Sunday, November 22, 2020
Reign of Christ/Christ the King
25th Sunday after Pentecost Year A
34th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 29)
Do You See Me?
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"?
by Kate Matthews
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. Despite that discomfort, or perhaps because of it, we might focus at least for a time on how we respond to 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?
A claim to superiority
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 over others, only now we hear them 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." 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.
Freedom with responsibility
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.
The "freedom" part, at the same time, 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?
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.
However, scholars also support a reading that sees all of God's children as deserving of our compassion and generosity. John J. Pilch, for example, 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?
Even more, 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," despite the foundational separation of church and state in our Constitution. We could debate that question all day, but for the sake of argument, one has to ask whether we behave like a nation that could claim to be Christian, or rooted in Christian principles.
How do we measure up?
What more Christian principles are there than love and justice, hospitality and compassion? With our exorbitant arms sales (with another enormous arms deal announced just this week), our bloated military budget, our tax cuts for the wealthy, and the calls for cuts to social programs, how well do we model the teachings of Jesus?
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 reflects 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."
We might, then, apply Brenneman's reflection to the question of racism in our nation, and our long history of systemic mistreatement of people of color in every area of our shared life. In considering a "judgement" on "our national health," we might ask, for example, what it says about us as a society (again, one that claims to be Christian) that so many of our own members live in fear of the very powers and systems that ought to protect us all, without partiality.
Seeing those on the margins
Whom do we push, or allow to be pushed, to the margins of our shared life, assigning them by default a place of deprivation when it comes to education, safety, food and shelter, health care, even dignity and security--the "goods" of life?
If we have enough, or more than enough, of these goods, are we noticing those who do not, and are we putting our energies and attention toward making this imbalance right? Are we using whatever advantage we have, in wealth, in voice, in power, in security, to advance the wellbeing of others without those advantages?
Today's reading makes it clear what Jesus thinks about these questions, and our answers to them.
This is about our public life
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. It's easier, and certainly more comfortable (even gratifying) to practice charity toward "the unfortunate"--warming our hearts as we extend a kindness or write a check or raise funds for a cause.
Not that there's anything wrong with these things, of course, but personal acts do not take the place of corporate ones, or eliminate the need for them. Isn't 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, even if we find such transformation overwhelmingly difficult. Still, we persist.
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 "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."
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, if we live in "the expectation that moments of random encounter with people in need are moments illuminated by eternity."
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?
Our consciences disturbed
We turn now to Barbara Brown Taylor's fine sermon, "Knowing Glances" (a great sermon title for this passage). 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," she writes, 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."
Judgment on our minds
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. This is fear-based religion, rather than compassion-driven faith.
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." 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." It is as simple, and as challenging, as that.
At the end of another year
We have reached the end of another calendar year, a year like no other we have experienced, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected the life of the church in profound ways. Undoubtedly, our stewardship programs and appeals, for example, have been challenged to tell the story of the church and its ministries in ways that are moving and inspiring "from a distance."
As we "gather" virtually or in socially distanced services (perhaps outdoors, if possible), we take note still of the abundance of God's love and blessings in our shared life as the church. In this hour of harvest and abundance, how is your church extending hospitality, even to those who seem least "deserving" of it?
Imagining a world of meeting needs
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?
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"?
Of endings and beginnings
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.
Another ending, another beginning: with this final Year A reflection, my time of writing Weekly Seeds comes to a close. It has been a privilege to share the ongoing practice of Bible study with readers across the church and around the world over these past seventeen years. Thank you for the wonderful conversation. It has been a blessing in my life.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
A note from Faith Education, Innovation, and Formation Team Leader, Chris Davies:
With abundant gratitude to Rev. Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds will continue in the new lectionary year under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsay. The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. She is delighted and humbled by the opportunity to resource the diversity of the United Church of Christ with theological reflection focusing on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 20th century
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Kalu Ndukwe Kalu, 20th century
"The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy."
Marilynne Robinson, 21st century, When I Was a Child I Read Books
"Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view."
Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, 20th century
"The important question to ask is not, 'What do you believe?' but 'What difference does it make that you believe?' Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?"
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."
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You're welcome to use this resource in your congregation's Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.
Do You See Me?
Sunday, November 22, 2020