Last Sunday after Pentecost
If you’ve been at church at least one Sunday over the past few weeks perhaps you, like me, will be relieved to hear we are at the end of these challenging teachings of Jesus. Today is the last Sunday of the church year and next Sunday we start anew. Switching gospels and leaving Matthew behind for Mark as we prepare for the coming of Christ.
Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel is surely the most challenging consecutive set of stories. First there was the story of the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. Some have enough oil for their lamps – others don’t. And the ones who don’t get shut out of the wedding feast.
Then there was the well-off landowner who doled out the talents – asking each of his slaves to turn a profit with what they’ve been given. And while some are able to do it – even more so then expected – for the poor guy who was too scared to take a risk – he gets thrown into the outer darkness where there is the infamous weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And now we’ve reached the summit – when the king separates the sheep from the goats. And the poor goats now find themselves in the strange company of bewildered bridesmaids and incompetent investors.
So why do we end the year with these stories? To prepare by cowering in fear? Having us wonder – are we sheep, are we goats – when we know we don’t always do what is right? Is it meant to scare us into action? Get us to start counting up our good deeds in order to joyfully await the birth of Jesus and feel good about all our Christmas presents?
I think it’s important – critical really – to hear the line that comes right after this morning’s gospel. The beginning of chapter 26 – When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Jesus is preparing for something too. Time is running out. No more time for miracles or teachings. No more time for breaking bread with his followers. The end is just too near.
Earlier this week the priests of this region met with our bishops. This is something we do once a year. Bishop Sutton assigns a book for us to read and we get together and discuss it. This year we looked at a book on heresies. You know, teachings about Jesus and God that the Christian church deemed unorthodox – not right, not valid. Mostly they sprang up during the earliest centuries Christianity – before the institutional church had secured a position of dominance by being closely aligned with a governmental power (as Jesus has railed against, but that’s another sermon).
Most of the heresies have to do with the nature of Christ. Was he really human? Really divine? But some are about the nature of God.
Marcion of Sinope in 144 thought Christianity had a major marketing problem – the God of the Old Testament. Marcion was a Christian – a Roman he had been converted by the teachings of Paul – and when he read the Old Testament he thought – well that God is just too mean.
Look at Jesus – he teaches about love, forgiveness. He couldn’t believe Jesus could come from the same God of the Hebrew bible – where there was so much wrath. And he thought that kept people from the faith. So he put together his own bible and formed his own community – claiming Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah but a spiritual entity sent by a God who had not had previous interactions with the world. He set up an either/or concept. Old Testament bad. New Testament good.
And I think this heresy is alive and well. I hear people say it all the time. It’s not too hard to do because there are some really challenging stories (like what we heard from Zephaniah last Sunday) that interpret destructive events as coming from the hand of God. But the canon, Old or New, is not that clean and tidy. Yes – the wrath of God, the day of the Lord that is darkness and fierce judgment is in the Old Testament – but as we heard this morning – you can find that in the New Testament just as well.
And remember, the Old Testament stories cover a little over a thousand years of history – a thousand years of people trying to understand the workings of God through their experience.
The gospel stories – they cover about three. Not really an apples to apples comparison is it? But I get it. It’s easier to make generalizations and lump books into clear cut categories – then it is to struggle with the messiness and hold unanswerable tensions.
But this morning we are forced to. Because our gospel has the judgment and eternal damnation – while our reading from the Old Testament has the good shepherd feeding his sheep. What would Marcion make of that?
He’d have a problem. And I think the problem, comes from comparing scripture instead of taking it whole – the good, the bad and the ugly as the movie title goes. If you spend all your time arguing scripture against itself – God said this, but Jesus said that, or vice versa – that’s an either/or, right/wrong game – that would probably result in an angry stalemate. The wisdom of the church is that we have to take the whole thing – this entire canon of stories that are not neat and tidy.
At the start of Matthew an angel tells Joseph – you will call him Emmanuel, God with us. At the end of Matthew, Jesus stands on a mountain and says to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always,” God with us – is the beginning and ending of the gospel’s message. God with us informs everything – especially how we interpret God’s judgment.
When you are with someone who is thirsty how can you not give them a drink? One time, I was serving at a neighborhood supper, a soup kitchen. It was the summer and hot. Some guests came down as we were setting up the tables. As I sat with them, talked with them, it finally dawned on me that I kept swigging from a bottle of Poland Spring while they patiently waited for me to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry – let me get some water for the table.” When you’re with someone – you can’t help but see their need. You don’t think “Oh, let me do something good now because I’m a Christian.” You just do it.
And I think that’s the point. I am not a sheep – I am not a goat – I, just like you, am (according to scripture) a beloved child of God, created in God’s own image. And when I see people, which isn’t all the time. When I am really with people in relationship, that’s when I most naturally act out of compassion, unaware almost, like those sheep, that I’m doing anything of great significance. What I hear God reminding me of this morning is to pay attention to that, cultivate that. See the people around me, be with the people around me. Not out of fear – but because I believe God is with me.
And acting out of compassion, generosity, love – that is what enables others to believe that God is with them too.
This is why we sit down to eat with one another on a Sunday after worship. To cultivate being with each other. This is why we’re reading a book in Outreach called “Toxic Charity.” Because it’s about how we might re-envision and renew our ministries by seeing if we are in relationship with people. Apparently that is how we see Christ in the least of these and are moved to acts of compassion.
God’s judgment is defined in the words of our opening collect which hearken to the Good Shepherd in Ezekiel – it is God’s will to restore all things. To feed all with justice – meaning, all have food, all have water, all have safe and fertile pasture to live, work and most especially, rest.
If God is with us – then God calls us to be with one another – especially with the least of these. That is how we best prepare to celebrate God’s coming into this world to be with us. That is how we might find ourselves surprised, just like those sheep, as to the ways in which God with us, moves us to be the Good Shepherd in our world. Amen.
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks