Christ The King A, November 26, 2017

November 27, 2017

The Season Finale

Matthew 25:31-46


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.”


You probably didn’t arrive at church this morning with the anticipation of a season finale, but I want you to try to think of today in that way. I know our worship service doesn’t have all the entertainment value of the season ending episode of a cherished television series, but today is the last Sunday of Year A in the lectionary cycle. Of course the lectionary is a three year cycle that’s been going on for several centuries, and we all sort of know the story, so it doesn’t really have the element of surprise that comes with a final episode of a television drama or comedy, but it’s a powerful story that manages to provide us with ongoing inspiration and confrontation.


Today’s text invites us to hear the way in which our lives are to be judged in an ultimate fashion, and I think there’s probably something here to provide us each with some comfort as well as some motivation to do better.


One of the things that I find to be comforting about this passage is the way in which the sheep, those who were directed toward the right hand of the King were all surprised to find themselves in the position of favor. They weren’t really aware of the way in which they had done things that were pleasing to God. And I’m guessing this is the way it is with most of us – it’s probably the unconscious ways in which we provide comfort and aid to others that is the most pleasing to God.


Of course there’s also the possibility that we aren’t very aware of the all the ways in which we fail to love and serve our neighbors and consequently disappoint the King. I’m guessing a case could be brought against most of us in regard to the ways in which we have ignored the needs of our neighbors. I’m reminded of the final episode of what might be one of the greatest comedy series of all time – Seinfeld. Sharla and I were sort of slow to catch on to the show during it’s original run, but we got caught up, and we never pass up the opportunity to watch a rerun. I’m not suggesting that you go watch the show if you aren’t familiar with it. It probably doesn’t meet the criteria for what John Wesley would call edifying material, but it does serve as sort of a reverse morality play. You can learn a lot about what not to do by watching an episode of Seinfeld.


The four main characters in this show are all clearly flawed in wonderful ways, and their various foibles are relentlessly exposed. I wouldn’t call any of them malicious, nor do they ever really set out to do any harm, but they are generaly pretty conniving and shallow. You might say they are primarily guided by insecurity, lust, greed, laziness, impatience, arrogance, and a very refined form of stupidity. It’s a great show. Watching an episode of Seinfeld always leaves me feeling better.


It was a sad day when the series came to an end, but I thought it had a great ending. The four main characters ended up in court for violating the Good Samaritan Law. They were caught on video laughing at a man who was the victim of a petty crime, and they were taken to court where the prosecution was able to bring before the court a long line of witnesses who could testify to their consistent failures and misguided agendas. I think you could say Jerry, Kraemer, George and Elaine served as perfect examples of those who were assembled at the left hand of God, but in their case the final judgement was that they never failed to deliver good comedy.


But today isn’t a final episode – today is a more of a season finale, so we don’t have to wait for months for a new season to begin. Often a season ending episode will end with some unresolved drama that will keep your interest high in what will happen in the next season. And you might say that this morning’s text has an element of cliff-hanging drama for us. But it isn’t the characters in the text that we are concerned about, Jesus told this story in order for us to have some concern for ourselves. Like some of the other stories we’ve heard from Jesus, this passage makes it clear that there is this possibility of missing out on the joy of abundant life and of falling in to the abyss.


As I mentioned earlier, the thing that speaks to me in this passage is the way in which everyone was surprised by the judgement of the King. The people who were revealed to be the sheep were as surprised as the people who were labeled as goats. This enterprise of Christianity doesn’t work by promoting ourselves in any way – it’s all about the way we respond to each other when we aren’t calculating the benefit for ourselves.


This King we call Jesus isn’t interested in the way we parade our faith – our King is watching for the way in which we connect our professed love for God with love for our neighbors. Jesus had little use for words of praise that were disconnected from acts of love for hurting neighbors. The essence of what Jesus taught doesn’t get much clearer than what we see in today’s passage.


This passage is a little clearer than I like to be in regard to the Final Episode of our individual lives. It’s not easy to reconcile my image of God as being unconditionally loving with this portrayal of the One who sees us as sheep or goats. There’s something hard for me to hear in this passage. I’m reminded of all those nameless men and women I walked past on the streets of New York who were huddled with all of their belongings in a pile beside them and a relatively empty cup of coins.


Of course it’s pretty easy for me to justify my need to ignore their need. It would be impossible to function if we felt like we had to respond to every need that came our way. I don’t believe there’s an easy formula for us to develop to guide us through the challenge of balancing our call for compassion with our need to operate, but I think this passage serves to prevent any of us from claiming any special relationship with the Lord of Life. The way we are judged has little to do with the way we think of ourselves – both the righteous and the doomed were surprised by the way they were seen by God.


Jesus didn’t cherish the people who set out to impress him. Jesus valued the people who loved their neighbors unconsciously. They weren’t after the reward, they didn’t even know how greatly they were serving God when they reached out to those who were cast aside.


I really don’t think Jesus told this story to put fear in our hearts of landing in the wrong place when we reach our Final Episode. If anything I think he wanted to undermine the way some religious people are inclined to define the categories of who is in and who is out of God’s favor. There is some powerful judgement revealed in this passage, but it primarily serves to cut down on the way we exercise judgement over one another. And the way Jesus tells the story there’s just no room for any of us to lord ourselves over others. We have all fallen short of loving each other as well as we can.


Jesus was nearing the final episode of his season on earth when he spoke these words. He was dealing with some people who considered themselves to be overly important in God’s administration, and Jesus told this story in order to deal a deathly blow to their willful ignorance of God’s actual desire. Being self-righteous isn’t the only way to offend God, but Jesus made it clear that this is something God always finds to be offensive.


What I find in this parable is what I almost always find from looking closely at Jesus – which is both comfort and confrontation. I’m happy to hear that our relationship with God has little to do with how well we know how to articulate the finest points of Christian theology. I’m not so happy to recall those moments when I’ve failed to say anything to someone who was hurting, or to provide water to someone who was thirsty.


It’s hard for me to read this passage without feeling the sting of judgement, but I think we should also hear that there are moments when we unwittingly provide God with great pleasure. I suspect that few of us fully embody the sheep or the goats. I think we probably all continue to surprise God with our capacity to extend grace as well as our ability to harden our hearts.


George, Jerry, Elaine and Kraemer never did the right thing, but they hold a dear place in my heart. This probably says a lot about the twisted nature of my heart, but I’m guessing God also has the capacity to see who we really are regardless of what we seem to do. Jesus was very clear about what is most important, but he knows who he’s dealing with, and he loves us anyway.


Gratefully this isn’t the Final Episode. There’s another season coming up, and by the grace of God we will become a little less self-righteous, a little more compassionate, and a whole lot more grateful for the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior, and King!

Thanks be to God! Amen.



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