Text: Matthew 25:31-46
The Rev. Ann Stevenson
November 26, 2017
Jesus said, “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.”
This is the last Sunday of Pentecost, a season which began on June 4th. We call this long season in the church calendar, “Ordinary Time.”
Next week, when we enter the season of Advent, the beginning of our liturgical calendar year, and the color of vestments and hangings change from green to purple, we will begin a short season which, to my mind, is “extraordinary time.”
But, since today is an end time, our lessons from both the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel have to do with judgment…final judgment, and so we do not have warm, fuzzy lessons on this day, also known as Christ the King Sunday.
The Prophet Ezekiel speaking as God’s mouthpiece says, “I will seek the lost and bind the injured, but the fat, healthy sheep that pushed with flank and shoulder and butted the weak with their horns until they scattered the weak, they will be destroyed.”
Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, foretells the Son of Man coming in glory, like a King, (hence Christ the King Sunday). What Jesus tells the crowd is that people will be distinguished, one from another, by their capacity to express and demonstrate compassion, mercy and generosity for their fellow human beings, particularly those most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
These virtues are an example of the Agape love, that is the self-sacrificing love, that Jesus preached about and modeled, throughout his ministry.
As Jesus’ preaching continues, he ends up self-identifying with those on the margins: the least, the lost, and the vulnerable.
Jesus calls the righteous to come to his right hand, and the unrighteous to his left.
Those at Jesus’s right hand are blessed because they have shown him compassion, mercy, hospitality, and generosity in his hour of need. Whether he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison, these ones gave him solace. He was better off, because these ones existed in the world.
These blessed ones are wracking their brains trying to remember when they might have done something for Jesus. They don’t recognize him as anyone they’d shown charity.
But, Jesus says these extraordinary words to them: “Truly, I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
That means that when we care about the well- being of those on the margins, of those who are struggling, of those who need a helping hand, or a kind word, or a meal, Our Lord counts that as something we do for Him. All people are members of our human family and God’s.
One way to avoid being stretched or ethically challenged is: Don’t go to church.
At church, we hear God’s word. God in Christ is always calling us to be our highest selves, our best selves. We are reminded that true joy and peace come from loving God and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
At church, we are reminded that we are in the hands of a loving and forgiving God who is at work in us for our own good and the world’s.
At church, we are reminded that our God cares about justice.
At church, we hear judge not, lest ye be judged, for the judgment you give will be the judgment you get
At church, we hear that God is with us and in us and is counting on us to be a blessing in this world. When people ask “where is God in this?” The Spirit of God is in us, when we seek the well-being and success of all people. We are all God has. God has the human race.
We have a Lord who is the Prince of Peace and we are meant to be peacemakers in our time and place.
It takes courage to come to church because we will be corrected, challenged, and converted. There is a saying that the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. At any given time, any one of us may experience either of those two conditions.
It is possible for us, human beings, to construct our world in a very comfortable and predictable fashion that excludes any unpleasantness.
We can surround ourselves with like-minded people, never being challenged, by hearing that we are falling short of all the good we could do if we expanded our circle…never hearing that compassion and generosity are expected of us. Never having to hear about the suffering and deprivation that is going on under our noses.
Why do we, in the church, take meals to those who are sick or take groceries to those who can’t get out or collect cans of food for those who dollars are stretched so thin?
Because Jesus said I was hungry and you gave me food and that is a virtue that is pleasing in God’s sight.
Why do we have a ministry of Greeting?
So that when visitors or strangers come to us, we can welcome them and make them comfortable. Jesus said he was a stranger and we did not ignore him, we welcomed him, and this is pleasing in God’s sight.
Why do we have a resale shop? Why do we donate our gently used clothing to the church?
So that people who may not be able to shop in department stores or who have limited incomes will have something nice to wear. Jesus said” I was naked and you clothed me”. That is pleasing in God’s sight.
Why do we donate to Habitat for Humanity? So that people who work hard at low-paying jobs may have a decent and safe house in which to raise their families.
Why is Outreach so important to the church?
The church is only the church when it is in mission, reaching out beyond ourselves. We have an ethical mandate by which we live. If we are not serving those in need beyond our doors, we are simply a social club or a coffee klatch. Both of which are fine and good, they are just not the church.
Church gives us opportunities to support, with our time and treasure, however limited or great they are, those who are most vulnerable, like at-risk children and the elderly, the sick, the poor, the working poor.
We have these opportunities in the church so that we are trained in the virtues of compassion and generosity. Then we exercise those virtues in the world, to express, in a tangible way, our love for God, by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
What if we think there are people in the human family who don’t deserve to be helped? Our generosity isn’t necessarily dependent on people deserving it. We are generous because, it nourishes our souls, when we give for Christ’s sake.
