This Sunday is the final Sunday of the Church's liturgical year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent and we will start the year afresh as we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world at Christmas. This Sunday is designated as Christ the King Sunday or the Reign of Christ. A day set aside to express our faith that after all is said and done, at the end of this world, God's Kingdom will come and his reign in our lives and the entire world will be complete.
But how does one know if he or she will be a part of that kingdom? How does one know if one is a part of that kingdom even now? Our Gospel lesson for the day is the answer I think that Jesus would have for us. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew he shares his vision of what the final judgment will be like. You might call it heaven's audit of one's soul.
You might ask why an audit at all. If we talk of God's grace and mercy, why not just include everyone in the kingdom? It is done for the same reason an audit is done in business, to test the accuracy of what is told to be true. To deal not with appearances but with what is actually in the record of one's living out one's faith. It is not just a matter of being Sunday nice; it is a challenge of what we have done with what God has entrusted to us.
The story is told of a young monk asking an older monk, "Father, if God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom?" The older monk answered, "Why do you keep turning your head from side to side?" The younger monk replied, "Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won't leave me in peace." "Then you've answered your own question," the older monk laughed. "God doesn't deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom. Some simply cannot bear the light, any more than you can bear the light of the sun."
This vision of the last judgment is telling us that there is a greater standard than what we think or what we are comfortable with. Leander Keck has noted that true authority is not self-generated but stands over against us because it has its own integrity. It is a standard by which we can be judged. This speaks of an ultimate justice where that which is wrong will be made right. We will be held accountable.
Bishop William Willimon points out we cannot make Jesus into anything we want. He is what he was. And, I might add, what he is and will be. Willimon says Jesus has his own right to be heard. The challenge of the scriptures is clear. There are not walls we can hide behind. We must love even our enemies. We must reach out to all in loving compassion. Jesus will judge injustice for what it is and the wrongs shall be made right.
The Bishop further adds that in contemporary Christian ethics there is great silence about our accountability to Jesus. Here in this vision of the last judgment we are not dealing with abstract ideas such as justice or equality but food for hungry people and compassion for those who are cut off from the world. There is nothing abstract about clothing a person who needs clothes.
One might feel overwhelmed by such issues as war and terror, climate change, natural disasters, and epidemics. While you and I may not be able to sit in congress or be in a place of power, we can deal with any and all of those issues one person at a time. This vision in Matthew 25 is dealing with just such direct acts that touched one person.
The challenge to each of us is how do we measure up? What is the capacity of my soul? These are the issues one will face in this heavenly audit. Can you not only receive but also give is the challenge of our Thanksgiving holiday as a nation this coming Thursday. This season is not only a time for a litany of praise where we will be blessed but to be reminded of the importance of sharing those blessings.
Can you not only know of your faith, but live in such a way that follows what you have learned of the faith? Can you make that commitment and mold your life by it?
Can you not only believe, but trust with your whole being, even when the way turns uphill and the struggle becomes hard?
Can you dare to risk by attempting to try some of the many opportunities to show our faith and to live as Christ would have us to live? This particularly becomes a challenge when those opportunities challenge us to serve those who are among the least of our society.
How do you measure up? What is the capacity of your soul?
A little girl once asked, "If God is inside of me and is so big, why doesn't he break through?" This is the question of this heavenly audit. Why doesn't the grace and love of God break through in the way we speak, in how we act, in the many times we come in contract with others. The issue is accountability and God's chosen way of caring for his children. He has chosen to work in and through us who are called to be a part of the Body of Christ.
Both the sheep and goats in the vision of the final judgment were surprised. The goats were not necessarily bad people; you get the feeling in their surprised response that if they had known what was needed they would have responded.
In the Gospel of Thomas, one of those historical books that did not make it into our Bible, but still is a part of our tradition, Jesus is reported to have said as he passed someone giving alms to the poor, "Bless you if you do not know the good you are doing. Curse you, if you know the good you are doing." The words of Thomas are challenging us to look at what motivates our actions. How much at the core of who we are is the good we do?
