Rev. Rainey Dankel | Sermon 11.22.20


Proper 29 Year A:
Ephesians 1:15-23
Psalm 95:1-7
Matthew 25:31-46

For the last several weeks we have been reading stories from the end of Matthew’s gospel, parables that Jesus uses to help his disciples understand the urgency of being prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. There is a lot of talk about punishment and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But in the midst of these sometimes grisly pictures, we also hear words of hope and love, and perhaps they speak most clearly to us in a time of disruption and fear.

Today’s passage is the culmination of these stories, here on the last Sunday before Advent, called “Christ the King.” It’s the time that we acknowledge the lordship of Christ. The imagery is of splendor fit for a king. The Son of Man is coming in his glory. All the angels are around him. The nations—all of humanity in its infinite variety—are spread out around him. Picture the parade at the opening of the Olympics. Cue the trumpets. It’s a fantastic scene. The Son of Man speaks. He is judging the whole world. And what does he say? “Did you give me a drink of water?”

Christ the King, the Son of Man in his glory, makes a startling identification. He says, when you serve the least of these, you are serving him. Perhaps we get a little embarrassed by the phrase “the least of these.” Jesus’ words, in beautifully framed calligraphy, were hung on the walls of a soup kitchen where I once served. It seemed condescending to me. But then I looked again at the text, and it is the Son of Man who uses this phrase. So, we don’t have to place the label. Our task is to be attuned to the needs, not deciding who are worthy recipients. We often speak of ourselves as bringing Christ to the world, and that is certainly true. But here the emphasis is on meeting Christ in those to whom we minister, to those in need. As she worked with the destitute and dying in India, Mother Teresa spoke of ministering to Christ “in his most distressing disguises.”

A priest who has spent his life working with gang-involved youth in California, tells of one of the first nights he went out on the streets. He had met one or two young men previously, and he knew where they tended to hang out at night. He rounded a corner in the semi-darkness and headed towards them. As he drew closer, one of the young men spotted him and muttered, “Jesus Christ! What are you doing here?”

The young man meant it as a curse. But the priest took it as a prayer. It became the prayer he often said when he went out on the streets: “Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?”

Jesus speaks about the recipients of deeds of mercy as brothers and sisters. Those in need are members of God’s family. We tend to talk about “those people” as people other than ourselves. They are not a part of us. They are poor, addicted, unemployed. They are of a different race. They live in condemned houses or on the streets. Or maybe they live behind walls in gated communities or in nursing homes. The Son of Man says, “Regardless of circumstances, they are my brothers and sisters.” We can’t define them away.

Every now and then someone says that we should run the church “like a business.” There are some useful aspects to this comparison. Yes, we need to be mindful of costs and make plans rather than acting haphazardly. But at its heart, the church is not a business. A better metaphor is that church is a family. In our baptism, Christ marks us as his own, his siblings in the family of God. A family in which the strong take care of the weak, in which the underlying principles are relational, not transactional. A place in which each of us discovers and honors the image of God in ourselves and in each other.

A common theme of the entire Bible is that God is biased in favor of the weak, that God judges a people by the ways in which it treats its powerless members. Today’s passage in Matthew makes it clear that faithful obedience to God, as demonstrated by acts of love and mercy, will suffice at that time of judgment. The judgment rendered against those who have failed to act mercifully is that they are ultimately separated from God. Our failure to love our neighbors is our failure to love God. That is the point of the Last Judgment.

Encountering Christ in others teaches us compassion, the compassion that led God to identify with all of humanity in the person of Jesus, and that we trust God extends to each of us. When we experience God’s love for ourselves, we learn to act with love and mercy towards others. Our eyes are opened to our own failings and to the power of God’s forgiveness to help us find new ways of living. We hear about this power in today’s letter to the Ephesians, in which Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened so that we will know the hope and the power that God gives to us.

This gospel is for all of us who have ever said, “I just don’t get this religion stuff. I don’t connect with all these creeds and rituals and rules. It’s just not for me.” Here’s the good news. In the final scene, Jesus doesn’t say, “Did you get the theology straight? Can you explain the doctrine of the Trinity? Do you believe in the substitutionary theory of atonement? Do you know where the narthex is? Did you gamble or drink or sing Christmas carols during Advent?” He doesn’t even say, “Did you make a pledge to St. Paul’s?” Instead, he says, “Did you give me something to eat? Because if you didn’t, you missed me.”

Now before Stewardship Chair Lee and Treasurer Wilson start stoning me, let me say that many of the things that we do here—including paying our pledges—help us to feed the hungry and to welcome the stranger. Much of what we do is focused on growing our faith as disciples, both with practical skills and with a deepening sense of God’s love that undergirds all that we do. This growth leads us to acts of mercy and justice. Because, “at the end of the day,” as we say, God will ask us if we served Christ in those we met. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love, by leading us to see that love at work in the world through our care for each other.

“Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?” This Thanksgiving holiday will be very different for most of us. The pandemic means that we can’t celebrate with family and friends; our usually big holiday feasts will be scaled back to just our own household. The virus has taken thousands of lives and left families devastated and grieving. The economy has been brought to a standstill with very painful consequences for many people. The fault lines of injustice are exposed, and we are trying to reach across lines of political difference to come together as a country. It can all be overwhelming. Indeed, there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And in the midst of this bleak picture, Jesus says, “My love for you is entirely reliable. You will find it in yourself and in your care for each other.” When we feel that the issues are too big for us to handle, Jesus reminds us that simple acts of kindness can unlock his powerful love for us. That is what we mean when we say the ancient words of the first Christians, “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus embraces those who give a cup of water, or visit the sick and those in prison, or welcome the stranger, or clothe the naked. It is in these personal actions that we encounter Christ and experience the power of God’s love and mercy for ourselves and for those with whom we engage. It is in such actions that we hear the Son of Man say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

This story is more about here and now than it is some far away Judgment Day. I don’t think Jesus is trying to scare us with scenes of Hell. We have enough of weeping and gnashing of teeth right now. We don’t need to conjure up scenes of eternal punishment. I think we are on the wrong track when we try to use fear or guilt to get people to act differently. Jesus is inviting us to learn about love as we give and receive it, right now. That is the gospel message. We need more acts of kindness, not more words of condemnation.

Perhaps you know the song by Bill Withers, entitled, “Someone to Lean On.” It begins, “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow” and it builds up to the refrain, “We all need someone to lean on.” Withers wrote this song as he reflected on an experience as a young man in the 1950’s. He was driving home to West Virginia from Florida. Late at night, his tire blew out on a rural road in Alabama. Eventually, over the hill came a truck. The driver stopped. When he learned that Withers did not have a spare tire, he drove off. Soon he came back, bringing a tire and helped Withers put it on his car. Withers never forgot the kindness of this stranger, and he vowed that he would look for ways to return the kindness to others for the rest of his life.

“Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?” He is in you and all around you. To whom will you show a simple act of kindness? Where will you meet Christ today?