Of course. We are generous with our family and friends, but are we generous with those we don’t know, those outside our intimate circle, those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder?
I’ve heard very successful people say things like…..no one ever gave me a break. I worked for everything I got. Or, They should have gone to college, then, they’d be in better off. Or, she should get a second job, or, he could get a third job.
It’s very touching to me, how appreciative people are for tips, when I give them a bit more than the going rate. I’m talking about people like restroom attendants, those who pump gas (which is rare), maids, waiters, manicurists, landscape workers, barbers, and basically anywhere that I see a tip jar.
If there is a tip jar, the people working there are not at the top of the food chain, so I always put at least a dollar in it, because I see mostly coins in it.
We need not be rich to be generous of spirit, and Generosity is not a function of wealth. Charles Dickens exposes that in truth through Ebenezer Scrooge, before Ebenezer’s conversion and redemption.
One of the most distressing accounts I heard that validated that fact was in a documentary about the most expensive apartment building in NYC. I saw this at least 3 years ago and I’m sure there are many buildings which surpass it in luxury by now.
Everyone, in this particular building, was a billionaire. A Doorman, who had worked there, and left, recounted how excited he was to have landed this great job in such a prestigious building with all these very important and successful people. He had arrived at the top of his career.
The traditional, annual Christmas bonuses meant a great deal, and they were very much anticipated and appreciated, by the employees.
One of the richest men, in the building, gave this doorman a check for $50 as a Christmas bonus, not even cash. This was the going rate for any doorman in buildings that were nowhere near the grandeur of this building.
This resident’s gift was based on the lowest possible amount he could pay without giving nothing, rather than on what he could easily afford with his extravagant wealth, for someone who served him and his family all year.
When we welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick or those in prison or support children in the Dominican Republic, as you, here at St. Paul’s are doing, the beneficiaries of our gifts are blessed and enriched and healed; and in God’s radical, paradoxical and munificent economy, we, who give, are blessed and enriched, and even healed, as well. By giving, we receive.
Those told to depart by the Son of Man, who were on his left, would never have intentionally ignored, neglected or shunned the Lord, had they seen Him, but they could easily ignore, neglect and shun people outside their circle. People they felt didn’t deserve their charity, their attention, their understanding.
They didn’t realize that the Lord resides in the least of these, as well as in them. But, before we are too hard on the goats, we are none of us finished products. We are all works in progress, even unto death.
The news of late is full of terrible, violent tragedies that seem to happen more and more frequently. We hear that our country is divided by the serious issues of income disparity, racism, the abuse of power and immigration. Injustice and abuse are a breeding ground for anger, violence and revolt.
I don’t see these complaints and accusations of injustice through a financial or political lens, but through an ethical, Christian lens. God cares about justice. God’s family is humankind.
I am an immigrant. I became a citizen when I was 20 years old. My parents immigrated to America, New York City from Edinburgh, Scotland when they were in their early/mid 20s. I was five, my brother was 4 and my sister was 3.
My father started out as a waiter at the Waldorf Astoria, and even as a child I knew that his tips made a big difference in their budget. You see from whence my tipping ministry comes. My parents worked hard their whole lives, and they loved America, like most of today’s Immigrants.
This morning we are confronted with and reminded of the social justice dimension of Christianity. Our faith demands something of us. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen with our eyes while turning our backs on the suffering and need of our human brothers and sisters who are right in front of us. This may be found in scripture. 1 John 4:20.
God is love. Not romantic love, not brotherly love, but the self-sacrificing love Jesus preached, whereby we esteem our neighbor’s well-being just as we do our own, and we are willing to have a little less so those with much less than we, can have a little more. This is not the moral ethic of the US tax system.
In church, God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit is schooling us in love, compassion, and generosity, as we worship, as we read and hear the scripture, as we sing hymns, as we befriend and care for each other, and as we open ourselves to the unfathomable love of God, poured into our hearts so that we may turn around and pour God’s love onto the world…a world desperate for healing, kindness, understanding, and peace.
Advent is on the horizon. We await and prepare for the birth of the Prince of Peace. We will enter into “extraordinary time” when our hearts are more porous; and the veil between heaven and earth is thinner than it usually is.
In advent, it is as if, we are all pregnant, men and women, preparing for the birth of Christ in our hearts. However, it is not the Christ child for whom we create a space, but the risen Lord.
The risen Lord, light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Light, life, healing, and love are our Christmas presents from Jesus.
In Advent, when want and need are felt so keenly by many, may our compassion and generosity flow like a mighty river in thanksgiving for the light, life, healing and love that Christ offers everyone of us. Whether we deserve it or not.