Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Sermon Note: This sermon was delivered in a joint zoom worship service with Rangeley Congregational Church by Pastoral Intern Becky Walker.
In Matthew Chapter 25 there were three parables that preceded the one read this morning: The Talents, Bridesmaids, and the Unfaithful and Faithful Slaves. These all stress waiting for and preparing (or not) for the return of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples these parables so they will learn from these lessons: from the foolish bridesmaids to be wise, be watchful, be ready. And during that "meantime," don't just sit around waiting: use the gifts God has given you, like bold and enterprising stewards, so that they multiply for the sake of the reign of God. Don't just sit on what God has given you.
This gospel shares the perspective of Jesus, to embrace his vision, to see the world through the eyes of his love. This week’s parable poses the question: “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?” God’s conclusion and our instructions are contained in the answer: ‘Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members in my family, you did it to me.’
Jesus is giving his disciples some farewell instructions in the last days of his life before giving himself up to the cross. He has been telling them to be prepared for his return, something they never will know when to expect. It is the climax of the ecclesiastical year. Jesus’ message is straightforward. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Nurse the sick. Visit the imprisoned. See Christ and love him in those in need. These are our marching orders in good times and bad.
I interpret this gospel reading as a reminder that all of God’s children are deserving of our kindness and generosity. This loving kindness is the kind that we extend to our family and friends, but also calls us to the more difficult concept and practice of extending hospitality - even to strangers. Hospitality, which was so important in Jesus’ time and culture, is still at the heart of how we practice our faith as Christians. As difficult as it can be, Jesus calls us to welcome and care for all – because no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey Christ welcomes you. And we are called to that same practice of extravagant hospitality. Think about that as I tell you this story:
As the worshipers arrived on a late November morning at the Lutheran Church in White Lake, North Dakota, they were met by a rather disturbing sight. An apparently homeless beggar sat on the front steps of the church, wearing tattered clothing, a wool cap pulled down over his eyes, and clutching a bottle in fingerless gloves. They had never seen anything quite like this in White Lake North Dakota.
Most worshipers simply walked around the man, or stepped over him, as he sat there. Some muttered words of disapproval, and others suggested that the man move to another doorway before the Sunday School children arrived. One member told the man, in no uncertain terms, that the Salvation Army in Minot was a more appropriate place to sleep it off. At one point, a kind woman brought the man a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee, but not one person asked the man to come in out of the cold, and certainly nobody invited him in to join them in worship.
Imagine, then, the people’s surprise during the entrance hymn, when their homeless friend made his way into the pulpit, took off his cap, and the people recognized that it was their pastor! The pastor began his remarks that morning in this way: “I didn’t do this to embarrass you or to poke you in the eye. I did it to remind us that this is a person that Jesus loves, and he has called us to love him, too.” And the King answered “When you failed to help the least of people, you failed to help me.”
This teaching of Jesus is so very different from all his other teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. For in the previous chapters, Jesus is telling parables. But in this text, Jesus is looking into the future, explaining in graphic detail, what sort of judgment day awaits every one of us. It’s not a parable. It’s not a fairy tale. It is truth, coming right out of the mouth of Jesus. Some people are troubled with this story about sheep and goats because I am sure most of you thought you were a sheep. But what if you are a goat?
God does watch the way we live our lives, and the way we live matters. And Jesus plainly says that one day, each of us will stand in line as the King points the way to eternity. Some will be directed to the right, and they will spend forever in the Kingdom of God. But others will be directed to the left, and eternity, for them, will be spent in hell.
God has expectations on how we live our lives. The expectation is not to be perfect, but to be generous, kind and compassionate, and to love our fellow man. We will recognize the sheep and the goats by the way they live their lives. Sheep graciously share what they have to those in need. Goats want to keep all that they have to themselves. Sheep see others in distress and they are compassionate. Goats see others in distress and they tend to ignore them. When goats see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see a homeless man. When sheep see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see Jesus. What do you see??
I bet each of us can remember where and when we have been on the receiving end of kindness. Maybe somebody changed our flat tire, or fixed our computer problem, or made a meal when we were sick. These can be acts of the mercy that Jesus will honor on the last day, and for which we can be grateful for right now. Stay humble and grateful for the mercy shown to us, so we can extend mercy to others. Jesus thought this was important enough to talk about as his final week of life drew to a close. Because Jesus is living on the streets. Jesus is in soup kitchen lines. Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat. Jesus is in the hospital, or more likely, suffering and sitting, because He cannot afford to go to the hospital. Jesus is in prison. He wants us out there in the world looking to find him in the heartache and pain that surrounds us.
Julia Carney wrote these words in the mid-19th Century. They still ring true today:
“Little drops of water, little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land.
And the little moments, humble though they may be,
make the mighty ages of eternity.
Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
make our earth an Eden, like the heaven above.”
I like to think it’s the little acts of kindness that often go unnoticed that have the best chance of transforming the world around us into the kingdom of God.
Preaching in front of the congregation he loved so much at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told his congregation--just two months before his untimely funeral--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 them, 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. (I Have a Dream, 191)
What better time to put this lesson to work? From Thanksgiving to Christmas is the traditional season of giving. Our love and little acts of kindness are needed now more than ever from within the church (even by Zoom), our communities, and our country. We all need to see Jesus in the world and respond to the needs of Jesus in the world. Remember to give all that you have, in every way you can, every day, so that Jesus’ work can be done by the church as well as by her members.
Jesus has told us where to look for him and how to find him. Let’s not keep him waiting. AMEN.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.