November 23, 2014

Reign of Christ Year A
(Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 29)

Lectionary citations
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalm 100 or
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 25:31-46
Additional reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 by Meighan Pritchard (with a focus on Environmental Justice)

Weekly Theme:
Reign of Christ

You're invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.

Reflection:
by Kathryn 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. A sermon 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" (The Preaching Life). But we can wrestle with this text because we have a bedrock, foundational belief, a deep 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 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 (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). 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: a core value.

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 writes thoughtfully 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" (The Christian Century 11-4-08). 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.

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" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). 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" (Texts for Preaching Year A). 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" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

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" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). We turn now to Barbara Brown Taylor's fine sermon, "Knowing Glances," in The Preaching Life. If this text disturbs our consciences, again, 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" (The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching). We are saved, of course, by grace. In the meantime, are we truly, faithfully living in the present as disciples of Jesus?

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 into relationship," she continues, "even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad. We are called to look at each other and see Christ" (The Preaching Life). It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

In this hour of harvest and abundance, how is your church 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" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). We should be wise, then, and watchful, and ready.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

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 our 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."

Additional reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 with a focus on Environment Justice
by Meighan Pritchard

In September, many people of faith gathered in New York City for conferences about the environment and to participate in the People’s Climate March, which drew an estimated 400,000 participants in New York and several hundred thousand more worldwide. At the conferences that preceded the march, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, secular humanists, and others all spoke eloquently about how we must remake our civilizations to be carbon neutral as soon as possible. I heard Jim Wallis of Sojourners put it this way: “I still hear Christians arguing about which issues are most important. Matthew 25 says, ‘I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, in prison.’ Climate change affects all of these issues. Until we integrate our approach, we will continue to bicker over the issues.”

Here are a few ways in which climate change, resource depletion, and population pressures combine to impact those already in need or to create new conditions of need.

Hunger and thirst: Without adequate water supplies, not only are we thirsty, but the number of people experiencing hunger increases because we cannot grow enough food. As glaciers retreat, as droughts become more frequent and intense, as aquifers are overdrawn, and as growing cities demand more water that had previously gone to crop irrigation, hunger and thirst become growing issues.

Some countries that have overdrawn their own aquifers are now buying land in other countries to grow crops. This redistribution of land displaces the original owners, who sometimes have no say in the sale of their land. Saudi Arabia, which has depleted its own aquifer, now owns land in Ethiopia and Sudan—two countries already experiencing a great deal of hunger. (Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, 22)

Closer to home, the aquifers supplying Florida, California, and the Midwest are all being overdrawn. As California weathers a severe drought, ranchers have to cull their herds and bring in hay from out of state because their range lands are barren. Silver Springs in Florida is subsiding. The Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest is similarly being drawn down at a rapid rate, and because it is a fossil aquifer, meaning that its water collected eons ago, it will not replenish: when it’s gone, it’s gone.

India and China rely on glaciers in the Himalaya Mountains to feed their major rivers. Hundreds of millions of people rely on that water to grow crops and to drink. But those glaciers are shrinking.

Water is also important for current fuel extraction techniques. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses enormous amounts of water to flush fossil fuels from crevices underground. This water is mixed with toxic chemicals, which makes it unsuitable for use by humans, animals, or plants. No sewage treatment plant is set up to handle this water, and so it must be stored. When it is stored in open ponds, birds must be warned away, because those who land in the ponds are covered in toxic chemicals that kill them. When it is pumped down abandoned wells, it has been shown to cause earthquakes in areas that do not usually experience them. This toxic water often does not stay where it is supposed to. When it contaminates wells, humans and animals can no longer live on that land without other sources of water.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says we are to feed the hungry and give something to drink to those who thirst. Certainly we can staff and supply food banks, but if we want to take on the larger causes of hunger and thirst, we must look at the very underpinnings of our society: our use of fossil fuels and inefficient water use. Our current practices deplete resources, destroy ecosystems, and exacerbate climate change.

Sick: Jesus calls us to care for the sick. As we use up resources and pump pollution and excess carbon emissions into the air, the ground, and the water, we are perhaps not surprised to find that more people and animals get sick. Exactly who becomes sick is a justice issue. The UCC’s landmark study, Toxic Wastes and Race, and its follow-up study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, show that toxic dump sites are more likely to be located in close proximity to low-income communities and communities of color.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought a double whammy to the little town of Moss Point, Mississippi, as depicted in the documentary Renewal. The hurricane itself was bad enough, but the storm surge washed the industrial wastes from the highly toxic Escatawpa River into the homes of low-income people of color, and they all got sick. They also continue to fish in this river, and the marine life can absorb and pass on these toxins.

