Sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Christ Church, Wayside (Newburg, MD) on November 26, 2017
Last Sunday after Pentecost/Christ the King (Proper 29) Year A, RCL: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps. 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of Pentecost, and the final Sunday of our Church Year. Today is a day for remembering – remembering that as this year ends, as with the End of the Age, Christ our King rules victorious over all of creation.
In the first reading, Israel’s kings had proven to be bad shepherds. Ezekiel declares that the Lord will assume the role of shepherd in Israel. The Lord will also set over them a shepherd-messiah, “my servant David,” who will feed and care for the people.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, God is praised for revealing ultimate divine power in raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrected, exalted Christ is Lord both church and the entire universe, now and in the age to come.
Lastly, our gospel reading from Matthew is Jesus’ great story of judgment. Our Lord compares himself to a king who moves among his subjects to see how he is treated: what is done for the least of those who belong to his family is truly done to him. In the end, the faithful are those who served Christ by ministering to those who are poor, hungry, naked, sick, or estranged.
In the Bible, written within a culture that treasured its pastoral past, sheep and goats are images of the life God gives to the people.
Sheep were important for Israelite economy, culture, and religion and were kept in herds, or folds, the size of which depended on available space and resources such as water and grazing land. Sheep were raised for their milk, meat, dung (for fuel) and wool. As valuable commodities and essential to survival, sheep were considered a focus of Israelite law and of the system of sacrifices and offerings.
The Goat was just as important to Israelite economy and culture as the sheep. There were three type of goat common to the region: Bedouin or black goats, Damascene goats which were reddish-brown, and the Baalbak goat with its black and white hair. Goats are not selective in their diet, they mature quickly, and are a good source of milk, meat, and hair. Young male goats played an important role as part of the sin-offering, in burnt offerings, and as peace offerings.
This is Jesus’ most explicit ‘word-picture’ of the Last Judgment, of how common kindness will affect our standing in the Eternal World. Here in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, he talks of those who is bound for Heaven and those who are doomed to Hell.
There’s that theme of separation again – like wheat from the chaff. Jesus divides humanity into two ‘teams’: The Sheep and the Goats. The sheep that go to his “right hand” are declared “blessed” by their Father, and “inherit the kingdom prepared for them since the foundation of the world.” When it is all said and done, they go into “eternal life.”
The “goats,” on the other hand, aren’t quite as fortunate. They go to his “left hand” and are declared “accursed,” and are relegated to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” for an eternity of “punishment.”
So, let’s pause for a moment as we ask ourselves: ‘Which team would you rather be on?’ I think Jesus makes this choice a pretty easy one, even if you think sheep are stupid and smelly, and goats are smart and cute. But the more important question is, ‘How do we get on the sheep team?’ How do we get picked for sheep duty? Well, the Good News is that Jesus tells us in detail.
“…for 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Folks who do such good things as these get to play on the Sheep team, where the signing bonuses are out of this world.
The “goats,” on the other hand, let hungry people go hungry. They don’t bother giving thirsty people anything to drink. They ignore strangers, showing them no welcome whatsoever. And they don’t give clothes to people who need them, they don’t visit the sick and lonely, and they’ll let people rot in jail or prison without so much as a thought.
And for me, I find it interesting that this teaching is being given by Jesus in the last week of his life. In fact, this is one of the last things Jesus says to his followers before he is condemned to death and nailed to the cross in the Gospel of Matthew.
What Jesus does here, at the closure of his earthly ministry, is make it quite clear to those who claim to be his disciples that there is no gray area at all when it comes to following him. Either you are with him -- or you aren’t.
The way to tell which it is, is by looking at how we live our lives. To be on Jesus’ side means that we are actively caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, and the lonely. Failure to do these things means you haven’t heard what Jesus proclaims, you haven’t seen what he has done, and you don’t understand the call to be a disciple of Christ. Failure means you are not with him at all. And if you side against Jesus, THAT signing bonus carries with it FIRE and BRIMSTONE.
That this is one of Jesus’ last earthly teachings should add some weight to his message. After all, who remembers the coach’s locker room speech from some game in the middle of the season? But, the one before the big game is blazoned into our hearts and minds forever.
