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Sermons

“Last, But Not ‘Least’”

11/22/2020 Christ The King Sunday The text is Matthew 25:31-46.

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[Jesus said to the disciples:] 31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today is “Christ The King Sunday”.  This represents the end of the church liturgical year; next week the new church year begins, as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent.  This starts the monthlong period of awaiting the birth of Christ.  But this morning, also known as “Reign of Christ Sunday”, we celebrate that God’s reign in the entire universe has already been accomplished, through Jesus. At the same time, we anticipate the day when that reign will be accomplished in every human heart.  Yet another reminder of the duality of the Kingdom of God; the “already here” and the “not yet”.  In preparation for the fulfilment of the coming kingdom Jesus has told a number of parables describing what the kingdom will be like, once it is realized.  Matthew recounts twelve parables of Jesus speaking to what “the kingdom of heaven is like”.  Seed sown in good versus bad soil; wheat growing among weeds; vineyard laborers all being paid the same wage, no matter how long they worked; sums of money either being invested or hidden away.

The overall theme of these allegories is the separate nature of the good and the bad, of faithful versus unfaithful behavior.  A willingness to accept the will of God, or to live as though God’s people have no responsibility toward their sisters and brothers.  And the parables come to a startling conclusion this morning as Jesus details the fate that awaits the sheep and the goats.  That is, those who heed Jesus’ command to care for others and those who choose to ignore it.  This final description of God’s kingdom is expressed through Jesus’ stark narrative of the ultimate judgment of God’s children.  This “last word” regarding what the kingdom will be like corresponds to the time when Jesus will take his rightful place as sovereign over all, to begin his reign as “Christ The King”.  And this parable is the one that truly strikes at the heart, that brings to a crystal-clear conclusion what the previous stories have been merely hinting at.  Jesus has moved beyond veiled allegories about seeds, weeds, yeast, and mustard seeds.  He looks us right in the eye and we are rewarded or condemned by how we have treated those he calls, “the least of these”.  Either we aided the thirsty and hungry, provided clothing for the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned…or we simply did not.

And here’s the part that really stings.  Jesus affirms that our actions, either way on behalf of these, were in reality our way of treating Christ himself.

We are either sheep or goats.  And this parable, harsh as it seems, strikes at the heart of the matter of the command to “love one another”.  Allow me to paraphrase; “when you do what is right and reach out with love toward the needy, you are in actuality providing for Jesus himself.  On the other hand, when you ignore the needs of those in desperate circumstances, you are truly turning your back on Christ”.  We are either sheep or goats.  Or, are we?  Perhaps this is a question with more than one answer; Luther famously wrote that we are “simul justus et peccator”.  “At the same time, sinner and saint”.  Perhaps this might lend itself to, “at the same time, sheep and goat”.  There are surely times when we have reached out to the needy, and in turn, served Christ.  And, while we’re likely not as quick to admit it, we have neglected to come to the aid of another, thus turning away from Jesus.  “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?”  Jesus is pretty clear on this one; “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  Perhaps we have all been sheep AND goats.

The Hebrew word, “hesed” appears quite often in the Old Testament.  It roughly translates as, “acts of kindness”.  But the real intent goes much deeper.  It refers to love and loyalty that inspire compassionate behavior towards others.  In the Hebrew Bible this word is associated with the acts of God, those which are related to God’s mercy, compassion, love, grace, and faithfulness.  And these are nearly always connected to God’s faithfulness toward God’s people.  This “hesed” of God, this compassionate behavior is expressed most clearly in the sacrifice of God’s Son, for the salvation of the world.  When Jesus commands us to be the sheep not the goats; ever willing to act with mercy, love, and compassion toward those in need, to “the least of these”, he is reiterating this ancient Jewish belief in the concept of “hesed”, the willingness to act as though we serve God through these actions.  In fact, this word, “hesed”, is the root of Hasidic, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that believes that faith is best expressed by what one does, and not by what we say.

