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"Words that won’t pass away"
Mark 13: 24-37
Woody Allen once said that at “more than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and the other to total extinction.” He then added, “let us pray for the wisdom to choose correctly.” There’s an American poet that was quoted as saying that “if we see any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of an oncoming train.”
I think it’s fair to say we live in a pessimistic world. You know, after a while life just has its way with us. The things we love, the things we rely on, all seem to pass away. And while this experience of the things we love passing away may be unique to each one of us, we all know that gut-wrenching feeling. Because – to live is to constantly change and when everything’s always changing some good things just come to an end. Our time in college ends. Our children grow up, they move out of the house– our time with them ends. Watching the things we love, the things we rely on, pass away is just part of the human experience. And yet, it’s an experience that can cause so much suffering.
Now, to put today’s Gospel in its proper context, Jesus has just finished warning his disciples about a time of great suffering. And to be more specific, he predicts the destruction of the Jewish temple. And for Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the epitome of everything they loved and relied on. For some, the Temple was the sole mediator in their relationship with God. The temple was God’s home, where God literally chose to dwell. It’s also where sacrifices for sin were offered and accepted by God. And so the forgiveness of sin was mediated through Temple. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal! And so imagine what the disciples were feeling when Jesus told them that the temple would pass away. In other words, what Jesus predicts, and what Mark is looking back on, was a real historical event. In 70 AD the Jewish Temple was obliterated by the Romans, which means that from the perspective of many devout Jews, God’s home was demolished. How does one even begin to articulate what it’s like for the center of one’s religious world to pass away? Well, borrowing the imagery of their Hebrew Scriptures, they talk about how the sun and the moon just stop giving light; about how even the stars fell from the heavens. And so today’s Gospel lesson actually isn’t about Jesus predicting the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean that faithful Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t wish that he had. Because when the Temple passed away, so did their hope. After all, it was a symbol for everything they loved and everything they relied on. And it passed away. And it left them wondering, and it leaves us wondering, is there anything good that will last?
As a Church I suspect that’s a question you’re wrestling with. A week from today is your rector’s last Sunday. For the last 10 or so years Fr. Puckett has been your leader. His leadership has been good, and you’ve relied on it. But his time here is passing away. And let’s be honest. Patrick Hall isn’t too far behind. His time at Holy Spirit is also passing away. Now, I know that to most of you Fr. Puckett and Fr. Hall represent everything that’s good and everything you love about this church, and you’re probably having a really hard time imagining the future of this place without them. Well, I think the lectionary was looking out for you because there’s a word or two in today’s Gospel that God would have you hear.
First, when life gets the toughest, when our pain is the greatest, and when our fear threatens to undo us, that’s actually the moment that Jesus Christ is closest to us. As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “when you see these things taking place” – remember, these horrible, world ending things – “you know that the Son of Man is near.” And so that’s the first word God would have you hear this morning. In the midst of whatever scary change you find yourself in, as a church and as individuals, Jesus Christ is near: “at the very gates.”
Second, because Jesus is near, this is a time more so than ever that as a church you resolve to “keep awake.” It’s a season to expect, to prepare, to work and to wait. More so than ever, this is not the time for the people of Holy Spirit to take a spiritual nap. No, it’s the time to chew on Revelation 21:5, which says “Behold, I am making all things new.” It’s a time to pray, to get intentional about reading scripture, to take responsibility for the future of this parish, to get more serious about leadership and evangelism; this is a time to get more serious about Jesus and about the place Jesus has in our lives. “For you do not know when the master of the house will come,” but when he does let’s not let him find you asleep.
You see, there is no room for pessimism in the Christian faith. The word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice, it means good news. Christianity is news; the good news that heaven and earth may pass away, but that Jesus’ word never will. And what is that word that Jesus speaks to the people of Holy Spirit? As he says in Matthew, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age;” or in Hebrews, “I will never leave you or forsake you;” or in John, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Heaven and earth may pass away; but Jesus’ word never will.
And it’s important to Jesus that we know that, which is what today’s Gospel is about. It’s Jesus reminding the Church that the Temple, the economy, your health, your loved ones, your job, your peace of mind, your marriage, your rector, your associate, your time in college, your time with your kids, heaven and earth itself – they may all pass away. Even the stars may fall and the sun stop shining. Those lights may pass away. But my light, my word, my promise never will.
And that’s why chronic pessimism has no place in Christianity. The promise of God is that with Jesus’ arrival the Kingdom of God has already been launched and that a future day will arrive when the Kingdom of God is all that will last. And so on this first Sunday of Advent – a Latin word that literally means “arrival” – this is exactly what we celebrate. Today we’ve gathered to celebrate because God’s Kingdom has already been established, and because a day will arrive when God’s kingdom will come on this earth as it is in heaven.
