Sunday, November 26, 2017

“When Did We See You, Jesus?” A Sermon on Christ the King Sunday on Matthew 25:31-46

"When Did We See You, Jesus?"

Matthew 25:31-46

         Children on the playground pick teams. Littlefield folk sort ourselves into teams for feather bowling. Fans of the Harry Potter series can’t help thinking about the sorting hat. “Gryffindor! “Hufflepuff!” “Ravenclaw!” “Slytherin!”  A place for everyone and everyone in their place.
            As Jill Duffield points out, sorting has been part of human experience forever. “Before there were nations, there were tribes, different languages, different cultural practices, varied roles within the group, all designed to make sure people stayed in their lane.”[1]
            We may think we know all we need to know about the neighbor with the political yard sign that disagrees with our view. We sort people according to where they get their news.
            I think Jill Duffield could be right when she says we like being sorted.  It keeps things neater, less stressful. We don’t need to worry about being challenged, changed, or made uncomfortable. There have been some books written about this is recent years.  The Big Sort explores how a growing number of people have been segregating themselves, choosing to live in communities with others who share their views.[2] :  The more people confine themselves to likeminded company, the more extreme their views become, the more polarized society become.
            According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side of the spectrum see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being. Compared to the past, each side also increasingly gets its news from its own television channels and websites. And so, the divide widens.[3]

            The scriptures tell us that God sorts, too.  Jesus talks about the sorting that will come at the end of the age.   Good fish and bad fish, separating the wheat from the chaff, the wheat and the weeds…good fruit from bad fruit. And, in today’s lesson, separating the sheep from the goats.
            The passage opens with a vivid description of the Son of Man’s coming in glory, seated on his throne. The nations are gathered and sorted into two groups. Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, which is an image Matthew uses throughout his Gospel.
            In ancient Palestine, it was common to have mixed flocks. At night, the shepherd would have separated the sheep from the goats.  Sheep enjoyed the open air of the pasture, while goats had to be protected from the cold. Because sheep had more commercial value, they were preferred over goats. As shepherd, the glorious Son of Man now separates the sheep from the goats.[4]

            Today, some people sort themselves by choosing neighborhoods, churches and schools where people look like them, act like them, and don’t question their values and choices by their presence or viewpoints.     If we get to know somebody whose first language isn’t English, whose skin is a different color, who follows a different religious path, who votes differently, or who questions our church’s positions, if we form relationships and have honest and civil conversations with them, we need to acknowledge our prejudices and see the humanity in groups we have seen as “other.”  We need to learn how to talk about why we believe what we believe in a respectful and civil manner.  We need to listen when others share their experiences and beliefs. That’s hard work.

            A lot of people sort themselves to stay with people like themselves. But I don’t think God sorts like that. 
            So, what does this passage mean?  The way Matthew tells it, this is Jesus’ last formal act of teaching.  We hear that the Son of Man will separate the sheep and the goats. For the sheep, the news is good. They’re given a divine blessing and told they are the true heirs of God’s kingdom because they provided food, drink, hospitality, clothing, and care for the Son of Man. The goats were condemned because they did none of these acts of mercy.
            I wondered: is this a traditional morality tale about how those who do good deeds are rewarded    and those who don’t are punished?   Is that what this is?
            The sheep had no idea that, in their acts of compassion toward people in need, they were ministering to the Son of Man.  They were stunned and exclaimed, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and took care of you?” 
            The goats had no idea that, in their indifference, they were neglecting the Lord of all nations.  “When was it when we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t take care of you?”
            The surprising reply is that whenever they acted--or failed to act--in compassion to one of “the least”, they did so to Jesus Christ.
            So…where’s the good news in this parable?

            I was wondering about this when I read what a colleague wrote about how she visits her doctor every year for a complete physical examination. Much as she might want to avoid it, heart disease runs in her family, so she has a wellness exam. If her LDL cholesterol level is on the rise, she knows to cut down on the cookies and other treats and to add a few extra miles to her daily routine. If they would find a lump, she’d go in for more assessment and take steps needed to treat it, to regain her health, and ensure long-term wellness.
            In many ways, she says, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check. “Its purpose is not to condemn or scare, but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life.  As our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.”[5]

            As human beings, we all have a tendency to a kind of heart trouble that gets in the way of seeing the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick.
            These words of Jesus are profound and radical. They challenge us as individuals when we encounter somebody asking for money in the grocery store parking lot or on the street. After all, we can’t help everyone. Most of us don’t have either the money or the time. Anyway, how do we tell who is truly needy and who simply wants money to buy drugs or a bottle of cheap wine?  

            We need to remember that this passage tells us that the nations will be judged by how compassionately--or not-- we treat those who are in need.
            God created the world out of an abundance of love.  God is love, and repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people.   God sent Jesus to come and live among us, full of grace and truth, teaching and showing us what it means to be created in God’s image.
            In particular, we are called to love those are seem unable to give back. We are called to love our neighbors in need-- not to earn God’s love or to make sure we’re considered righteous at the time of judgment. We are called to give as a response to the love that is in us because God first loved us.
            Anne Lamott tweeted, "Who was it who said that to get into heaven, you needed a letter of recommendation from the poor? What a buzzkill."
            It may sound that way until you feed, clothe, visit, and welcome some of the least of these yourself. Then you realize they have as much dignity and humanity as anyone else. You begin to see that we are just as vulnerable to the ups and downs of life as they are, and our heart enlarges because of it.  Then you realize:  It's not really about charity-- it’s about conversion. 
            God is a God of surprises!  God came to be Immanuel--“God-with-us” -- in the form of a vulnerable infant.  God didn’t come to conquer the world with military or political might, but instead, in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross.  God continues to come where we least expect God to be-- in the plight of the homeless, of refugees, on the side of the poor, in the company of those who are imprisoned.
            “When did we see you, Lord Jesus?”
            The good news is that God is with us, here and now, revealed to us in word and sacrament and in the fellowship of broken people we call church.  God is with us when we go out to embody God’s love in the world, especially when we meet God in acts of mercy and service.
            God is with us, touching our hearts with love, saving us from obsessing about ourselves and our needs   and encouraging us to search for the face of God in the faces of those in need. God is with us, teaching us to take joy in acts of compassion and mercy.
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 26, 2017

[1] Jill Duffield, “Looking Into the Lectionary: Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017”, in The Presbyterian Outlook.
[2] Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart. (Houghton Mifflin), 2008.
[3] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016).
[4] Thomas D. Stegman, SJ, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost. Kindle version, Location 12013.
[5] Lindsay P. Armstrong, in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost. Kindle version, Location 12022.