It’s true that nearly all of the world’s religions practice some form of showing kindness to others, but as Christians, we ought not view this call to serve as mere humanitarianism.  We must always keep in mind that when we serve others, we serve Christ.  We are called to be sheep, and not goats.

So, we followers of this Jesus, we Christians, we are keenly aware that this call to serve “the least of these” is just about the most important thing Jesus ever commanded of his people, of us.  So much so, that he chose to make it the subject of his very last parable, explaining what things would be like in God’s kingdom when it is ultimately brought to bear.  And we would like to think that this call to serve is most ardently, most effectively answered by the “the church”, by the institutionalized expression of the ‘already here” of God’s kingdom.  But is this the case?  Are the critical needs of “the least of these” best met by the wider institutions of faith, or is it the acts of individual followers of Jesus that make a difference?

In 2003 Mike Yankoski and his friend Sam Purvis set out to experience what a life of homelessness was really like.  It was an exercise that was to dampen, challenge, and eventually strengthen their understanding of the nature of the kingdom of the “already here”, and of the ways that the world answered Christ’s call to care for “the least of these”.  Mike wrote about their experiences in a book entitled, “Under The Overpass”.  In his writings he details the events that took place over the five months that he and Sam spent living on the streets of five different American cities.  It’s a difficult, challenging read; they were freezing, sweltering, soaked, starving, and filthy.  They found that the most “hesed”, the greatest examples of acts of kindness seemed to come from other individuals.  In some cases, it was others who found themselves living as “the least of these”, other people struggling with addiction, mental illness, abject poverty, or homelessness.  In other cases, the help came from folks who identified as Christians; people bringing sandwiches to the parks where the homeless camped out, or running shelters or soup kitchens.  And they found that some churches were inviting and genuinely put Christ’s command to serve, into action.

But, the most difficult parts of the book for me, were the times when Mike and Sam unrolled their dirty sleeping bags and slept on the steps of churches, hoping that their fellow Christians would recognize Jesus in their grimy faces. And in many cases, instead, parishioners, and occasionally a pastor would ignore them, step over them, or go as far as to inform them that the church wasn’t a place for these two undesirables to be hanging around.  It seems that the addicted, the homeless, and the broken ones were the compassionate sheep Jesus would be quick to reward, while the “church” was often the herd of uncharitable goats that he would most certainly condemn.

As the “church” Emanuel is engaged in our own small ways to serve our neighbors; those who might benefit from clothing, food, notes of encouragement, or a place to worship where all are welcome.  And this is what we are called to do, as an organized group of Christ’s followers.  The command to serve is not targeted only to the “church”, but Jesus speaks to us as individuals when he admonishes us to reach out to those in need.  We are not able to attend to the needs of everyone, but we are certainly equipped to relieve the suffering of individual people, if we undertake this task one distressed child of God at a time.  The need is all around us, we simply have to remember that Jesus is visible in each of those needy faces.  Each “Will Work For Food” sign is being held by one of “the least of these”.  Every huddled bundle sleeping in a doorway contains a child of God.  Whenever a panhandler asks for our spare change, we must decide…are we sheep or goat?

As individuals, how we respond to Christ’s message commanding us to view all our brothers and sisters as though they were Jesus himself, leaves us with very few options.  We can provide or ignore.  We are saint or sinner.  Sheep or goat.  Our lives are a never-ending series of decisions; we can do, or not do.  Go left, or right.  The best we can hope for is that we keep Christ’s command foremost in our heart when we make each decision.  Hopefully, we will be goats less often than we are sheep.  “The least of these” are praying that we will do as Jesus mandates’ for their sake, and for ours.        

Will you pray with me?  Good and gracious and Holy God, guide us when we hesitate, when we’re unsure if we truly see your Son in the face of those we encounter.  And we pray these things the name of Jesus, who is Christ the King.  Amen.  

God is Good, all the time.  All the time, God is Good.  Amen.

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