Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Last Sunday After Pentecost

Today we at St. Thomas's gathered to celebrate the Lord's Day and in particular the festival of Christ The King. It was a good day to celebrate! Even in the midst of all the turmoil in our lives, Christ still reigns! Here is waht I offerred from the pulpit today:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Last Pentecost - Proper 28A RCL 2008
Ez 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps 100; Eph 1:15-23; Matt 25:31-46
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

In the Name of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, Amen!

I remember passing through the lobby on Monday sometime during the day, and glancing at the Food Pantry shelves. They had a nice variety of food in them, some canned veggies, and some pasta and sauce, and I think there was some Macaroni and Cheese and perhaps some tuna. I do remember the canned ockra which I wasn’t sure anyone would ever take - seems like it had been there a while. And there were the informative brochures about various services that people in need can call on in the Sussex County and NW New Jersey area. I have to confess I passed by with a little bit of pleasure. It’s good to see food there. It’s good to know members of this parish are watching out for those in need. I’m always pleased when I remember that our doors are always open. Some food pantries are only open on certain times, and you have to call ahead. That’s a perfectly acceptable way to run things, but it isn’t our way. We prefer to allow those in need to come in when they need to, allowing them to preserve their dignity by not having to make them ask. All in all, I was thinking, we’re doing pretty well.

Then I stopped by the office on Tuesday morning to check on messages and stuff. I passed though the lobby and glanced over at the pantry. It was completely bare. Even that canned okra? Gone. There was nothing there except some baby formula and the “who-to-call” handouts. Admittedly, it wasn’t the first time this has happened, but for whatever reason this time it hit home. After all, we had put up a sign asking people to take what they need but to leave some for others. Whoever visited Monday night didn’t even do that. I admit I felt perturbed, angry, and even a little violated. How could someone just take everything like that? Maybe those other food pantries are right. Maybe we need to set up a more protected system, so we can make sure people don’t take too much, so that there’s something for more people. Times are really tough economically right now. Maybe its time to revisit how we help out those in need.

It’s possible Jesus had occasions like this in mind when he told the parable that we heard in today’s Gospel from Matthew. Like nearly all of Matthew’s stories, it’s simply replete with details that, when we know a little about the context and subtext as well as the text, help to really illuminate what’s going on and what it might mean. It’s another in Matthew’s stories of judgment – seems like this past month has been nothing but these recently. And no wonder – this is the last chapter before the passion narrative begins. Jesus is naturally thinking about the end of his earthly ministry and apparently the end of all things as well.

And this one is a doozy. Jesus is now on the throne of heaven, Lord of all nations and Judge of all peoples. That’s one reason we’re hearing this on Christ the King Sunday. Nowadays we Americans don’t have a good sense of kingship or authority, but think perhaps of a Presidential motorcade or maybe the upcoming Inauguration and you might get some emotional sense of what’s going on. Jesus proceeds to divide people into two groups, on his right and on his left. (I might point out incidentally, as a left-handed person myself, that Matthew’s blatant handism is a bit offputting.) But be that as it may. He tells the ones on his right that they are blessed by God because they have taken care of Jesus’ own needs. When they took care of any of the poor and downtrodden and destitute, they were doing it for the Lord. The people on his right were surprised to hear that. And because of that, off they go to heaven.

And in perhaps the most direct and harsh words that Matthew uses in the entire Gospel, he condemns the people on his left hand to eternal punishment because they didn’t take care of Jesus’ needs when they did not minister to the poor and needy among them. Those people are surprised too, but they seem to have no options left and off they go to hell. There’s no getting around this language. It’s in the original Greek as well as the English. This seems pretty clear.
There a few things that it’s important to understand here, it seems to me. First, notice the quadruple repetition of the ways to help others out. Remember that throughout the Bible, and particularly in Matthew, whenever something is repeated it means to pay attention. And here, the same list of actions is announced not just once but four different times. Talk about a neon sign saying, “Listen up, people!” I’m not sure there is another instance in the entire New Testament at least that is repeated four times. This is obviously a really important thing for Matthew and hence for us.

