Sermon: On doing the things

Christ the King Sunday, Year A
Matthew 25:31-46     

There’s been something circulating on social media this week entitled: “The entire Bible explained in one Facebook post.” It’s a picture of someone’s FB status, attempting to retell the story arc of the entire Bible in a few hundred words, and thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can actually just show it to you below:

While I can state with certainty that the Bible is a lot more complicated than that, this meme does reveal something profoundly true about us, as readers of scripture: we are really hung up on “the things.” We are really hung up on the righteous things, and the sinful things, and on who’s done which and what’s happened to them afterwards, and that can be especially true for us when we read Jesus’ parables of judgment—like the story of the sheep and the goats. Come on, tell me you didn’t read this story and automatically start worrying about whether you were a sheep or a goat. We are a people who love to categorize the world, and it is as easy as breathing to do that with this parable, and to treat as a cautionary tale with the moral: “Don’t be a goat—do the things.”

But here’s my issue with that: Jesus has spent most of his ministry trying to convince the people who are really hung up on “the things”—like paying taxes, and who gets to sit at God’s right hand, and working on the Sabbath—that it’s not about “the things” at all. It’s about Jesus, and about the God who is revealed in him. And the God who is revealed is one who calls the little children to him, who feeds the hungry and makes the blind see, who forgives and heals and breaks down boundaries.

And since Jesus has spent most of his ministry trying to get people to see that, I don’t think that what he’s doing, here, three chapters from the end of Matthew’s gospel, is suddenly changing directions, and telling the parable of the sheep and the goats as though to say, “Wait, sorry guys, actually, salvation is all about the things, so start planning ahead.”

After all, if the goats and the sheep planned ahead, it certainly didn’t do them any good. Did you notice that their reactions to the king were exactly the same? Both of them were surprised. Neither of them knew what was coming, in these moments of judgments. And that means that neither of them prepared for it. Neither the sheep nor the goats went through life preoccupied with whether they were doing enough good works, and whether they were performing them for the most influential people. They simply did what they did because they were sheep, or they were goats, and that is what they were. These images go back to Matthew’s words about good trees producing good fruit. The tree doesn’t worry about what kind of fruit it’s producing; it simply does what it does, because it is what it is.

Grafting. (Wikipedia.org)

You who are gathered here this morning have been baptized into the Body of Christ Jesus. You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, forever. You have been grafted onto the Tree of Life, and the fruit you bear you bear not because you fear the harvest, but because this is who you are: a branch of Christ’s choosing, nourished by the root of God’s saving love and mercy, strengthened by the stirring sap of the Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, this isn’t something you can know, in an objective, rational sense. But it is something you can trust. And you can trust it because the one who has promised it to you is Christ Jesus our King, and this King does not lie. This Shepherd does not lead astray.

Do you know the very next thing Jesus says after finishing this parable—his last parable? He says, “You know the after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” It’s an odd note to end on, but maybe that’s the point: Jesus wants his disciples to remember this parable in the context of his going to the cross for them.

This is not insignificant. It is not mere coincidence that the man who casts himself as the sorting Shepherd in this story knows that in a few hours, his hands and feet and side will be pierced, just as surely as he trusts that that body will be raised.

It means that, in the picture of the last day that this parable paints, the body that stands before all nations to judge will be a wounded, resurrected body. And this matters: as he stands to divide the sheep from the goats, this Jesus’ very body will be a symbol that our works, righteous or unrighteous, are not the last word in God’s plan for salvation. Jesus is standing before his disciples telling parables of judgment not to cast them into uncertainty, but to say to them, “Don’t start doubting me now.”

Mosaic in Ravenna, Italy, c. 520.

This said, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that works don’t matter at all. There’s a distinction to be made here: our works cannot earn God’s grace; they do not matter in terms of our salvation. But they do matter.

Today in the forum after the service we’ll be talking about a few Women of the Reformation, and I want to share with you the words of one of them: Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic. She wrote:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what we do matters not because we hope to be saved, but because we have been saved. Because we have been saved, we are now Christ’s body, his hands, his feet.

What, now, shall we do?

This September, I had the privilege of attending an event called Nourish New Haven, about food justice in our local community. There were great workshops and excellent speakers lined up, but what I remember most not scheduled: a middle-aged black woman stood up during one of the Q & A sessions and told her story. She described what it was like to live in abject poverty on the other side of Prospect Hill. She told us what it was like to work three jobs, what it was like try to raise her kids as a single parent, about the complex mathematics involved in making her SNAP benefits stretch each month to feed all those hungry mouths.

She described the joy she found when one of the community gardening programs helped her start a garden in her backyard; about how, all through that first growing season, for the first time in years she didn’t have to worry that her SNAP benefits wouldn’t stretch far enough. She spoke lovingly about being able to prepare food for her family that she grew: food that was healthy and plentiful and good.

She told us with pride about how, when her oldest child was old enough, he got a job at McDonald’s to help the family make ends meet.

And then she told us how they were disqualified for SNAP benefits, because the income her teenage son brought in by working at McDonald’s made them ineligible.

As she spoke, I thought of all the passing comments, or the posts on social media, that I’d seen about the poor. About how if they just worked harder they would be able to escape the cycle of poverty—as if being poor is simply a matter of will. And I thought about how I’d been tempted to believe them—because I do want to believe that I live in a country where the system works, where those who need help can get it, where those who work hard can make their lives better.

I also thought about how believing that the system worked meant that I could stop thinking about it.

“Christ has no hands in this world now but yours.”

“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.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and the Church spends it worshiping God with songs and scripture and prayers about the day which is surely coming, the day when Christ comes again in the fullness of his power and glory, reaches into this groaning creation, and brings to completion a new heaven and a new earth. As certainly as we may trust in the promises of God, Christ is coming, and will make all things new.

But—in the funny way God has of breaking outside the boundaries of logic and expectation, Christ is also already here.   And in this gospel passage, he tells us exactly where to look for him. Christ is among the hungry. Christ is among those who thirst. Christ is among the sick and imprisoned. Christ is among the shivering naked.

What, now, shall we do?

People of God, let us go and look for him.

Fritz Eichenberg. “The Christ of the Breadlines.”
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