Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, November 23
Reign of Christ
Reign of Christ
You raised up your Son, O God, and seated him at your right hand as the shepherd and king who seeks what is lost, binds up what is wounded, and strengthens what is weak. Empowered by the Spirit, grant that we may share with others that which we have received from your hand, to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Jesus said:] "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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then 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; 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.' Then 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? 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?' And 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.' Then 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I 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.' Then 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?' Then 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.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
All Readings for this Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalms 100 or
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalms 95:1-7a
1. How is judgment part of your faith?
2. What's the difference between "freedom," and "freedom with responsibility"?
3. Why do you think the "sheep" were surprised that they were rewarded?
4. How would things change if we read this text as a judgment of nations more than individuals?
5. Is it possible to be an "anonymous Christian"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey
In these last 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.
Our passage this week, a familiar one to many of us, gets down to the bottom line, to a word that makes some of us uncomfortable today, in the church and in the world: judgment. Still, we might focus at least for a few moments on that discomfort with the idea of judgment. Perhaps it's because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, doesn't Jesus have a lot to say about our judging one another, our excluding some people because they are sinners, or at least a certain "kind" of sinner? Perhaps we post-modern Christians feel that judgment--at least, when it comes to our lives being judged--offends our sense of freedom, as in total freedom from the opinion of others. Or maybe it has to do with our belief that an unconditionally loving God will not judge us harshly. How does this text speak to our discomfort?
If you're seeking an answer to that difficult question, Barbara Brown Taylor shares your concern, for "the Bible," as she says, "is not a book with the answers in the back." But we can wrestle with this text because we have a bedrock, foundational belief, a profound trust in the goodness of God, in the grace of God, and we can listen for how the Stillspeaking God calls us to participate in the unfolding of the reign of God, and to do so in freedom, but a freedom that comes with responsibility. When I joined a United Church of Christ congregation years ago, those words, "freedom with responsibility," planted themselves deep in my heart. The "with responsibility" part reflects the reality that we live in community, not completely on our own. We are not, despite our brashest claims, truly self-sufficient. And the "freedom" part says that we can choose to participate in that community, or we can choose to do nothing.
And that gets to the heart of what the goats in this story did: nothing. They weren't "sinners" in the conventional sense of doing bad things, like sexual offenses or stealing or even murder. They just didn't do anything when they saw their sisters and brothers suffering. As Jesus creates this apocalyptic scene, a huge, dramatic event with all the nations, and all the angels, and the Son of Man coming in glory and sitting on a throne, we might say that he draws our focus not up, at all this glory, but down, on the very thing, the down-to-earth thing, that he did throughout his teaching ministry: he noticed people in their need, and he responded. In this spiritual practice, he was a good and faithful Jew, observing the tradition and laws of his faith, which provided for the care of those who were suffering or in need.
Scholars suggest that one reading of the text is about how the Gentiles ("the nations") will be judged on their reception of the Christian missionaries Jesus will send out three chapters after this one. In that interpretation, "the little ones" are those who have nothing but the shirt on their back and the Good News to share. But scholars also support a reading that sees all of God's children as deserving of our compassion and generosity. John J. Pilch explains the difference between lovingkindness, extended to family and friends (and presumably easier), and the more difficult hospitality, which was extended to strangers. Hospitality, so much more important in that culture than our own, is still at the heart of how we practice our faith here in the United Church of Christ: no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here. Extravagant hospitality: one of our core values.
Who are the "nations," and who are we?
However, we can broaden our understanding of this hospitality and of this judgment if we hear the word "nations" and think of our own collective life as a nation, and how we-- and our systems, our institutions--respond to the suffering of "the little ones" in our midst. Many claim that the United States is a "Christian nation," perhaps setting aside the separation of church and state in our Constitution. In any case, remembering that this imperative to respond to the need of others is at the core of all true religion (and was in fact part of many ancient cultures and religions), it's not a stretch to put ourselves as a nation in this scene, with all the other nations, and all the angels, and the Son of Man returned now to judge whether we cared for those in need, or even noticed them in our midst.
James E. Brenneman has reflected on the importance of this teaching of Jesus "to our national health. Jesus is fundamentally interested in systemic institutional commitment to the stranger, and he commands whole nations to treat those on the margins of life with dignity and love. How we as a nation help those who are poor, infirm, imprisoned and otherwise estranged determines what our ultimate judgment will be." And yet many Christians read this text as instruction for our personal ("private") spiritual lives, rather than applying its core message to our public, shared life. Is it easier to insert Christian touches, a few symbols and words here and there, referring to our faith in speeches, for example, than it is to shine the light of this discomforting passage on the laws and systems we have put in place? That is why United Church of Christ congregations, through ministries of justice and prophetic witness, strive to imagine, and then build, "another world" that embodies God's own vision of healing, mercy and justice.
