Christ the King A, November 23, 2014

November 25, 2014

Hope For The Doomed
Matthew 25:31-46

25:31 “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.”

There is a sense in which reading this passage of scripture from Matthew leaves me feeling doomed. If Jesus is in that multitude of people who are hungry, cold, wet, and in need of some hot coffee or cool water – he knows I have done my best to keep my distance from him. Jesus knows how many times I’ve walked right past him over the course of the last week and left him out on the street without enough clothes or a comfortable place to stay. I’ve provided a little food and a few clothes, but I’ve done my best to avoid getting overly involved. I sure haven’t gone to see him in prison. The truth is that I do a good job of maintaining good boundaries between myself and desperate people.

Consequently, this passage leaves me feeling sort of doomed. Damned to hell I suppose. A couple of weeks ago I read a passage from a sermon that was composed by Rev. Dr. Augustus Winfield (the original namesake of this facility) who described hell in a powerfully graphic manner, and some of the language he used came right out of this very passage. He talked about hell being that place where the devil and his angels go to burn in eternity. I didn’t have access to his entire sermon, so I don’t really know what he said would land you in that eternally horrible place, but I feel sure his image of eternal punishment was influenced by this very passage of scripture.

And what jumps out at me this morning is just how well qualified I am to be in the ranks of the devils angels. I’m sure I don’t know all the ways in which I’ve turned my back on people who have needed my help, but I could give you a pretty good list of those I know I’ve ignored, and that doesn’t bode well for my inclusion in heaven.

I continue maintain my hope that the circumstances we face at the end of our lives on earth aren’t as black and white as this passage might indicate, but Jesus didn’t hesitate to point out that there are consequences to the choices we make. How we treat one another leaves us looking like sheep – or goats. Welcomed in to God’s glory – or cast into a very unpleasant place.

And I’m doomed. I don’t just ignore the people Jesus most closely identified with – I fail in so many other ways. I once attended a gathering of preachers where we were directed to break up in to small groups and discuss the fine points of tithing to the church. The conversation among my peers left me feeling like it was assumed that we were all members of that rare and highly disciplined group. They seemed to think it was only lay-people who failed to give the full 10% to the church, and I felt compelled to own up to the fact that I wasn’t hitting the high bar of 10%. I still don’t quit hit that magic double digit.

They didn’t put me out of the group, but someone raised the question of whether or not a true tithe required a person to pay 10% of their gross income or 10% of their net income after paying taxes. At that point one of my clergy brothers said that if you aren’t paying 10% of your gross income to the church you are stealing from God. I took his assessment sort of personally, so I raised my hand and announced that I was a thief — which sort of killed the conversation for moment. I may be a thief, but I’m not much of a liar.

And I’m certain I’ve got what it takes to be a goat. I have surpassed all of the requirements. The devil and his angels know my name and where I live. I’m doomed if Jesus scores us accurately.

But who can pass the test of perfect compassion?

Based on this passage of scripture, if we were to divide the room between those of us who know ourselves to be goats and those who would self-identify as sheep I’m guessing there would be more seats available in the sheepfold. Now I may be wrong about that. I know this is an exceptional congregation. And you may be holding out great hope that I will one day become as sheeplike as the rest of you, but I’m telling you – it’s more likely that it will snow in that eternally hot place before I let go of all my goatlike ways.

I haven’t given up on getting better. I embrace the Wesleyan notion of going on to perfection, but there’s a long way to go on that journey. Fortunately my hope doesn’t depend on my ability to be as compassionate as God calls me to be. My hope is rooted in the perfect compassion of God, and God’s willingness to remain with imperfect people.

One of the things that stands out to me in this passage is how surprised everyone was to find out how they were viewed by God. Both the sheep and the goats were amazed to find out how their lives were being measured. We can’t act surprised to find out that it’s important to care for one another and particularly important to watch out for people who are especially vulnerable. It’s no secret that it’s important to help those who are in no position to return our favors, but how that works out for us is rather mysterious.

I’ve given you a hint of the ways in which I’ve failed to be as compassionate as I know I should be, but I als know how amazing it feels to do what Jesus asked us to do. The surprising thing is not just how badly we can fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. The truly surprising thing to me is how rewarding it is to care for someone who’s suffering.

I don’t believe this passage today is a warning of how we are judged by God at the culmination of time or even at the end of our own lives. I believe this little story reveals how perfectly Jesus can be with us in the normal course of a day if we will live with some sensitivity to those who are around us. This isn’t a story that exposes the nature of divine scorekeeping. This is a story that reveals the surprising way we come to experience the presence of Jesus in our midst when we take those steps out of our own self-absorbed lives and in to the life of someone who is wounded, weary, or neglected.

None of us have the capacity to fix the life of somebody else, and it’s good to recognize those sacred boundaries that exist between us all, but a compassionate word can feel a lot like the breath of God to a person who is hurting, and I believe God finds ways to bless everyone who is involved in those holy moments.

Our king doesn’t reward with public pronouncements or grand positions. Our king provides us with rewards that don’t expire or become inaccessible. God blesses us in really surprising ways when we engage in this holy work of being compassionate to one another at critical moments.

We do fail. And there are consequences to those failures. When we fail to live we compassion for other people we have to spend more time alone with our selfish selves – which is probably not that much different from an eternity with the devil and his angels.

We aren’t perfect, but we are loved by a God who doesn’t want us to live in isolation from one another. God wants us to be happy, and God knows we need to experience the joy that comes with caring for other people. We aren’t perfect, but we aren’t doomed. Jesus knows that we need to learn to give of ourselves, and God will always provide us with those holy opportunities to flee the wrath of selfish isolation and in to the joy of God’s holy herd.

Thanks be to God.


One Response to “Christ the King A, November 23, 2014”

  1. Earl and Helen Jones Says:

    Thanks, I enjoyed and got something’s out of it the second time around that I missed at the service.

    Earl Jones 501-944-1860 PO Box 2547 Little Rock, Ar. 72203


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