Sermon Seeds November 26, 2017

Sermon Seeds November 26, 2017

Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 29) color_white_1.jpg

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

Worship resources for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 29) are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 25:31-46

Focus Theme:
Christ Is Among Us

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews Kate_SS_2017.jpg

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, learn a lesson from the foolish bridesmaids and 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.

That word, "judgment"

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 time on that discomfort with the idea (or fear?) 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? With our trust in leaders so eroded--not just in politics and business but in, of all places, the church--we are re-hearing the words of people who have long claimed moral superiority, now in light of their own need for self-examination and perhaps even repentance.

Or 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 that discomfort, whatever its cause?

Trusting in the goodness of God

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. We trust that we can listen for how the still-speaking 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. Such freedom brings joy, but the responsibility calls for serious, shared reflection on God's call and claim on our lives.

When I joined a United Church of Christ congregation years ago, the 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 choose to do nothing, to stand on the sidelines of life. We can choose not to answer God's call. But doesn't this story tell us what will happen in the end?

Unconventional sinners

And that gets to the heart of what the "goats" in this story did, in response to God's call: 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 describes 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, Jesus 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.

A story about God's children

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: 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," seemingly 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.

Hospitality is crucial

James E. Brenneman writes thoughtfully on this text, calling this teaching "crucial 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 the justice ministries of United Church of Christ congregations strive to imagine, and then build, "another world" that embodies God's own vision of healing, justice, and mercy.

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" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). That's where this text challenges us, not to define ourselves as "faithful" simply 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 most-unexpected 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?

Having the sense to do what is right

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 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, if we live in "the expectation that moments of random encounter with people in need are moments illuminated by eternity" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). Maybe it helps if we put ourselves in the place of those who are hurting, or lonely, or confused, or hungry...or maybe think of our loved ones in need. Would that evoke compassion in our hearts?

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."

(Sometimes I feel like I've been worrying about that final all of my life, since the first time the nuns showed us film-strips of vivid artwork depicting Christ, arriving on a cloud of glory to judge us all. It's odd that I don't remember the part about compassion and responding to those in need being part of the lesson--I only recall the anxiety I felt about the sky opening up, and of course about being sent to the goat side of the equation.)

Saved by grace

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 says, "In this parable, Jesus does not seem to care about confession, and he 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 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: The sheep and goats, it seems, only focused on their behavior while Jesus was looking, but once he was gone, they had "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, Taylor 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" (The Preaching Life). It is as simple, and as challenging, 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 your own turn, be surprised at what you might learn, and what you might receive?

At the end of another year

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 M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

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."


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.

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 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.

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward 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

"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."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!