"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sunday Sermon for Christ the King: Matthew 25. 31-46


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

May I be granted the grace to speak God’s word.

I was away last weekend at Vicar school and at one stage - to do with nothing we were learning at all - somebody mentioned the ultimate meaning of life  - as in what’s the answer? Quick as a flash someone came back with “42!” The person who asked the question is in her twenties and looked blank – much, I see, as most of you are: it must be a generational thing. In 1979 Douglas Adams wrote a book called “The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy” which was subsequently televised and has recently been made into a film. Being of that generation I devoured it. It is wonderful, funny, anarchic and bonkers in equal measures. In it there is a computer called Deep Thought who, having been asked to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” after seven and a half million years of calculation and pondering, delivers the answer: 42. This, of course, completely confuses those who were waiting for the answer and then Deep Thought suggests that perhaps those who had framed their ultimate question might not have thought it through.

Well, here we are at the Feast of Christ the King which finishes the liturgical year: next week we start Advent and this seems as good a time as ever to consider the point that when we're seeking ultimate answers, how we understand the question matters.

So, what’s the question for today’s Gospel passage?

The passage seems to be about judgement, believing in God and what each of us needs to do or display in our lives in order to get to heaven. Is that what this passage is about? The problem is that the Gospels in general and Matthew in particular don’t seem all that interested in Heaven and Hell. Neither did the early church Fathers. Come the Reformation in Calvin’s writings there are two paragraphs about Heaven and One about Hell: in the totality of his writings. When the Bible talks about the Kingdom of God, the trend for quite some time now has been to understand it as The Kingdom of God … on Earth: God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the here and now.

If you think the question is “Am I going to Heaven? Will I be saved?” Matthew seems to be suggesting that you have missed the point. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers. That’s quite a different answer to the question. What you're seeking is probably not pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, pie in the here and now. So maybe the question rightly asked is not “what happens at the end of things?” but more like “what am I supposed to be doing right now? What does Jesus want me to do? To be? How will my life be different if Christ is King?” Certainly we should be asking whether we are sheep or goats.

Of course, at the Time Matthew’s biography of Jesus is set this was a really pertinent question because of the ongoing theological and political debate about who really was THE LORD. Was it the God of the Hebrews, Jehovah, YHWH, or was it the Emperor in Rome? Well, those days are long gone but the question remains, certainly theological and yes, political too: who is the Lord? Jesus or something else offered and affirmed by modern culture? The usual things people elevate as gods - power and influence, wealth, celebrity and fame - are subsumed in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God's Kingdom is not about self-aggrandizement, it's about renunciation. It's not about big words, it's about little actions, often little anonymous actions. Life in God's Kingdom is not about what we have or who we are, it's about what we do. It's not about what the world values, but what God values.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea: in the Old Testament book of Micah, “This is what the Lord requires of you: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The message is this: if we love God, if our values are God-values instead of the world's values, if Christ actually is King, then we will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives. If our values are God-values, we can't help but live as Christ taught and in doing so we bring the kingdom of God closer. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? “If Christ is ruler over our lives”, Dr. King told his audience, “then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being.

Perhaps the feast of Christ the King is just the right time for a personal spiritual audit: if we were to take a snapshot of our lives now how are we doing? Ezekiel put it rather well, “This is the sin of Sodom: she had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn't support the poor and needy.” Now that’s not what many Christians will tell us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about but they’ve clearly got it wrong if we accept what Ezekiel is telling us. So in our personal audit perhaps we should be asking ourselves where we are on the true Sodom scale of personal ethics. In Today’s Epistle St. Paul commends the Christians at Ephesus for their “faith in the Lord Jesus and love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” These people are working out what their responsibilities are as Christians to each other and more widely. And Paul commends them for it because they were called to be a sign of the age to come just as we are, the Kingdom of God.

We cannot avoid the recognition that what we are talking about here is not just personal ethics. It has a huge political dimension. When the Church of England published its critical report Faith in the City in the 1980s, members of Margaret Thatcher’s government dismissed it as Marxist ideology and concluded that the church was run by a load of communist clerics. The message was quite clear: the church shouldn’t meddle in politics. Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the other hand noted, “When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”.

Equally, St Teresa of Avila wrote in the 1500s, 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.

That should give us all pause for thought. Let’s look at Matthew’s list again: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to see who those people are in modern British society: they are mainly the marginalised, the “other” upon whom we look down: the poor, the homeless, the  asylum seeker or refugee, the immigrant – black, Asian or Eastern European, the offender … but we are quite good with the sick! What’s that? One out of six. My aren’t we doing well? And it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. We could add in attitudes to do with gender and sexuality, with class, with size and weight, with education and so on. These are political issues and the Religious Right, particularly in the United States gets this so wrong. Did you know that you can be imprisoned in Florida for feeding the homeless? Just listen, “Church leaders in Florida were preparing for a second confrontation with Fort Lauderdale police on Wednesday over a controversial new ordinance that bans them from feeding the city’s homeless.

Pastors from two local churches and the 90-year-old leader of a long-established food kitchen were arrested at a park on Sunday, two days after the law took effect, for attempting to serve meals to homeless residents. Each received a citation threatening 60 days in prison and a $500 fine. Dwayne Black, pastor of the Sanctuary Church, said he and church members would set up their regular feeding station at Fort Lauderdale beach on Wednesday in defiance of the ordinance. He said he expected to be arrested again and to spend the night in jail.

“We have been feeding the homeless for a long time. It is our calling and our duty to not let another human being go hungry. But now it’s a crime to feed a hungry person,” Black told the Guardian.” The Mayor who introduced this law, Jack Seiler, isn’t an Atheist but a regular member of a local church.

An extreme example possibly but, without wishing to turn this into a party-political broadcast, it serves, I hope to illustrate the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As we listened to that report we will have pictured the events. We will have had a range of emotions. I think we should keep hold of those thoughts and feelings as we go back and re-examine our own attitudes to the marginalised in society: the poor, the homeless, the foreigner, the gay, the prisoner, the poorly educated, the African Ebola sufferer and so on and ask ourselves again where we are on the new Sodom continuum. “This is the sin of Sodom: she had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn't support the poor and needy.” We could ask ourselves whether, like Martin-Luther King jnr, we are loving extravagantly, dangerously, and with all our being.”

How are things going to end? What happens after we die? I don't know, and neither do you. But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing. If Christ is King, we know Jesus waits at the end of that story, that he will see us, and know us, and that if we have done what he taught us, he will claim us as his own.

Our prayers for ourselves today should include the petition that as we continue to grow to spiritual maturity we become the sort of Christians who care for the poor and the needy, the outcast and the marginalised, not because of fear of judgement and our place in the afterlife but because it is the Christlike way to behave. It is the way of Christ the King.

And, I have to say, that is question and answer enough for me.

May God grant that I have spoken his word.


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