Christ the King Sunday
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 25:31-46

 

 

“When was it that we saw you?” That’s the question asked by both the sheep and the goats in this morning’s gospel lesson. The right ones don’t know what they did right and the wrong ones don’t know what they did wrong, and the big surprise for both of them is that they were in the presence of the Lord when they did it. They thought God lived in the church or in the sky or in the pages of their Bibles. They had no idea he also lived among street people and in hospitals and prisons, with folks we don’t particularly care for, with all those places and people that are uncomfortable to be around.

But the sheep that had been holding strangers’ hands in those places were as surprised as the goats to find out whose hands they really were. Which means this is not a parable about doing the right thing, because, obviously, nobody in the story had the slightest idea about what that was. But the parable of the sheep and goats is, instead, a vision that reveals the whereabouts of God, who lives with the hungry, the thirsty, the strange, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and, most likely, among those we perceive to be goats. & not only with them, but they are his favorites, apparently, if only because they aren’t anyone else’s.

Some scholars think Matthew made this story up, since it isn’t in any of the other gospels. It certainly carries Matthew’s trademarks. Everything is black or white; there is no gray. Matthew is the only gospel writer who records the parables of the wheat and the tares, the good seed and the bad, the wise and foolish bridesmaids. With Matthew, it seems, you are either saved or damned. You are either in or out, and the key to your life with God is not what you believe but how you act.

Remember, Matthew’s congregation was mostly Jewish, people who had been schooled all their lives in meticulous obedience to God. But somewhere along the way right actions got replaced by right beliefs and being right became more important than doing right.

This sounds familiar with our politics today, doesn’t it?
It should sound familiar to Christians, whose lives and faith are supposed to be based on following Jesus, imitating Jesus, in love and compassion, forgiveness and acts of kindness. But somewhere along the way, it seems as if we’ve given up following Jesus and turned back to following the Law. We’ve given up our model of Jesus for the graven image of self and self-righteousness: most of us some of the time; some of us all the time. We don’t want be like Jesus; we want Jesus (& everybody else for that matter) to be like us.
So we spend our time arguing about the interpretation of scripture and all the political implications of that. Angry religious people shouting at each other and even doing each other bodily harm over the rightness or wrongness of abortion, war, homosexuality, divorce, the ordination of women, welfare, taxes, you name it, and Christians can fight about it better than anybody because, God help us, we all believe that God is on our side.

We all want be at the top of the mountain (or we think we’re already there) but, you know what? It’s the sheep that graze in the meadow at the bottom of the mountain. And guess who’s up at the top?

But in spite of the way Christians behave, I don’t think it’s a matter of just plain meanness, although the world has plenty of that. But I think, with Christians, it’s more a matter of fear—a deep down, bone-rattling fear that we’ll do the wrong thing, that we’ll choose the wrong side of the argument ourselves or that we’ll allow others to be led astray by those who have, and that God will punish us for that. We’re afraid that when the time comes “to come before the throne” it’s going to be like Let’s Make a Deal, except there will just be Door #1 and Door #2. & behind one door will be heaven (the presence of God with all the saints) and behind the other will be hell (the absence of God and light and all things holy).

Then God will ask us where we stood on various issues and the verdict will be rendered: right or left, depending on how we answer. It’s a scary picture, which may explain why when we finally decide that something is right (correct), it’s over. There’s no more discussion. We close our minds on the subject and go to work trying to convert others to the “rightness” of it, distancing ourselves from those who disagree with us, making them the enemy. We want to save them, but failing that, to hell with them, we’ll save ourselves, by getting on God’s right side and staying there.

But . . . according to this morning’s piece of the gospel, we’re wasting our time. In the first place, because we’re not equipped to save ourselves or anybody else (We don’t know enough, and we never will); and in the second place, because we have misunderstood our job.

Chances are, when it comes our turn to stand before God, God won’t ask us where we stood on the issues or how well we defended the faith. It’s much more likely that God will ask us to tell him some stories about the people we have fed and clothed and bandaged and sat with. And I doubt that what makes us sheep or goats will be the quality of our beliefs, as much as it will be the quality of our love.
(If, on the Last Day, God asks, “So, you were a Christian. Tell me, as a member of the church, did you spend your time and energies keeping people out or inviting them in?” how will you answer?)

How have we behaved towards those we would rather ignore? People we don’t know, people we don’t like, people who overwhelm us with their needs?

Make no mistake: such people are not human problems who exist for us to solve. They were not put on the earth so that we could rack up enough charity cases to buy our way into Door #1. They are here so we can see God. They are here so we can know where to find God and what to do for him. They are here for us, as much or more than we are here for them.

“When was it that we saw you?”

The story of the sheep and the goats marks the end of Jesus’ public teaching in Matthew. It is the last word on last things on this Last Sunday after Pentecost. And the way I hear it, it is the last reminder that life in Christ is not a matter of having great principles, but of practicing great compassion.

For the time being, that compassion may take us to places we don’t want to go to minister to people we may not approve of. But if we act on that compassion, and are willing to serve those people, there’s no telling but that we might be serving the Lord himself.

And if we don’t, well, …then we can be sure that we missed him.

In the Name of Christ, our servant and our king.
And in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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