There’s another thing that we might miss on a casual reading. At the end of time, notice it says that “all the nations” will appear before the throne. That’s a phrase that means everyone – Jews, Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, Barbarians. Absolutely everyone. No one is exempt. Everybody is included. So that means that everyone is not included in the judgment, but also in the “least of these” category, those who are members of Jesus’ family. There’s no special category of those who were helped. It isn’t just those like us, or just Christians, or just residents of Sussex County or whatever. It’s everyone.

And that’s actually perhaps the key to understanding this passage, it seems to me. After all, for it to be Gospel there should be News and it should be Good. It might be hard to find the Good News here, given the extremely negative things going on here. But it is there, and it’s actually not too difficult to find.

Notice who is doing the judging. It’s Jesus. It isn’t the sheep or the goats. It’s Jesus. He is the one who is the King and Lord of all Creation. He is the one who sits on the throne, channeling all the imagery of Isaiah and Ezekiel, whom we heard in the first lesson, into this heavenly vision. It is only him. He has the power, and he has the authority, and he has the responsibility to make wise judgment. And of course he will! Better him than us. We’re only human and we don’t have total knowledge like Jesus does. It’s above our pay grade and I, for one, am very thankful for that.

You know why? Because it frees us to concentrate on the giving and our ministries of service and not on whether or not those whom we serve are worthy - or not. Remember that it is “all the nations” who are both being judged and who are included in Jesus’s family. As followers of Jesus, our task is to do always what he did. He did in fact feed hungry and give water to the thirsty and all the things of that quadruple list. And he was remarkably indiscriminate about who he healed and ate with and served and died for. And that, I think is what the point of this gospel is. That’s the Good News. Jesus is the judge, not us. We don’t have to worry about whether those whom we help are hoarding food, or whether they follow the rules of the food pantry, or whether they really need it or not. That’s ultimately between them and God. Everybody, we who minister and those whom we minister to, will have to face Jesus in Jesus’ own good time. The Good News is we don’t have to worry about what anyone else is doing or not. We only have to ensure that we are doing as Jesus would have us do.

I find that incredibly freeing. It means that we can contrite on giving and healing and hoping, and generally showing the world that the rules of the world are not the be-all and end-all. Now, even now, there is an alternative. The kingdom of God and his Son Jesus Christ is being advanced, slowly perhaps by our eyes, but perfectly in unison with God’s plans. You and I are part of the advance team of that kingdom. Like campaign workers who go ahead of the candidate to get the venue ready, our job is simply to do our parts right here as the community of St. Thomas’s - to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless and visit the sick and those in prison. Are they really hungry? Do they really need that food card? The bizarre answer – bizarre to our ears which are used to hearing the words or the world – is, it doesn’t matter. Our job is to minister. Let the God of the weeds and the wheat, the God of the mustard seed, the God of the fish in the net, the God of the wise and foolish wedding attendants, the God of the sheep and the goats. Let that God do the sorting and the judging. We don’t have to. And boy, am I glad about that!

So the next time I see the food pantry empty, I’m still going to fret a bit. I’m going to hope that we the members of St. Thomas’ will do what we can to fill those shelves again. Each of us can only do so much. The message to the sheep is clear. Don’t simply ignore the needs of those around you. You cannot accept God’s love if you are unwilling to share it. Love cannot be hoarded. At the same time, we can only do what we can do. But each of us can and must do something. Whatever else you may find in this parable, doing nothing is, in Christ’s eyes, simply not an option.

So I hope you can find it in your hearts and wallets to continue to contribute to the Food Pantry, and to our Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and for the material needs of St. Thomas’s itself. Continue your ministries or service to this each other and this parish and in the community. Do like my friend does and volunteer to serve Thanksgiving Dinner somewhere. Whatever it is and whatever you can do, the need is always present. It’s not ultimately about those we are helping. It’s about treating them as Christ himself, and let Christ figure everything else out. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough to figure out and worry over than in trying to take on the job of Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Thanks be to God that’s for Jesus! I for one am relieved and delighted to have him do it.


Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well¯beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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