It’s also interesting and important to notice how some people choose to ignore this passage. Can we really ignore a teaching Jesus gave the last week of his life because we may not feel it feels comfortable? Do we pretend Jesus didn’t mean what he was said, or that this isn’t about salvation? (Even when it so clearly is.) Second, is Jesus saying we must earn our ticket to heaven by doing good deeds only to those people who need them?
No, I don’t think so, on either count.
One of the amazing things about this lesson is that the sheep didn’t know that they were earning heaven by their actions! These sheep said:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
They had no idea their actions to love their neighbor as themselves meant they were inheriting the Kingdom prepared for them. They weren’t trying to earn God’s favor, or sneak around God’s mercy. The sheep didn’t fend for themselves, desperately trying to avoid punishment and earn their own eternal rewards.
They saw people in need, and they served them. They loved them like Jesus. They lived their lives of devotion, compassion, and faith the way they always did. They were living their lives focused on God and the needs of others instead on themselves and their own needs.
The difference between groups of sheep doing these deeds to get to heaven, and other sheep doing the same things unaware of the incredible consequences, is that the actions of the latter group are authentic. They are genuinely loving their neighbor, and genuinely serving the needs of others, instead of selfishly looking out for themselves.
That is what God wants of us.
And, in the last week of Jesus’ life, that is the kind of life Jesus is calling his followers – US -- to live.
This is what loving our neighbor as ourselves is about. Loving our neighbor just to get ourselves to heaven wouldn’t be real love -- it’d be selfishness. Preoccupation with our own salvation therefore is exactly what Jesus is warning us against. When you live your life loving God, and loving your neighbor as yourself, you don’t have time to selfishly worry about YOU! Nor do you have to.
The Good News is that there is no checklist of good deeds to fill out.
Jesus talks about a manner of living here -- one that isn’t motivated out of the fear of Hell or the hope of heaven -- but a life that’s driven by authentic love.
Speaking of a life driven by love, today we also commemorate St. Andrew who, according to the Gospel of John, was the first to become a disciple of Jesus. As a then-follower of John the Baptist, Andrew and another disciple stood with John when Jesus walked by and John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35) Intrigued by the Baptist’s statement, Andrew left and followed Jesus. Later in Christian tradition, he was often called Protokletos, which is Greek for “first called.
We know little of Andrew before his encounter with our Lord. He grew up in Bethsaida – known as the “house of the fisherman” -- on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where he and his brother Simon Peter made their living fishing.
Other things we know about Andrew from scripture is that he was in part responsible for Peter’s call, for he went and “Found his brother Simon … and brought him to Jesus” (John 1:41-42). It was Andrew who told Jesus about the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish at the feeding of the five thousand.
Tradition tells us Andrew worked among the Scythians, ancient inhabitants of a part of modern Russia. He has long been the patron saint of Russia. But he is also the patron saint of Scotland, and the Scottish flag bears the X shaped cross usually associated with him. It is believed that Andrew was bound to such a cross and thus met his death at the hands of angry pagans.
Today, the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, an informal association of men and boys known in The Episcopal Church, continue to emulate Andrew’s action of finding his brother and taking him to Christ.
Such a manner of life recognizes Christianity isn’t about us! It’s not about self-preservation, feeling good, or getting front row seats in Heaven. It’s about Love.
If this isn’t crystal clear from the sheep and goats story, read on in the Gospel of Matthew until you get to the crucifixion. There, Jesus demonstrates the exact same selfless, genuine, and authentic love he demands of us. He was flogged, mocked, tortured, and executed for God and for us, not for himself. It was no selfish egomaniacal stunt to gain fame and fortune. Jesus loved God and us with his life and his death, and that is exactly what our Lord asks of us.
And with that, it makes sense that Jesus gives this lesson in the last week of his life. It also makes sense to replace the well-known query used by modern evangelists, “Are you saved?” with the more appropriate, “Do you genuinely love God and your neighbor, not for your own gain, but for true brotherly and Godly love?”
[Yeah, it takes longer to spit that out, but so do most important things.]
The Feast of Christ the King is as much a judgment of our human shortcomings, as it is a hopeful reminder that we are called to make God’s vision of a peaceable Kingdom our own. We should seek a world that is ruled only by the standard of Love. To pursue a world marked by justice, compassion, reconciliation, and peace.
Being sheep of the shepherd isn’t about us. Nor is it about being saved, or getting rewards, however eternal they may be. Being sheep of the shepherd is about following our shepherd’s lead, and loving others as he has loved us and given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.