Wednesday, 1 January 2014

"... Just as you did it ...": a sermon (Matthew 25:31-46)

On the day for which I prepared this sermon (5th January 2014), using the version of the Revised Common Lectionary we use in the Uniting Church, I have a choice of four sets of lessons from Scripture for the service:
  • There were the lessons for the Second Sunday after Christmas.
  • There were the lessons for the following day, Monday, 6th January, the Day of Epiphany.
  • Also there were two sets of lessons for the preceding Wednesday, 1st January.  One set of lessons was for the celebration of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.
  • As well, the other set of lessons was for 1st January as New Year's Day.
In this service, I'll include the Gospel lesson for the Day of Epiphany, I'll select most of the hymns with Epiphany in mind, and I'll prepare most of the prayers with Epiphany in mind. 

I'll also include the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel lesson for New Year's Day, and I'll preach on the Gospel for New Year's, Matthew 25: 31 - 46. 

***

St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in Dublin has a stained glass window honouring the Guinness family, a family known throughout the world as master brewers and throughout Ireland as generous philanthropists (and as faithful Anglicans). 

Given both the brewing and the philanthropic activities of the Guinnesses, the appropriate scripture text to put on the window was rather obvious.  It comes from today’s gospel lesson:  “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a powerful and poetic image of the climax of human history. 

And many of us may find it more helpful to treat this material in Jesus’ teachings as being poetic in nature, rather than something we must necessarily interpret literally.  In today’s lesson, Jesus tells about a great scene of judgement, a great sorting-out of humanity.  And this scene can also speak to us about all the little judgements we face every day of our lives, as well as it can to any great future event. 

Let’s enter the scene as set by Jesus.  The ruler of the universe is about to pronounce judgement upon humanity.   A rag-tag group is asked to move forward.  As they shuffle to the front, a few sneering remarks can be heard:
·        “A bunch of bleeding heart leftie do-gooders,” one voice snarls.
·        “Heretics. Theologically unsound.” intones another voice.
·        “Hoi polloi.  Not our sort at all,” a third voice brays.

A shocked silence results, both from the scoffers and from the rag-tag company, as the verdict is read out:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 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.

And the response from the rag-tag group to the verdict was a stunned “Did we? . . . Did we really?”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these … you did it to me.

As the next group is called up, many in the crowd have their fingers crossed.  If the first group was given great joy because of their active generosity and hospitality, perhaps the next lot would be condemned because of their active evil.  Perhaps the active “bleeding-heart leftie do-gooders” would be followed by some active “do-badders”.  Perhaps many waited to hear something like this:
·        I was hungry and you stole my food.
·        I was thirsty and you polluted my water.
·        I was a stranger and you said “Stop the boats.”.
·        I was naked and you paid money to stare at me.
·        I was sick and you made my medication too expensive.
·        I was a prisoner and you said, “Throw away the key!”

But the prosecution case was not focused only on the active “do-badders”.  Of course, they were there, and they were there in droves.  And they got theirs. 

But there were also many ... ordinary people brought up to answer the charges alongside the Pontius Pilates and the Neros; alongside the Hitlers and the Stalins, alongside the Bashir al-Assads and the Kim Jong-Uns.  These people were “ordinary’ in two of the ways we use the word “ordinary”.
·        They were “ordinary” in the sense that some politicians and talk-back radio personalities use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “I represent the views of many ordinary people in the community.”
·        They were also “ordinary” in the sarcastic sense that many Australian sports commentators use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “Both sides played some really ordinary football this afternoon.”

Alongside the Pontius Pilates and the Neros; alongside the Hitlers and the Stalins, alongside the Bashir al-Assads and the Kim Jong-Uns were many ordinary people ... and I mean really ordinary.

And the case against them was based on some really ordinary behaviour:
·        I was hungry and you ... did nothing.
·        I was thirsty and you ... did nothing.
·        I was a stranger and you ... did nothing.
·        I was naked and you ... did nothing.
·        I was sick and you ... did nothing.
·        I was a prisoner and you ... did nothing.
As I said, it was some really ordinary behaviour.

And that was the case for the prosecution. ... And it was enough.

For those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation, this passage of scripture sits uncomfortably with much of our religious upbringing. 
·        We were taught in Sunday School, in confirmation class, in some hymns, and in far too many sermons that our good works ultimately mean nothing in terms of our status before God.  
·        We were taught that our status before God is a matter of “by grace we are saved through faith”, which for far too many Christians merely means “getting our theology right”. 
·        As a result, there are those who believe that people who “get their theology wrong” are in eternal trouble, however actively they reflect God’s love in their lives.

As a result, for some Christians, this is the sort of passage that there is great pressure to “explain away”, almost as if Jesus had said something like this to those who were blessed by God:
·        I was hungry and you preached to me about the bread of life, even if you didn’t bother to offer me anything to eat. 
·        I was thirsty and you lectured me on my drinking habits.
·        I was a stranger and you examined me on my theology of the atonement, biblical inspiration, infant baptism, and sexual ethics before allowing me to become a church member.
·        I was naked and you expressed your moral disapproval of my appearance.
·        I was sick and you told me that my illness was a sign of a lack of faith.
·        I was in prison and you debated the shortcomings of liberation theology.

Of course, we need to affirm the importance of God’s radical grace over and above our religious busy-work.  It’s not a question of how much prayer time we clock up each day.  It’s not a question of how many “justwannas” a minute we can pack into our prayers.  We are called to trust God’s radical grace rather than our religious busy-work.  And, in this light, we need to continually emphasise the importance of God’s radical grace in contrast to our religious busy-work.

The problem is that many Christians take this emphasis on grace to mean that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives.  And let’s be honest here:  any people who believe that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives have really got their theology wrong … dead wrong.

Here, in this climactic passage in Matthew’s gospel, we hear a challenging message
·        that our good works actually mean a lot in God’s sight;
·        that our reflecting God’s mercy, hospitality and generosity is far more important to God than  “getting our theology right”.

This is a challenging message – a message that very much is “in-your-face” to those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation.  It’s a message we hear in many places in the scriptures:
·        in the Sermon on the Mount,
·        in the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
·        in the Letter of James,
·        in many sections of the Hebrew Prophets,
·        and, very dramatically, here in Jesus’ poetic vision of the climax of human history.

“... just as you did it to the least of these ..., you did it to me.

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