Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
In Our Time
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
There are four names for this Sunday. It perhaps is a sign of confusion in the church about the nature of Jesus. Or perhaps more true to say that it is a sign of the many natures of Jesus.
First, today is the last day of Pentecost, the last day of the church year, and the end of the days of ordinary time in the church calendar. It is the day we turn our churchly thoughts to special seasons of prayerful reflection, like Advent, and of celebration, like Christmas.
Today is also called Christ the King Sunday, always this last Pentecost Sunday. This man Jesus who has been living with us and teaching us in sermons and in parables all summer long, is revealed today to be one with the king of the universe.
Today is also called the Realm of Christ Sunday. Jesus brings a new world, a new way of being, to this ordinary world of joy and suffering.
And today is also called Judgment Sunday, reflecting the scene just painted for us by Matthew, in which distinctions are made and actions judged.
This story in Matthew is a parable. It, like the others that precede it in the Gospel, teaches us about what it means to follow Jesus. But it is no ordinary parable. It is the last parable in Matthew, and these words are the last public teachings of Jesus before he goes to his death. In that sense, they sum up or at least add an exclamation point to the stories in Matthew of Jesus’ ministry. It is as if Jesus were saying to his disciples—and as always therefore to us as well—as if Jesus were saying: if you remember none of what I’ve told you, at least remember this. Remember this story.
The different names of the days of this Sunday reflect different interpretations of the parable.
If it is the day of the king, then we have to ask: what kind of king is Jesus? If you are any other king or ruler, the answer is that Jesus is a scary kind of king. Jesus preached about sovereignty that overrode national and ethnic sovereignty. People’s loyalty to God overrode their loyalty to others, and their obedience was to God before others. To God, and not to other kings, or institutions, or even to family. There are many things that demand our loyalty and obedience, but if we honor Christ as king, then those other things are impostors. Charlatan leaders. On this day especially, we reject them. They are not the boss of you. Christ is.
If it is the day of the Realm of Christ, then we have to ask: what kind of world would it be if Jesus were the ruler of it? It would be the kind of world that Mary sings about when she hears that she will be the mother of Jesus. Who expects that her child would scatter the proud in their self-centeredness, remove the mighty from their seats of power, exalt the humble, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. Jesus preached about changing the relationship between the first and the last, making what was up and down to be side by side. This is the Jesus who was so joined to the hungry, the alien, the homeless, and the prisoner that what is done to them is done to him. And that to cause suffering in them is to cause God to suffer. In the realm of Christ, the injustices that we take for granted and as inevitable, are not. When Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom—the realm—of God to come, this is what he teaches.
And if this is Judgment Sunday, then we have to ask: how are we doing? Not how will we make out at the end of time or at the end of our own individual times, but how is the world doing right now? How are things going in regards to the bringing about the the realm of Christ? This passage—for all the inspiration it brings to our good hearts—this passage is a judgment. It is a critique. Here is the world as it might be, Jesus seems to be saying. And then asks, how is the world as it is now?
Imagine a world in which there was plenty of food, but some had none and others had much more than they could eat. Imagine a world in which there were medicines to heal people, but some people could not get them. Imagine a world in which people were put into prisons far away and then forgotten. Imagine a world in which aliens were despised. Imagine a world in which some people had too little clothing, in which some people had no shelter. It is, sadly, not hard to imagine. Just as you did not do it to these, you did not do it to me, taught Jesus. As you denied these, so you denied me, he taught.
Where in time is this story in Matthew? On the one hand, it is a story, a teaching, told by Jesus in his time. It is about some other time, in the future for the disciples, but no one knows how far. On the other hand, it is a story in the present of the disciples. It is about the time they are living right now. It tells them, through a story about the future, about how the world is judged now. And in that sense, it teaches them how the world should be in the present. Teaches us.
This is a parable, not a prophecy. It is designed to make us think about what is going on and our role in it. We are right to judge ourselves. Unlike the sheep and the goats in the story, who do not know what God expects of them, we do know. We have the benefit of hearing this story. We know better. As the sheep and goats were, we will not know who we are. But we will know what we do and do not do. When we judge ourselves, our world, we cannot claim to have been ignorant.
There are two sets of criteria given by the man who sits on the throne. In one, the righteous are commended for feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner. In the other, the cursed are condemned for doing nothing. It is hard, practically impossible, to always be good. It is harder, willfully impossible, to never be. We are commended for sometimes righting injustice. We are condemned for always refusing to.
This parable in Matthew is not about salvation. It is not, as some fear, about good works earning God’s respect. It is about sanctification—a churchy jargon word that means “being good, doing good.” Our faith, and the love of God unconditionally given, is supposed to guide us to living good lives. For followers of Jesus, his words and teachings and actions tell us how.
These words in Matthew chapter 25 are the last public teaching of Jesus. The first public teaching, starting in chapter 5, is the sermon on the mount. The sermon is as surprising as is the parable of Christ the King. Do not resist an evil-doer. Love your enemy. Give to everyone who begs from you.
The sermon on the mount and the parable of the king are like bookends, like the introduction and conclusion, of a treatise not only on the nature of Jesus. Not only on who Jesus is. But also instruction—surprising instruction—about who, as followers of Jesus, we are to be.