Sermons

“Goats and the King of Heaven” – Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost/Christ the King Sunday

“Goats and the King of Heaven” – Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost/Christ the King Sunday

Nov 22, 2020

Passage:Matthew 25:31-46

Preacher: The Rev. Mildred Rugger

Series: Season After Pentecost

Category: Love, Discipleship, Outreach, Servanthood

Keywords: judgment, image of god, beloved community, baptismal covenant

Summary:

Even where selfishness, anxiety, and strife have been dominant, we can stand on the foundation of love and build the Beloved Community of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Detail:

 

In the name of God, who is love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday of this Church Year. Starting next Sunday, our Gospel focus will move from Matthew to Mark. So, it might be worthwhile to take a moment to think about the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. 

Matthew is a complex, intriguing Gospel. It presents many images to help us begin to grasp the Kingdom of Heaven and what it means that Jesus is “God with us.” Sometimes those images are confusing and even contradictory. It seems like Matthew wants us to wrestle with those images, to be willing to live with their mystery, and to use our imaginations to enter into God’s reality.

Matthew is distinctive because of its emphasis on the teachings of Jesus. Five discourses take up about a third of the Gospel. For instance, early in Matthew, we learned how to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” More recently, we learned the greatest commandments in the Kingdom of Heaven: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

And today, we are at the end of Jesus’ final discourse, just before the events that lead to his crucifixion, resurrection, and return to his heavenly Father. This is Christ the King Sunday. Today we learn how Jesus, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, will judge when he comes in his glory. 

Judgment. That’s a heavy topic. Clearly Jesus wants us to pay attention. He talks of “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” on one hand, and of “eternal life” on the other hand. “Eternal” here takes us outside of time and puts us into a different quality of existence. Does eternity feel like punishment through God’s purifying fire, or does it feel like a new kind of life, an inheritance from God?

Our experience with judgment may put us in the wrong frame of mind for hearing about judgment in the Kingdom of Heaven. Human judgment is deeply flawed. Which is why Jesus was blunt earlier in Matthew: “Do not judge.” I get that. My judgment is deeply flawed. 

In fact, the image Jesus uses here of separating sheep from goats reminds me of an illustration about my judgment. A few years back, my husband Warren and I were taking a trip through the Hill Country. I glanced toward a field and commented, “That’s weird. What are all those dogs doing out there?” It was actually a herd of goats. Warren never, ever lets me forget that, referring to dogs every time we see goats. It gives us a good laugh; it also helps me remember the problems with my judgment. I don’t pay attention to the context. I don’t notice the right details. I jump to conclusions.

Judgment in the Kingdom of Heaven is very different from my judgment. What is judgment like coming from the one who makes love our number one priority? The one who is “God with us”? The one who IS love?

If we skim through this scene, we see a number of characters our society often connects with judgment: those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison. You know, those lazy people who can’t even provide for themselves or their families. The ones who come here without being invited. The ones who make poor choices and end up sick. The ones who are locked up because they cause problems for us, the fine folks who are not in prison.

Oops! They are not the ones being judged by the King of Heaven. And it’s not clear why they are in those situations. Maybe others have been so greedy that they can’t get what they need. Maybe they’ve been cheated or oppressed or persecuted or falsely accused. Or maybe not. What matters is how we have treated them when they lack the basic necessities of life: nourishment, hydration, shelter, community, health, freedom.

The criteria for judgment here is clear: have we taken care of those in greatest need? Have we seen their needs? Have we ministered to their needs? How do we go about doing that at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church? 

In part, by working with the agencies in Amarillo that focus on providing basic necessities for those in greatest need. Agencies such as Catholic Charities, High Plains Food Bank, Another Chance House, Downtown Women’s Center, the PARC, Martha’s Home, Heal the City, and the Interfaith Campaign for the Homeless. Right now we’re collecting for the Evelyn Rivers Coat Project and for 50 children through the Angel Tree project. Individuals within our congregation give financially, serve on boards, and volunteer in many ways. Those of us who have the means might consider giving to one or more of those agencies during this holiday season. The needs are even greater than usual this year.

Another way to think about needs in Amarillo is to think of neighborhoods with a history of limited resources: North Heights, the Barrio, San Jacinto, and Eastridge. Since 2016, Amarillo has been working on Neighborhood Plans to improve quality of life in those areas. At St. Andrew’s, we also are gradually increasing our cooperation with organizations in those neighborhoods. Let’s continue to think together about how we at St. Andrew’s can do more. How can we be good partners of the residents of those neighborhoods who are working to bring positive change?

Another way that we at St. Andrew’s address basic needs is by filling in gaps not met by larger agencies and organizations. Our weekly breakfast ministry, monthly sack lunches, and Thanksgiving dinners have been ways of feeding those who, for whatever reason, aren’t getting enough food from agencies. Because of concern about health in the time of COVID, we have not been feeding people directly. Can you think of safe ways that we could do that again? If so, please contact the church office or one of the clergy with your ideas.

Even during this time of pandemic, St. Andrew’s has continued filling in gaps. By giving to the clergy discretionary fund, y’all make it possible for us to help with needs such as rent, gas, groceries, medications, and utility bills. We don’t give cash to individuals. We pay the bills directly or sometimes give United gift cards. Usually, the Deacon on Duty for each week receives any requests for assistance and does some research. Then, the deacons think together about how much help we are able to offer. We do refer people to agencies. But we still help directly because sometimes there are barriers to seeking help from agencies in a timely manner.

Supporting these efforts financially is important. I hope, though, that most of us look for ways to do more than that. Let’s look at the passage again. We’re told that when we minister to “the least of these”, we minister to the King of Heaven. To me, that sounds like an encounter that happens best when it’s up close and personal. Of course, not everyone is able to be up close and personal with those in need. Especially not in this pandemic environment.

But there is special grace when we do. We meet the King of Heaven! Is that part of what Jesus means later in Matthew when he promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age”? Is Jesus with us in a special way as we minister to those in need? Is that what our Baptismal Covenant means when it asks: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Especially those in greatest need, but, honestly, we all have needs. If we could truly do that, God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. Culturally, we’ve gotten into a judgmental frame of mind that makes it hard to seek Christ in all persons and to serve them. And it’s faulty judgment. We’re looking at goats and seeing dogs.

The basic issue is that we judge those who seem different from ourselves. We think they can be summarized according to what we perceive as their worst trait. Persons cannot be understood by labeling them “lazy bums” or “greedy capitalists”, “fascists” or “socialists”, “terrorists” or “racists”, “rednecks” or “snowflakes”, and on and on. Focusing on labels like these makes us want to selfishly protect ourselves and those who seem like us. We become anxious that those terrible “others” are trying to take away what we need, and strife prevails.

But those who seem different from us are not the labels we put on them. They are persons. With their own stories, with their own unique mix of traits. If we seek and serve Christ in all persons, we look for their unique sources of worth and dignity, we extend grace to them where they are broken. And we love them by working for their good, working for our mutual good, working to build Beloved Community.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in his new book, Love Is the Way, puts it this way: “To love your neighbor is to relate to them as someone made in the image of God. And it is to relate to yourself as someone made in the image of God. It’s God, up, down, and all around, and God is love” (p. 96).

That sounds like good news! If we can see Christ in those with great need and in those who seem different from ourselves, perhaps we can see Christ in ourselves. If we know that Christ is in us, we have the courage and strength to live more fully into the image of God. Then, even where selfishness, anxiety, and strife have been dominant, we can stand on the foundation of love and build the Beloved Community of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christ, the King of Heaven, help us, we pray. Amen.