Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Psalm 95:1-7a Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46
David Jeremiah tells of a man calling his son and telling him, “I hate to tell you this, but your mother and I are getting a divorce. We have been married for forty-five years and we can’t stand each other. I don’t want to talk about it, so call your sister in Chicago and tell her.” His son promptly called his sister and told her the news. His sister was outraged and said that she would handle it. His sister called their father back and said, “Don’t do anything. We will be there tomorrow and we can work this out. Ya’ll don’t need to get a divorce. Just wait, don’t do anything until we get there.” The man hung up, turned to his wife and said, “Well dear, the kids are coming for Thanksgiving…..and they are paying their own way.”
Since the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, we have kept busy moving toward God and who God is for us, God embodied within our hearts, our lives, our relationships, living out the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The season after Pentecost concludes with the festival of Christ the King. This Sunday anticipates Epiphany, which celebrates the lordship of Christ. The dramatic vision of Christ coming to reign on his glorious throne governs all of the readings for today. The subtheme of Christ as a shepherd separating sheep and goats has attracted Ezekiel as a companion passage. Christ the King has long been celebrated at the close of the church year.
Thankfulness is not an exercise, it is a state of mind that makes life an adventure, guarantees love even on bad days, and in the long run, reduces life stress. At Thanksgiving, we see the generous nature of people. We see requests and actions that help feed people with food and kindness. “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.”
It’s a good feeling - giving. Somehow, people remember that good feeling this time of year. What about other times? The poor get hungry everyday. People in hospitals get lonely every day. The homeless need clothing all year long, not just during the holidays. It is wonderful to have the outpouring of holiday goodwill, but wouldn’t be awesome to experience it all year long?
In the reading from Matthew, we hear a parable that is unique to Matthew, the parable of the sheep and goats. God will separate the obedient followers from pretenders and unbelievers. The real evidence of our belief is the way we act. We live our faith not only with our lips, but also with how we live our lives. To treat all those we encounter as if they are Jesus is no easy task. What we do for others demonstrates what we really think about Jesus’ words to us – feed the hungry, give the homeless a place to stay, look after the sick. How well do our actions separate us from the pretenders and unbelievers?
I find that during the days, when I feel less like giving, less like listening to someone’s story is when God shows up for me. There is a sense of comfort and warmth as I settle into someone’s story. I forget the fifty things I was supposed to be doing and just am present with them – the person and the Holy Spirit and me – sharing the space and the challenge. Maybe, that can be true for you, too.
Sheep and goats often grazed together but were separated when the time came to shear the sheep. The passage opens with a vivid description of the Son of Man coming in glory, accompanied by angels, seated on his throne. The nations are then gathered and separated into two groups. Jesus is portrayed in his glorious return as a shepherd. In Palestine at this time, shepherds routinely had mixed flocks. At night, they separated the sheep from the goats. Sheep enjoyed the open air of the pasture, while the goats had to be protected from the cold. Because sheep had more commercial value, they were preferred over goats. As shepherd, the Son of Man now separates the sheep who are placed at his right hand from the goats at his left.
As the king invested with God’s power to judge, the Son of Man pronounces his verdict. He declares the sheep “blessed” by God and invites them to inherit the fulness of the kingdom. The sheep are blessed because they fed the king when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick and visited him in prison. The first five actions were typical Jewish works of mercy. The sheep were perplexed because they don’t recall ministering to the king in his need. He then reveals that they did so whenever they were merciful to “one of the least of these my brothers and sisters.”
Next, the king declares the goats “accursed” and consigns them to eternal fire. They did not feed, give drink to, welcome, clothe, or visit him in his need. The goats are just as confused as the sheep as to when they didn’t do these things.
The point of this parable is not who, but what – the importance of serving where service is needed. The focus is that we should love every person and serve anyone we can. Such love for others glorifies God by reflecting our love for God. Out of our gratitude and thankfulness comes our desire to serve. We serve out of love, not out of accruing Brownie points for heaven.
Jesus said it in profound and radical words. Frequently, people come to church asking for help. Matthew 25 makes me uncomfortable when I think about it too much. It is a lot of pressure. I can’t help everyone. I don’t have the money or the resources. How can I tell the really needy from the not-so-needy? I listen to their stories and ask God to guide me in my response.
What I can do and am called to do is to remember what Jesus said: “When you did it to one of the least of these, my family, you did it to me” – not, please notice just the certifiably hungry and the truly deserving. The only requirement he set was “the least of these”, which means those who are weak and vulnerable, the little ones, especially the children. So what you and I can do and are called to do is not to ignore and overlook, but to look into a human face and see there the face of Jesus Christ, because that is what he wanted us to do.
“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.”
With this teaching, Jesus concludes his public instruction, and he leaves us with this lingering lesson. The heart of the vision is the coming of the Son of Man. His coming is not to the earth, but in our hearts and to the throne in heavenly glory. The Son of Man being installed as King and Judge. We see the end of the story as we prepare for its beginning. Advent begins next Sunday.
This parable describes acts of mercy we all can do every day. These acts do not depend on wealth, ability, or intelligence; they are simple acts freely given and freely received – a greeting on a busy day, a smile when you encounter others, a hug for a friend (in the COVID free days), a listening ear for a stranger and a caring heart for everyone. We have no excuse for neglecting those with deep needs, and we can’t hand over this responsibility to the church, to others or to the government. Jesus demands our personal involvement in caring for other’s needs.
But I am just one person, what can I do? We have the opportunity to give Christmas dinners to our Ruskin families. In years past, ECW has graciously covered the cost, but this year, with no fundraising events, their money is not there. We also have provided gifts for the YMCA kids, but they aren’t doing the angel tree this year, because they didn’t have camp last summer. So, we have the challenge of not only feeding the Ruskin families, but also giving the kids and their siblings Christmas stockings full of love, and also giving one gift per child. It is something I feel we are called to do during this time of COVID isolation and separation. I want them to feel connected to us. We will provide more information a little later so you can know how you can help. 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.”
God wants to touch our hearts with love so we can respond with love for others.God wants us to grow in love by caring for the needs of others.God wants us to move away from self-centeredness and move toward God- centeredness.God wants to teach us the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth – that to love is to fully live! Jesus calls each of us to make a difference…. 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…. Amen.