Where can you find Christians?
We're reminded of the Beatitudes, earlier in Matthew's Gospel, when we read Thomas G. Long's description of where Christians ought to be found, for they're "not the power elite or the moral majority, forcing their will on the nations: they are identified with the weak of the earth and are more likely to be found in hospitals and prisons than in palaces." That's where this text challenges us, not to define ourselves as religious or spiritual because we go to church and pray and occasionally make a contribution to a worthy cause or volunteer some of our time to help others. The words of Jesus illustrate true religion that transforms our lives, opening our eyes to encounter the sacred in our everyday lives, including the sacred within our brothers and sisters. Isn't it sometimes easier to build beautiful houses of worship, to sing glorious hymns, or even to appreciate the beauty of nature, than it is to see the image of God in one another?
However, it's ironic that neither the sheep nor the goats saw Jesus in the suffering and needy; it's just that the sheep responded as Jesus would, because they grasped, as Charles Cousar writes, "the essence of discipleship," and "what it means to be a Christian." Or, as Beverly Zink-Sawyer writes, "The king implies that the goats should not have needed neon signs directing them to the right thing to do." Clarifying that this is not works righteousness or a way to secure our place in heaven, Zink-Sawyer writes that the followers of Jesus continue today to respond to the needs of others "because we know no other way to respond to God's amazing love."
A world that's physically and spiritually hungry
A world as spiritually hungry as ours longs to experience that amazing love, and yet we seem not to notice the ways it reaches out to us. Richard Swanson finds that love in everyday experience, for "moments of random encounter with people in need are moments illuminated by eternity." On the other hand, if this text disturbs our consciences, Barbara Brown Taylor shares our pain. In fact, she writes, "Matthew gives me a pain. Life is never as clear cut as he makes it out to be; I cannot sort things out the way he does." However, "Matthew gets my attention," and "as often happens when I try to make law out of gospel," it "seems to suggest that God's judgment will take us all by surprise, sheep and goats alike. We can study the exam file all we want, but God only knows what will be on the final."
When it comes to preparing for the Final Exam of All Final Exams, many Christians believe that all we have to do to pass is to profess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. This text adds one more voice to that conversation, perhaps illustrating what it truly means to profess Jesus as Lord, just as the sheep knew the essence of discipleship. David Mosser sums up the thoughts of many writers when he notes that in this parable, Jesus "never asks either group what they think about him." On this Judgment Day, "salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith." Still, as much as Judgment Day strikes a measure of fear in our hearts, "God does not see the story of our lives as we see the story of our lives. God sees as God sees. This becomes our saving grace." We are saved, of course, by grace. In the meantime, are we truly, faithfully living in the present as disciples of Jesus?
How do we behave the other six days?
Barbara Brown Taylor masterfully evokes the everydayness of being disciples of a Jesus who has promised always to be with us: "Sheep and goats alike, they thought that he occupied one space at a time just as they did, and that the way they behaved in his presence was all that really counted. Meanwhile, that left them lots of free time for being with the other people in their lives, including the ones who did not count--the little ones, the least ones--the waitresses, the door-to-door magazine salesmen, the nursing home residents, the panhandlers, the inmates, the strangers at the grocery store." Of course, these people matter to God, and Jesus makes this clear in his story. What also matters, she says and God will say, is "how we behaved when we thought God was not around." Not just in church, but in everyday encounters with others, all children of God:"We are called to look at each other and see Christ." It is as simple, and as hard, as that.
In this hour of harvest and abundance, how are you extending this hospitality, even to those who seem least "deserving" of it? How is your church imagining another world in which the needs of "the least" are met? Who are people to whom you might reach out and, in turn, be surprised at what you might learn, and what you might receive? In what ways and in what times have you felt like one of the sheep in this story, or, just as significantly, like one of the goats? The story clearly refers to more than just the churches, but to all the nations. How do we share this call to compassion, and respond to it, with people of other faiths, or even those "of no faith"? The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner spoke of "anonymous Christians," who live out the teachings of Christ without claiming to be followers of Christ. Do you believe it is possible to be an "anonymous Christian"?
We have come to the end of another liturgical year, and prepare now for Advent. Beverly Zink-Sawyer's question is a fitting end to this year, and opens our hearts to what lies ahead: "What could be more surprising than a God who comes to dwell with us in the form of a poor, helpless child born in obscurity to peasant parents? Indeed, God came to us as 'one of the least of these'--and still does." We should be wise, then, and watchful, and ready.
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-23-2014.html.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. (Come visit us!)
You're welcome to share your thoughts on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For Further Reflection
Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world."
Dalai Lama XIV, 21st century
"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive."
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, 20th century
"While we do o r good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."
John of the Cross, 16th century (I never tire of this one)
"In the evening, we will be judged on love."
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