Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, November 26, 2023

2023 YEAR A christ the king

Christ the King, 2023
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So many animals in today’s readings!  Sheep and rams and goats everywhere you look.  Taken at face value, it seems that your best bet is to be a fragile little lamb who doesn’t know what they’re doing.  So, big shout out to the innocent weaklings!  However, I really think the simplest reading is not the best reading of these texts today.  Sometimes Occam’s razor cuts the wrong way, as philosophy nerds might say.

The simplest reading of the gospel text we just heard is that if you feed the hungry and clothe the naked then you can earn your way into heaven.  But that can’t be true.  Because the good news of God is never a quid pro quo.  The good news of God is always Jesus.  If we are earning our way into heaven, then we don’t need Jesus.  And any reading of scripture that leads us to the conclusion that we don’t need Jesus is . . . well, it’s not Christianity.  Again, if our eternal salvation depends upon our doing the right thing, let me just remind us of the phrase “in thought word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”  We need Jesus, because we can’t do it ourselves.

The common—and quite frankly, dangerous—way to hear this gospel text goes like this: if we are nice to poor people, then Jesus will welcome us into the kingdom.  And if we’re mean to poor people, then Jesus will send us off to burn in hell.  So, we should start a feeding program, so that poor people will get fed, and then we spend eternity with God. Which, first of all, makes other people a means to an end.  But also, thinking that good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell contradicts everything Jesus says elsewhere.  

In fact, when we look at how Jesus lived his life, it also contradicts everything Jesus did.  Jesus hung out with the bad people.  Jesus sought out the goats.  He looked for the rule-breakers, the outcasts, the rejects, the outlaws.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, and Gentiles.  Good people did not hang around with “those kind of people.”  

But Jesus did.  Not only did he hang out with them, he intentionally sought them out.  They were just living their lives as outcasts, and here comes Jesus—to Zacchaeus, to the woman caught in adultery, to the thief on the cross.  Over and over Jesus sends the message that bad behavior does not keep you out of the Kingdom.

AND, as Martin Luther and others realized, Jesus also sends the message from the other side of the coin: being good does not get you into the Kingdom.  Nothing you do can make you worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  And nothing you do can ever make God stop loving you.  We confess that we have sinned against God, in thought word and deed. God forgives you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Though our sins be as scarlet, God has made them white as snow.

So, now let’s talk to the animals . . . the sheep and the goats.  The first thing to notice about this story is that the sheep and the goats are both there.  This is not a case where only the sheep are standing before the King, and the goats are off in . . . wherever goats go.  Everybody is there, whether sheep or goat.  (You may remember other stories from Matthew, when the vineyard owner says let the wheat and weeds grow together.  Or the time the fisher’s net brought in every kind of fish.)  Sheep and goats stand together before the King.  All are welcome, no exceptions, as we might say.  So far so good.

So, Jesus is sitting on the throne, and he says to the sheep, come and inherit the Kingdom.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . 

Hold on Jesus . . . are you about to say that BECAUSE we gave you food when you were hungry, we can now enter the Kingdom?  That sounds like the sheep are about to be rewarded for feeding the poor.  It sounds like they have earned salvation.  It sounds like the good people will be saved, and that makes us very concerned for the tax collectors and prostitutes and those of us who have sinned in thought word and deed.  What about the people who have not been giving you food and drink and clothing, Jesus?  
You know what’s interesting here?  The sheep have no idea what they’re doing.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”  These sheep have been in a long-lasting relationship with Jesus, and they don’t even know it!  They have been feeding him and clothing him, giving him water and a place to sleep, and they have no idea.

The sheep have a relationship with Jesus, but they don’t know they have a relationship with Jesus.  Strange, right?  They don’t go out looking for Jesus so they can serve him.  They’re just going through their lives, feeding the poor, buying Christmas presents for kids they’re never met, collecting blankets for the needy, and so on, never even suspecting that they are feeding and comforting Jesus.  

It is important to note that what saves them is something—or someone—they are completely unaware of.  What saves them happens despite not knowing what they are doing.  What saves them, it turns out, is being in the presence of Jesus!  And, the sheep could have been doing something totally different . . . driving a bus, turning a wrench, teaching a class . . . it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that Jesus was there with them the whole time.

They are just doing what they do, when suddenly Jesus shows up and saves them.  They are not saved because of WHAT they are doing.  They are saved because WHO is with them: Jesus, the King of all Creation.  This is not a lesson about feeding the poor so that Jesus will love you.  Because you cannot make Jesus love you anymore than he already does.  The sheep do not know the importance of what they have been doing.  But the presence of Jesus in their actions makes everything different, everything new, everything forgiven.

So, now you’re thinking, “But what about the goats?”  Well, what about them?  It sounds like something really scary is in store for them, doesn’t it?  It sounds like being a goat leads to everlasting suffering and torment with Satan and his angels.  It’s enough to scare you into getting out and feeding the poor.

Let me point out a telling thing about this reading:  When you heard this story from Matthew, how many sheep do you picture?  And how many goats do you picture?  Do you imagine them as being equal in number?  More goats?  More sheep?  

Just play along with me for a moment and picture an endless procession of sheep on the right, and just a handful of goats on the left.  What if when the king talks to the goats he’s talking to just a pair of them?  What if there’s nobody there?  It’s possible, isn’t it?  We can’t tell from the text.  And why is it our natural urge to make that left side of the room so crowded, anyway?  Why do we so need for there to be any goats at all?  The answer may say more about us than it does about God, if you ask me.  For some reason, we naturally resist accepting that Jesus came to save everyone.  We can’t believe that Jesus draws all people to himself, or that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.  

But what if we start from a good news perspective here?  What if we are all sheep, and the goats aren’t people at all.  What if the goats are the forces of this world that are always head butting us, like in the reading from Ezekiel?  What if the goats are things like death and despair?  Suffering and loneliness?    Or what if the goats are the things within ourselves that lead us into temptation?  Things like selfishness, and anger.  Pettiness and lust for power.  Racism and oppression.  What if those are the things that are cast off into the darkness?  What if Jesus is casting off into the darkness the forces of darkness?

And then . . .all that is left are the sheep.  The beloved of God.  Being led to fresh pastures and quiet streams.  The ones who are learning to love their neighbors as themselves.  The ones who hear the voice of the shepherd and do good deeds because Jesus is with them.  You are God’s sheep, God’s lambs, God’s beloved flock.

Listen again to Psalm 100:
Know this: The Lord himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.


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