And because of this, Advent is a season of hope, which isn’t to be confused with optimism. Optimism is built on the conviction that the old order of things will eventually get better, that we’ll somehow manage to repair it. But hope is much different. Hope is built on the conviction that a new order of things, a new Kingdom, already exists – and that one day the King himself will repair everything that’s good, and everything we love, about the old order of things. And so don’t be pessimistic. Advent’s not the season to be gloomy or sad or scared. On the contrary, it’s time to be intentionally hopeful. It’s a time to expect. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in our midst. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in this community. Jesus has given us his word – he’s at work even now making all things new – and Jesus’ word will never pass away.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46; “The sheep and the goats”
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I usually begin my sermons with a little depreciating humor or by referencing some catchy cultural happening to segue, which doesn’t work so well with today’s Gospel about the sheep and the goats. And I have to say, reading this story I’m always a little torn. Because – on the one hand, I don’t want to ignore what Jesus says, or to pull the whole “what Jesus really meant to say was,” as if Jesus wasn’t being serious. But at the same time, there are two core beliefs I hold when it comes to how God changes lives, and I don’t intend to compromise either. First, I don’t think you can scare people into heaven, or bully someone into a transformed life. Second, I don’t think we’re saved because of anything we do or achieve. We’re not saved because of we feed the poor or because we visit the sick – that’s just not what orthodox Christians believe. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t primarily here to scare us into “doing something” to be saved, then what is it about, and what does that mean for our life?
You see, today’s Gospel is not primarily a call to action. Will a proper understanding of it overflow into action? No doubt. But this wasn’t told to scare us into building a better world. Not only would that contradict the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, but it wouldn’t even make sense within this story. Because, both the sheep and the goats have one thing in common. Neither was aware that they were serving, or not serving, Christ the King. “Lord, when was it that we fed you or visited you. When was that?” In Jesus’ story they didn’t know. And so to hear this Gospel and then decide to do something because we’re scared of being a goat is to miss the point entirely. The sheep are not the ones that know they’re serving Christ, the sheep are the ones that don’t. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t God’s attempt to scare us into being a little less selfish, then what is it about?
Well in the Episcopal Church today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day the church sets aside to remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the rightful king of creation and that a day will come when He alone will reign. What today’s Gospel from Matthew is really about is the character of this king.
You see there’s a question that a story like this on a Sunday like this is asking us to consider – what kind of king do we say that Jesus is? And as I reflect on today’s Gospel two incredibly hopeful and surprising details stand out.
1. Jesus is not a king that reigns on some lofty throne high above the mess of this world and the mess of our lives. As today’s Gospel begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then – but not now. Because – now, as today’s Gospel points out, Christ the King reigns in the midst of the world’s mess; amongst the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned; amongst the lonely, the friendless and the needy; amongst the divorced, the burnt-out, and the anxious; with the ones he calls “the least.” Jesus reigns right in the midst of the mess.
2. Christ the King calls the least amongst us – the sick, the naked, and the common criminal – members of his family. As Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; for I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Well, today Jesus ups the ante a bit, calling the sick and the sinful not just to repentance but to acknowledge their status as his brothers and sisters.
Now, are you beginning to see how full of grace today’s Gospel actually is? Because – before it says a word about God’s judgment, it speaks volumes about God’s nature. And the message is that no situation is so hopeless, no pain so unbearable, and no sin so horrible that Christ removes himself from it; Hunger, thirst, estrangement, nakedness, prison – it doesn’t matter, Christ reigns in the midst of the mess.
And so have you ever hungered and thirsted for righteousness only to be crushed by sin and injustice? Have your secrets ever left you feeling isolated and alone? Has shame ever left you feeling naked and exposed, or have you ever felt so scared and inadequate that life felt like a prison from which you couldn’t escape? Has life ever made you feel like the absolute least? Because – if so, there’s a message in today’s Gospel for you. Christ the King calls you family, and He reigns in the midst of your mess.
You see that’s what Christ the King Sunday, and today’s Gospel, is really all about – a different kind of king who endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we say is the King of the universe and to know this king is to be transformed.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that what we do doesn’t matter. What we do matters tremendously. Our life matters, our choices matter, the things that we love, the way we spend our money and time, it all matters to God because we matter to God. And even though the sheep in today’s Gospel didn’t know they were serving Christ, it does matter that we as a church get intentional about seeking and serving Christ in all people, and especially the least. But the goal of the Christian life aims at something higher. The point of Christianity is to become transformed people – people who give in such a way that their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing. And I would submit that this transformation begins not with a decision to act but with a decision to pray; that it begins when we resolve with every fiber of our being to submit to the King who freely submitted to the cross to save us.
And in today’s reading from Ephesians, we find that this is exactly what Paul prays for. He writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … as you come to know him.” But what Paul says next is utterly shocking: “So that you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Now, most people read this and mistakenly assume that Paul prays that we would know that Jesus is our inheritance and be thrilled with how great that all is, but that isn’t at all what Ephesians actually says. It doesn’t say that Jesus is our inheritance. It says that we are Jesus’ inheritance. And that’s what Paul wants us to see – that Christ the King sees us in our hunger and our thirst and our strangeness and our nakedness and our prison, the Christ the King identifies with us, that he reigns in the midst of our mess. Why? Because – we are His inheritance, the apple of His eye, the people He longs to heal, restore and save. And so as we go out into the world this week let us not forget that before we can for Christ the King we have to know that Christ the King lives for us. We are his family.
Now, to the extent that we know that Jesus honors us, we will in turn honor him. But our King isn’t looking for calculated, fear-based, sporadic, conscience appeasing humanitarian acts of service by people who think they’re “okay” on behalf of people who aren’t. No, Jesus is looking for people who know Him as He is!
You see, it is not just we who are Jesus’ inheritance, it is also Christ the King who is ours. “And so come, you that are blessed by the Father in heaven and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Because – today’s Gospel isn’t about people who earn their salvation; it’s about people who love their king so much, who know his character so well, that on the last day discover it.