The sheep had no idea who they were visiting or feeding or clothing. They only saw a fellow human being that needed help and they responded. After all, who would not do these things for Jesus if they knew it was him? They lived as Marcus Borg wrote in Meeting Jesus for the First Time. He wrote that compassion in the Bible meant literally to be in the womb with the other. When we have compassion, such as the sheep in this vision, we realize our God is also their God. That we are very much sisters and brothers together with all, including those who suffer.
Much of our failure to reach those in need is our lack of awareness. Maybe we fail to realize what even the smallest of effort can do for those who are desperate such as the hungry, the homeless, and the imprisoned. Maybe we have been too quick to judge them for their situation instead of investing ourselves and our resources to change that situation.
Maybe our failure comes from not even being willing to start since these issues particularly in the economy we are in seems so great. Notice the vision doesn't say the sheep reached everyone but they did reach someone.
For remember the sheep were surprised also. The good they did was not to gain favor or position or recognition. It was their response to what God had done and was doing in their lives.
Our Gospel today reads, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Literally you gathered me in. There is a national restaurant chain that in their commercials speak of "when you are here you are family." That is the spirit of what the sheep were doing. What a challenge to us as a society as we struggle with the issues and impact of immigration. There are truly strangers in our midst. How easy it is to ignore them, or to blame them. As we said the goats in our vision would in all likelihood have been guilty of not even seeing the stranger. The challenge is not only to see them but to see them as brothers and sisters. The challenge is to see Christ in them and to gather them in.
Our faith is a challenge to expand our comfort zones. After all, the fringe will not be those we usually associate with. We are not comfortable with the stranger. Early in life we learned that stranger meant danger. But we must find ways to reach those in need in our world.
A hungry man was walking down the street in a village of medieval Turkey. He had only a piece of bread in his hand. He came to a restaurant where some meatballs were being grilled. The cooking meat was so near and the smell so delicious the man held his piece of bread over the meat to capture some of the smell. As he started to eat the bread, the angry restaurant owner seized him and took him away to see a judge.
The owner protested, "This man was stealing the smell of my meat without asking permission. I want you to make him pay me for it." The judge thought for a moment, then held up his purse in front of the owner and shook it. "What are you doing that for?" asked the restaurant owner? The judge replied, "I am paying you. The sound of money is fair payment for the smell of food."
The challenge when we dealing with the least and the last is to make sure that what we are sharing with them is real. We must make sure that our care is expressed in ways that are tangible and begins to change lives.
This audit of the soul is not where we argue to present our case or even one where we prepare to be judged. It rather is one we live. We are judged not by our membership in a church but rather what we do for others, not by what we know but what we have shared. Both the sheep and goats will be judged not by their creeds but by their deeds.
Many of us can identify with the little boy who was given two quarters, one to buy candy and one to put in the church's offering plate. He ran down the street and in his enthusiasm he lost a quarter down the culvert. Standing there, he was heard to say, "Well Lord, there goes your quarter." One gets the feeling that the sheep responded as a priority in their lives. It is rarely the convenient or easy thing to help the least, the last, and the lost. It will cost us in time, money, and worry.
Our passage from Matthew is one of the few places where Jesus is the judge. Too many times instead of Jesus holding us accountable, we try to hold Jesus accountable. Instead of finding how to serve others, we expect Jesus and others to serve us. We create a feel good God, one that shares our blindness and our weaknesses. But in our Gospel today we are dealing with the standard of that which is to be his kingdom. It is not to feel good but to be good.
In today's Gospel, Jesus becomes a prophet for the ones pushed to the edge of society. "What a friend we have in Jesus" comes alive for those living on the edge. We see this image of Jesus over and over again in the Gospels as the one who receives the children, responds to the outcast of society, those with leprosy, those who collected taxes, the foreigner, and the blind. Jesus did not turn them away but found specific ways to care for them. The audit of the soul is demanding the same of us.
Will you please join me in prayer?
Gracious God, you have blessed us in so many ways. In this season of Thanksgiving we thank thee. And may we show that thankfulness by the way we live and the way we share. Amen.