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November 20, 2005 (Reign of Christ)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Grace and Peace to you from God our loving Creator and Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
Many of you may not have realized when you came today, but this Sunday is the final Sunday of the church year. And I've been thinking about what it would be like if today instead of a sermon we had a final exam, like there are at the end of a year in schools.
What if your faith were measured the way we grade tests? Would you be comfortable if it was your salvation or damnation that would be determined by whether you pass or fail? Would you feel prepared for this test? Do you think you would pass? Have you been paying attention in class? This concept may seem like a great idea to some of you, but to most it is probably quite frightening.
During the past 27 weeks of the church year, the semester we call Pentecost, we have been walking with Jesus through the gospel of Matthew. And throughout this time we have run into words of Jesus that stump us--because they seem to be full of law and stories that sound like our faith is under close examination, for approval of disapproval.
Today's lesson seems to be on the same track--leading us to some type of final test--a test that will lead us to either salvation or damnation. This idea that some will be goats and some will be sheep, challenges us.
In one of my favorite passages of scripture, 1 Corinthians Chapter 1, Paul says that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. For us as Lutherans, I think these parables in Matthew serve as our stumbling blocks because they just don't seem to fit our understanding of a God of grace.
At first glance the gospel lesson for today seems to be one of those stumbling blocks.
Today on Christ the King Sunday, Jesus tells us that the end of the world is like a king who separates the sheep from the goats--those who gain eternal life, from those who are left for the devil. Jesus is explaining the coming of the Son of Man in a way that his audience would understand.
It will be like the end of a day of work for a shepherd. Shepherds often had sheep and goats in their flock. And most of the audience would have experience with these two types of animals, knowing that goats often go their own way and are harder to control, while sheep are more responsive to the shepherd's commands and will usually go where they are led. At the end of the day a shepherd would take the sheep and goats that had been grazing together and divide them into separate pens.
Jesus seems to be saying that at the end of his work, the separation of people who believe in him from those that don't know him as their shepherd will be as simple as separating one species from another.
This sounds like a test to us, but whether a person is in or out happens without an interview at the pearly gates, or a list of names, or any of the tests we have been taught to expect.
The criterion is, instead, whether or not we have served "the least of these" in Jesus' family. Listening to these words of Jesus, we immediately think of it primarily as a warning to us and we put the pressure on ourselves to avoid a punishment by doing what it takes to pass the test.
However, understanding this criterion actually starts with understanding that it is Jesus that goes through the ultimate test for us, and that our response as sheep or goat is in response to that love for us.
The context of this story reveals that immediately after this parable Jesus' Passion begins. It is significant to understanding the meaning of text that this parable of the sheep and goats is the last parable Jesus tells his followers before his betrayal and death.
With this parable Jesus seems to be helping his hearers understand the cross, and that true power is found in this event, even though it looks like a failure. When Jesus told the parable of the sheep and goats and told us that we should see him in the least of these, he was about to become the least of these.
We see the parable as a test that's about us, but Jesus is putting the emphasis on those in need and revealing what type of King he is.
Because Jesus on the cross died for each of us, he has a unique connection and care for all of us but a unique solidarity for those who are suffering, because of the suffering he endured. In understanding the kingship of Jesus Christ, we are brought face to face with all the immeasurable power of God, where we least expect it, in the places that we normally see as weak in our society, in the faces of the least of these.
Jesus considers the needy as his family, and if we love Jesus as his followers, than we are to love those he cares about as well. The least of these become our family. That is how we are to function in the world as Christians. I read a quote last week from a Lutheran scholar who reminded me that "When we let Jesus into our heart he brings all of needy humanity with him."
We think we understand this. It seems like common sense. And yet carrying out this love for the needy and meeting Jesus there is actually quite a challenge for us.
We want to see God in the success stories, not in the failures of the world. When we seek to find where God is at work in the world, we often find ourselves looking for whoever seems the most blessed to us, according to what we value in this world--riches, fame, ability, confidence and security--not those in need of help.
When we say talk about where we find God in this world, many of us--including me--will say that we experience God by being alone in nature or when we see a beautiful sunset, before we think to say anything about experiencing God in loving our neighbors or serving the least of these.
It is easy for us to become distracted or ignore where Jesus is calling us to seek him, especially if we are afraid of where following the shepherd's voice may take us. After all it is not glamorous to be called to go to those who are suffering or in need of special care.
But we forget that it's not glamorous to love us either. We have all felt like the least of these at points in our lives and received some word or encouragement from stranger or a friend and felt that God was present in that connection. That God had given us a gift in the help of that other person.
When we think of how God has used us in others' lives, it is difficult for us to determine who we have helped or been led to help, and who have been the least of these for us. Part of understanding our parable for today is knowing we won't always be aware of these actions, but the text also seems to lead us to finally ask ourselves, "Who are 'the least of these' in my life?"
For each of us the answer is probably different, as God works in unique and surprising ways in each of our lives of faith.
There is a great story from our church tradition that makes this parable and the inspiration to love "the least of these" real to me, and I'd like to share this example with you as you reflect on who might be the least of these in your life.
Martin of Tours, was born in Hungary around 316 AD. As an adolescent he joined the Roman army, where he learned of Christianity and became a believer. While a catechumen, awaiting his baptism, he was serving as a soldier in Gaul in France.
On a particularly cold day of winter at the gates of the city of Armeins, he met an unclothed man, freezing in the cold. He stopped and did a strange thing to this stranger, (by all worldly accounts he did a foolish thing). He cut his cloak in two and gave half to the man in need.
That night Martin dreamed that he was in a heavenly court and he saw Jesus robed in a tattered cloak. An angel asked Jesus, "Why do you wear that battered old cloak?" And Jesus answered "My servant Martin gave it to me."
"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"
How close is Jesus to us and to the suffering of his human family? Closer than we'd think. Martin of Tours is one of the saints of the church, and so are you. You also follow Christ the King and know his voice.
We do not love our neighbor to keep score, we do not seek the least of these to get extra credit for a final exam. We love because Christ loved us. We love because Christ in his immeasurable power and love for each of us became the least of these, and came to be with us in our weakness.
The new church year starts next Sunday and the story of Jesus' Advent starts in the same place today's lesson ends.
God does not come to the world in order to test it. God loves the whole world so much, each of us so much, that Christ comes to us in our weakness, and Jesus' kingship starts as the least of these, as the child of a homeless family born with the animals of a barn. That is the king we celebrate today and the reign of Christ that continues in us.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
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