Dead zones the size of Connecticut form annually at the mouth of the Mississippi River because we put so much nitrogen and phosphorous in waterways that drain to that river that the water becomes anoxic (lacking oxygen) by the time it reaches the Gulf. At that point, nothing in it can survive. Needless to say, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 did not help. Studies of its environmental impact are just beginning to track the damage to the ecosystem.

In recent years, Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden and members of Christians for the Mountains have hosted nursing students on their spring breaks and have trained these students to document family health histories near mountaintop removal coal mining sites in Appalachia. These peer-reviewed studies show cancer rates that are twice those of populations not exposed to the toxic dust and chemicals involved in mining.

A new study indicates that workers at fracking sites are being exposed to toxic levels of such substances as benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide that could have both immediate and long-term impacts on their health.

In her new book Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food, author Dale Finley Slongwhite gives voice to the African-American field workers around Florida’s Lake Apopka, who endured decades of direct pesticide exposure that led to cancer, miscarriages, lupus, blindness, and other health problems.

Certainly we can tend to the sick, as Matthew 25 suggests. But we must also look at the larger issues of how our quest for “cheap” and convenient fuels and food is creating massive health issues for humans, animals, and ecosystems.

Stranger: Jesus calls us to care for the stranger in our midst. Might some of those strangers be climate refugees? Their lands have been or will be destroyed—by rising seas, by drought, by floods—and they have no alternative but to move. Where will the people of Tuvalu move when rising seas erase their island? Who will welcome them? What about those whose homes are destroyed in extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina? Or Inuit villages along the shore in Alaska that are having to move inland because their shores have eroded so drastically?

As climate change dries out some areas and makes them unsuitable for agriculture, there will be more people competing for less arable land. This is a recipe for political instability and conflict.

As more and more people are forced to become refugees/immigrants fleeing unstable homelands, how can we make sure that they are valued, respected, and given what they need to set up a new life for themselves and their families?

In prison: What might prison have to do with climate change and resource depletion? There are those such as Tim DeChristopher willing to risk arrest and prison in order to protect our natural resources. There are also those who end up in prison for being homeless (see “climate refugees” discussion above), for crossing borders without documentation, etc. Climate change also exacerbates political tensions as more and more people compete for less and less water, arable land, and other necessities of life. How are we called to work for a world that is just and plentiful for all?

The examples above are only some of the ways in which climate change and resource use create or exacerbate conditions of hunger, thirst, sickness, being a stranger or being in prison. Whew! Just looking at this list can be daunting. And yet we are called to be a people of faith, hope, and love. So on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, how do we not become overwhelmed? When the problems are so large, what are we thankful for? 

Here are a few things for which I am thankful. I’m thankful that there is still time for us to change our ways. I’m thankful for technologies that provide cleaner options that use less or no fossil fuel. I’m thankful for a chance to live lightly on the planet, helping it heal rather than making it sicker. I’m thankful for community: opportunities to care for each other, to build relationships that see us through challenging times. I’m thankful for the opportunity to see Christ and the Divine in every atom of creation and to love creation accordingly. Keith Warner, a Franciscan monk, suggests that we can see all of creation as Christoform—as capable of bearing the presence of Christ. In our quest to follow the way of Jesus, we are always invited to connect the person of Jesus Christ with creation.

This parable in Matthew 25 has a stark judgment aspect to it: those who do not care for Christ in creation are cast into outer darkness. How will we be judged for the ways in which we have lived on this planet with each other? Will we have tilled and kept it well, as Adam and Eve were commanded to do? Or will we have dominated and destroyed it? We have choices every day. Choose to see Christ in every person, every bee, every bite you eat, every river and lake. This passage suggests we are all connected by the presence of the Divine within us, and we are called to care for each other and for all of creation. Our very existence depends upon doing so well.

The Rev. Meighan Pritchard serves as the UCC Minister for Environmental Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.


Lectionary texts

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
   Worship God with gladness;
come into God's presence with singing.

Know that the Sovereign is God.
   It is God that made us, and we are God's;
we are God's people, and the sheep of God's pasture.

Enter God's gates with thanksgiving,
   and enter God's courts with praise.
Give thanks to God,and bless God's name.

For God is good;
   God's steadfast love endures forever,
and God's faithfulness to all generations.

or
 
Psalm 95:1-7a

O come,
    let us sing to God;
let us make a joyful noise
    to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into God's presence
    with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God
    with songs of praise!

For God is a great God,
   and a great Ruler above all gods.

In God's hand are the depths
    of the earth;
the heights of the mountains
    are also God's.

The sea is God's,
    for God made it,
and the dry land,
    which God's hands have formed.

O come, let us worship
    and bow down,
let us kneel before God,
    our Maker!

For God is our God,
   and we are the people of God's pasture,
and the sheep of God's hand.

O that today you would listen to God's voice!

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Matthew 25:31-46

[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."


