fairer world. We, as a community of Christian faith within our society are called to attend to, to engage with, to participate in creating solutions that honor all human beings. This is our big picture of ‘what we have done to the least of these, we have done it to God.’ It’s not about simply being educated and knowing these neighbors exist. It is about actively following the Great Shepherd into places of brokenness so that we all can be made whole.
But for as much as this text speaks to the startling and unexpected places where the kingdom of God breaks through in the world, this text is also about us as individuals and our intimate relationship with God. As John Buchanan, a beloved retired pastor of Fourth Church in Chicago, says, “God is not [just] a social engineer, but a God of love who wants to save our souls…God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love, God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.” The power of our text this morning is that Jesus calls us to care more about others than about our own righteousness. Because when we stop worrying about ourselves, and start to engage in the messy, self-sacrificial love of others, we might experience the everlasting love of God, we might experience the kingdom of God here and now, we might glimpse the coming of the glory of the Lord as we love and serve.
And so as we reflect on the year behind us, where and in whom have you witnessed the glory of the Lord breaking through? And as you look ahead to the year to come, where will you seek God? Amen.