Sunday, November 22, 2015

"When Did We See You, Jesus?" Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Matthew 25:31-46 on Christ the King Sunday


"When Did We See You, Jesus?"
Matthew 25:31-46

Today’s Gospel lesson is sometimes known as the parable of “the sheep and the goats”…  or as “the last judgment.”
            The passage we heard today is Jesus’ last formal act of teaching, and it sums up the major theological themes of Matthew’s gospel by presenting a majestic picture of the triumphant Jesus reigning in glory as king and judge at the end of time.  The Jesus who earlier in the gospel “had nowhere to lay his head” is now seated on the royal throne as king.  Jesus who was rejected even by his hometown is now exalted as the judge. 
            The Son of Man pronounces judgment on the sheep and the goats.  For the sheep—the righteous-- the news is good.  They’re given a divine blessing and told they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  To those at his left hand he will say “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Now, some people might hear this as a story meant to scare us into being righteous.  But if we interpret it that way, we might miss Jesus' plea for us to see.
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty and give you something to eat or drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?"           
Jesus makes it clear that we will not literally see him. We will see or fail to see him in "the least of these" brothers and sisters in our midst. Jesus longs for us to see.  But seeing—really seeing—isn’t easy. 
Some might say that we've seen too much—too many photos of Syrian refugee children living in wretched conditions… too many people living in extreme poverty in Africa or Haiti… too many people lined up on the sidewalk waiting for the soup kitchen to open in our cities.
Some say we've been desensitized, our capacity for compassion short-circuited and overloaded.  We tell ourselves that our guilt won't feed anybody. Yet, the truth is that thousands of people who may have never thought much about hunger have been moved to donate money for food and medical supplies after seeing pictures on the news.  Seeing the people and seeing their needs can change peoples' hearts.
I think we’re seeing an increase in fear and distrust of people who are different.  We’ve been hearing some public officials and candidates for office wanting to put the brakes on welcoming Syrian refugees  and talking about special security tracking and ID’s for Muslims and building big walls on our borders. 
Yesterday the Presbytery of Detroit considered a motion from First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor to communicate with our elected officials, to tell them our faith calls us to welcome immigrants and that we want to give support to Syrian refugees in our country.  Although the motion passed, we heard in the debate a real mix of compassion and hospitality—and also fear.
 We’ve heard different political, financial, and logistical reasons for not welcoming refugees to the United States.   But no biblical or theological or faith reasons. 
When did we see you, Lord?
Whether we call the adversary Satan or the devil or evil or something else, I believe Satan wants to divide humanity and to instill hatred, and distrust.   We’re  tempted to demonize innocent people and falsely accuse them of being violent, evil, and dangerous.  We’re tempted to do nothing, to protect ourselves, and to withhold the love of Christ. 
When did we see you?   We learn to look away from the homeless person or quickly maneuver around the man who’s holding out his cup for donations.   We keep our distance.   Maybe we try not to see those people.  
Those people.  Human beings created in God’s divine image.  Individuals who are deeply loved by God.   Those people.
If Christians refuse to accept and help refugees, we are ignoring, misinterpreting, or even rejecting Jesus’ teachings and a variety of other texts throughout the Bible.[1]   Whether we like it or not, those who follow Jesus are called to help the world’s most abused, marginalized, helpless, exploited, and destitute.  We are called to glorify Christ through selfless sacrifice, hospitality, and love.
In an article published this week at Sojourners, Stephen Mattson asks:  “Imagine if Jesus limited his ministry based upon the conditions of comfort and security.”[2] 
Imagine it.  As Mattson imagines it, “There would be no traveling through Samaria—too hazardous.  No interacting with foreigners—too dangerous.  No helping strangers—too risky.  No healing the sick—too unsafe.  No attracting crowds—to insecure.  No performing miracles—too perilous.  No public speaking—too unprotected.  No giving to the poor—too wasteful.  No interacting with outcasts—to socially unacceptable.  No disciples—too untrustworthy.  No generosity—generosity—too wasteful.  No grace—too weak.  No forgiveness—too soft.  No death on the cross—too painful (to say the least). 
“If Jesus used the same stipulations for love that we do, the gospel never would have existed, because almost every single experience Jesus put himself  in required risk, sacrifice, and vulnerability.  And instead of being fueled by fear, Jesus was fueled by hope.”[3]
“When did we see you, Jesus?”
In a recent letter to the Presbyterian Church, our Stated Clerk, Gradye Parson, asks us to “Choose welcome, not fear.”[4]   Gradye  recognizes that we are a world grieving, following the most recent terrorist attacks, but we can choose how to react in our grief and fear. 
If we hear today’s gospel lesson as something to make us feel guilty… to get us to do what we should—we may not hear it as good news. 
But I believe today’s lesson is part of Jesus’ call to new life, a call to a new relationship with God, a new way to practice religion, and a call to follow Jesus in the way of love.  I think Jesus is trying to get us to think about what’s important in the Kingdom of God.
 Jesus wants us to know that God is here with us, in the messiness and ambiguities and fears of human life.  God is here, in your neighbor, in the one who needs you.  Do you want to see the face of God?  Look into the face of one of the least of these—the vulnerable, the weak, the stranger.  We are called to live in a community based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being.   
            In Matthew’s description of the final judgment, there’s not one word about believing certain things or following special religious practices.  We will be judged by whether or not we see Christ in the face of those in need and whether or not you give yourself away in love, in Christ’s name.
            God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love.  God wants to save us by teaching us to see the face of Christ in the faces of strangers and those in need and persuading us to care about them.  God wants to save us from obsessing about our own needs and safety and fears and free us to live in compassion and hope.

            On Christ the King Sunday,   we meditate on God’s power and the reign of God.  We look forward to Advent, a time when we ponder the mystery of the incarnation:  God embodied in a helpless baby born in a humble stable…    God on the cross, dying, in sacrificial, self-giving love. These are images of a very vulnerable God.   This is a very different kind of king, with a different kind of power.
            As we move through Advent, we practice waiting.  We hope.  And we ponder the mystery of a God so in love with us that he came to be one of us.  He came into the world as a baby, a love-child, in whom God shows us just how far God will go to save us, and heal us, and set us free.
            Come, Lord Jesus!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church 
Dearborn, Michigan
November 22, 2015

[1] Jeremiah 22:3-5; Zechariah 7:8-10; Isaiah 16:4; Matthew 25:34-40; Hebrews 13:1-2; James 2:5

[2] Stephen Mattson, “Rejecting Refugees, Rejecting Christ.

[3] Mattson.
[4] Gradye Parson, “Choose welcome, not fear.”

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