Liturgical Notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.


Reign of Christ Year A
(Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 29)

Lectionary citations
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalm 100 or
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 with Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 25:31-46
Additional reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 by Meighan Pritchard (with an environmental justice focus)

Weekly Theme:
Reign of Christ

Reflection:
by Kathryn 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. A sermon 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" (The Preaching Life). But we can wrestle with this text because we have a bedrock, foundational belief, a deep 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 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 (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). 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: a core value.

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 writes thoughtfully 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" (The Christian Century 11-4-08). 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.

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" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). 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" (Texts for Preaching Year A). 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" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

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" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). We turn now to Barbara Brown Taylor's fine sermon, "Knowing Glances," in The Preaching Life. If this text disturbs our consciences, again, 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" (The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching). We are saved, of course, by grace. In the meantime, are we truly, faithfully living in the present as disciples of Jesus?

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 into relationship," she continues, "even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad. We are called to look at each other and see Christ" (The Preaching Life). It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

In this hour of harvest and abundance, how is your church 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" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). We should be wise, then, and watchful, and ready.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

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 our 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."

Additional reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 with a focus on Environment Justice
by Meighan Pritchard

In September, many people of faith gathered in New York City for conferences about the environment and to participate in the People’s Climate March, which drew an estimated 400,000 participants in New York and several hundred thousand more worldwide. At the conferences that preceded the march, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, secular humanists, and others all spoke eloquently about how we must remake our civilizations to be carbon neutral as soon as possible. I heard Jim Wallis of Sojourners put it this way: “I still hear Christians arguing about which issues are most important. Matthew 25 says, ‘I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, in prison.’ Climate change affects all of these issues. Until we integrate our approach, we will continue to bicker over the issues.”

Here are a few ways in which climate change, resource depletion, and population pressures combine to impact those already in need or to create new conditions of need.

Hunger and thirst: Without adequate water supplies, not only are we thirsty, but the number of people experiencing hunger increases because we cannot grow enough food. As glaciers retreat, as droughts become more frequent and intense, as aquifers are overdrawn, and as growing cities demand more water that had previously gone to crop irrigation, hunger and thirst become growing issues.

Some countries that have overdrawn their own aquifers are now buying land in other countries to grow crops. This redistribution of land displaces the original owners, who sometimes have no say in the sale of their land. Saudi Arabia, which has depleted its own aquifer, now owns land in Ethiopia and Sudan—two countries already experiencing a great deal of hunger. (Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, 22)

Closer to home, the aquifers supplying Florida, California, and the Midwest are all being overdrawn. As California weathers a severe drought, ranchers have to cull their herds and bring in hay from out of state because their range lands are barren. Silver Springs in Florida is subsiding. The Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest is similarly being drawn down at a rapid rate, and because it is a fossil aquifer, meaning that its water collected eons ago, it will not replenish: when it’s gone, it’s gone.

India and China rely on glaciers in the Himalaya Mountains to feed their major rivers. Hundreds of millions of people rely on that water to grow crops and to drink. But those glaciers are shrinking.

Water is also important for current fuel extraction techniques. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses enormous amounts of water to flush fossil fuels from crevices underground. This water is mixed with toxic chemicals, which makes it unsuitable for use by humans, animals, or plants. No sewage treatment plant is set up to handle this water, and so it must be stored. When it is stored in open ponds, birds must be warned away, because those who land in the ponds are covered in toxic chemicals that kill them. When it is pumped down abandoned wells, it has been shown to cause earthquakes in areas that do not usually experience them. This toxic water often does not stay where it is supposed to. When it contaminates wells, humans and animals can no longer live on that land without other sources of water.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says we are to feed the hungry and give something to drink to those who thirst. Certainly we can staff and supply food banks, but if we want to take on the larger causes of hunger and thirst, we must look at the very underpinnings of our society: our use of fossil fuels and inefficient water use. Our current practices deplete resources, destroy ecosystems, and exacerbate climate change.

Sick: Jesus calls us to care for the sick. As we use up resources and pump pollution and excess carbon emissions into the air, the ground, and the water, we are perhaps not surprised to find that more people and animals get sick. Exactly who becomes sick is a justice issue. The UCC’s landmark study, Toxic Wastes and Race, and its follow-up study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, show that toxic dump sites are more likely to be located in close proximity to low-income communities and communities of color.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought a double whammy to the little town of Moss Point, Mississippi, as depicted in the documentary Renewal. The hurricane itself was bad enough, but the storm surge washed the industrial wastes from the highly toxic Escatawpa River into the homes of low-income people of color, and they all got sick. They also continue to fish in this river, and the marine life can absorb and pass on these toxins.

