We have come to the last Sunday of the Church year;next week we’ll begin a new season and a new year. While this is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, we often refer to it as the Sunday of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, reminding ourselves through our Scripture readings and our hymns that, when all is said and done, it is Christ who is the Lord of all creation, humanity and space-time. The very same Jesus who lived and taught, and suffered and died, rose to new life and ascended into heaven before he sent the Holy Spirit, is the One we call Lord, Kyrios in Greek, the Christ, Anointed One, Messiah – the One whose judgment is for the good of all that God has created.
Today’s sermon is also the third and last in our series that has looked at the practices of Christian religion that the Church has given to us as a means of structuring and supporting our love of God and love of neighbor. True religion, remember, is never divorced from spirituality – which is our relationship with God - but holds and enhances it, and encourages us to grow in faith, trust, and action.If we separate religion from spirituality we eventually get two lesser entities: religious forms alone become dry and potentially legalistic;spirituality alone can become individualistic, formless and vague,disconnected from our neighbor and our actions towards him or her, and disconnected from the larger community of faith through history and throughout the world.
To remind ourselves, there are four basic practices that the Church has given us:
1. Corporate worship – the importance of gathering with other Christians on a regular basis to pray, listen to Scripture together, affirm our faith and trust in God, offer our thanks, celebrate the sacraments, and offer our praise in words and music.
2. Daily prayer and Bible reading – whether we use the Prayer Book, Forward Day by Day or some other devotional, or some other regular practice, we do well when we connect to God on a daily basis, bringing the concerns and joys of our hearts to God, and asking for guidance, wisdom, forgiveness and strength.
3. Stewardship – acknowledging that all we have and all that makes life worth living is a gift of our good and generous God, and that we are merely care-takers of what we have been given, and that it pleases God and brings him joy when we offer some of it back to him to be used for the work of God’s Kingdom.
4. And finally, works of mercy and justice.
We hear that laid out very clearly in the parable Jesus has told in today’s Gospel, which often gets called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats; it’s also sometimes called the Judgment of the Nations. Just as in the other Gospel readings for the last three weeks, in Matthew’s narrative sequence we are in now Holy Week. Jesus has been teaching in the Temple and this is his final word to the crowds; the next day will be Maundy Thursday with the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest. And he is saying to any who will listen that God’s judgment will be about what you do and why you do it; you can’t separate those two things, just like religion and spirituality can’t be separated.
The image of the king as shepherd sorting out the sheep and goats is deeply grounded in the Old Testament understanding of God as shepherd to God’s People, and of David as the human Shepherd-King who, for all his flaws, strove to be a faithful servant of Yahweh, who is the true King and Shepherd.
The criterion the king uses in the parable is mercy and works of compassion: “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… 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.”
Jesus is saying that whenever we care for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the powerless we are caring for Jesus himself; Mother Theresa used to call it “recognizing Christ in all his most distressing disguises.” Caring for others in their need is a way of ministering to God, of expressing our thanks and gratitude, a way of entering into Jesus’ own compassion for the world, which he expressed most fully in his Crucifixion. This is a fundamental Christian practice, one that the Church from the very beginning has identified as a healthy and authentic living out our Christian faith, and at the same time a vehicle for developing faith.
But let’s be clear; works of mercy and compassion are not about being Lord or Lady Bountiful, bestowing upon some lesser person something that really requires little of you. Compassion literally means “to suffer with;” compassionate action means that in some way you make yourself vulnerable to what the other person is going through, you don’t wall yourself off from their pain (but neither do you get lost in it), and you keep the door open to you being changed by your interaction –
allowing the Holy Spirit to flow between you.
That is, in part, what that element of surprise in the parable is all about – when the righteous ones were surprised by the king’s judgment of the worthiness of their actions; we never know in what ways the Holy Spirit will use what we do and the way we offer ourselves to bless others and to give glory to God.
The other aspect of this practice that the Church has given us as a fundamental structure of Christian religion is working for justice. It is the twin of works of mercy, which are often on a one-to-one, personal level. Justice is more often about working to create the kind of social fabric that reflects God’s goodness in the world, than it is something done for an individual.
While God’s justice sometimes doesn’t seem to equal fairness as we understand it on a secular level, it is deeper and broader than mere fairness. The prophets of the Old Testament consistently call the people, and especially their leaders, to the exercise of justice so that the poor, orphaned, widowed, and aliens in the land will not be trampled by the rich, the powerful, and the self-satisfied.
As we heard God say about his people in Ezekiel, using the imagery of a flock of sheep: “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… 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.”
Justice is about creating and supporting the common good for all people, and justice and mercy are what we committed to in the Baptismal Covenant:“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Our answer to those two questions is: I will, with God’s help.
Another way to think of works of justice and mercy is being God’s hands and feet in the world; Jesus is our heart and head, and we as the Body of Christ reach out to others, and make a difference in their lives, in the world, and for the Kingdom of God, knowing that what we do will be limited by our finite humanity, but will be a vehicle for all the goodness and fullness of God in ways that we may never know or even imagine.
So… corporate worship, daily prayer and Bible reading, stewardship, works of mercy and justice – these are the practices of our religion that are like the ligaments that hold us together as the Body of Christ and that provide both a container for and an expression of our personal relationship with the Living God, the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Savior of humankind.
That’s what it means to be a Christian – loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves; we can do no less. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.~ BCP, Prayer of St. Francis
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Last Sunday after Pentecost/Christ the King
November 23, 2014