Dead zones the size of Connecticut form annually at the mouth of the Mississippi River because we put so much nitrogen and phosphorous in waterways that drain to that river that the water becomes anoxic (lacking oxygen) by the time it reaches the Gulf. At that point, nothing in it can survive. Needless to say, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 did not help. Studies of its environmental impact are just beginning to track the damage to the ecosystem.

In recent years, Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden and members of Christians for the Mountains have hosted nursing students on their spring breaks and have trained these students to document family health histories near mountaintop removal coal mining sites in Appalachia. These peer-reviewed studies show cancer rates that are twice those of populations not exposed to the toxic dust and chemicals involved in mining.

A new study indicates that workers at fracking sites are being exposed to toxic levels of such substances as benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide that could have both immediate and long-term impacts on their health.

In her new book Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food, author Dale Finley Slongwhite gives voice to the African-American field workers around Florida’s Lake Apopka, who endured decades of direct pesticide exposure that led to cancer, miscarriages, lupus, blindness, and other health problems.

Certainly we can tend to the sick, as Matthew 25 suggests. But we must also look at the larger issues of how our quest for “cheap” and convenient fuels and food is creating massive health issues for humans, animals, and ecosystems.

Stranger: Jesus calls us to care for the stranger in our midst. Might some of those strangers be climate refugees? Their lands have been or will be destroyed—by rising seas, by drought, by floods—and they have no alternative but to move. Where will the people of Tuvalu move when rising seas erase their island? Who will welcome them? What about those whose homes are destroyed in extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina? Or Inuit villages along the shore in Alaska that are having to move inland because their shores have eroded so drastically?

As climate change dries out some areas and makes them unsuitable for agriculture, there will be more people competing for less arable land. This is a recipe for political instability and conflict.

As more and more people are forced to become refugees/immigrants fleeing unstable homelands, how can we make sure that they are valued, respected, and given what they need to set up a new life for themselves and their families?

In prison: What might prison have to do with climate change and resource depletion? There are those such as Tim DeChristopher willing to risk arrest and prison in order to protect our natural resources. There are also those who end up in prison for being homeless (see “climate refugees” discussion above), for crossing borders without documentation, etc. Climate change also exacerbates political tensions as more and more people compete for less and less water, arable land, and other necessities of life. How are we called to work for a world that is just and plentiful for all?

The examples above are only some of the ways in which climate change and resource use create or exacerbate conditions of hunger, thirst, sickness, being a stranger or being in prison. Whew! Just looking at this list can be daunting. And yet we are called to be a people of faith, hope, and love. So on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, how do we not become overwhelmed? When the problems are so large, what are we thankful for? 

Here are a few things for which I am thankful. I’m thankful that there is still time for us to change our ways. I’m thankful for technologies that provide cleaner options that use less or no fossil fuel. I’m thankful for a chance to live lightly on the planet, helping it heal rather than making it sicker. I’m thankful for community: opportunities to care for each other, to build relationships that see us through challenging times. I’m thankful for the opportunity to see Christ and the Divine in every atom of creation and to love creation accordingly. Keith Warner, a Franciscan monk, suggests that we can see all of creation as Christoform—as capable of bearing the presence of Christ. In our quest to follow the way of Jesus, we are always invited to connect the person of Jesus Christ with creation.

This parable in Matthew 25 has a stark judgment aspect to it: those who do not care for Christ in creation are cast into outer darkness. How will we be judged for the ways in which we have lived on this planet with each other? Will we have tilled and kept it well, as Adam and Eve were commanded to do? Or will we have dominated and destroyed it? We have choices every day. Choose to see Christ in every person, every bee, every bite you eat, every river and lake. This passage suggests we are all connected by the presence of the Divine within us, and we are called to care for each other and for all of creation. Our very existence depends upon doing so well.

The Rev. Meighan Pritchard serves as the UCC Minister for Environmental Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.


Lectionary texts

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
   Worship God with gladness;
come into God's presence with singing.

Know that the Sovereign is God.
   It is God that made us, and we are God's;
we are God's people, and the sheep of God's pasture.

Enter God's gates with thanksgiving,
   and enter God's courts with praise.
Give thanks to God,and bless God's name.

For God is good;
   God's steadfast love endures forever,
and God's faithfulness to all generations.

or
 
Psalm 95:1-7a

O come,
    let us sing to God;
let us make a joyful noise
    to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into God's presence
    with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God
    with songs of praise!

For God is a great God,
   and a great Ruler above all gods.

In God's hand are the depths
    of the earth;
the heights of the mountains
    are also God's.

The sea is God's,
    for God made it,
and the dry land,
    which God's hands have formed.

O come, let us worship
    and bow down,
let us kneel before God,
    our Maker!

For God is our God,
   and we are the people of God's pasture,
and the sheep of God's hand.

O that today you would listen to God's voice!

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Matthew 25:31-46

[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."


Liturgical Notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org