Thursday, November 23, 2017

Year A, Christ the King, Matthew 25.31-46 “One Nation, Under God. . .”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.
This text frightens 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.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
‘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.’
‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
What we do matters.
A day of judgement.
A time of reckoning.
Perhaps the final judgment might be summed up with this, that we will stand before our Lord, and look into his eyes, and in the eyes of Jesus we will see ‘the least of these’, and then we will hear Jesus say simply:  “Well?”
But for all that, this is not what frightens me the most about this text.
You see, to a certain extent this lays out everything in a most manageable way.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
  • ·         Feed the hungry.   Check
  • ·         Give a drink to the thirsty.  Check.
  • ·         Welcome the stranger.  Check.
  • ·         Clothe the naked.  Check.
  • ·         Take care of the sick.  Check.
  • ·         Visit the imprisoned.  Check.

For those of us who like to make lists, and check things off, one by one, this is pretty manageable.  Six items.  Six check marks.  All in a day’s work.
Just do it. 
I have nothing to worry about.
  • ·         I have fed the hungry.
  • ·         I’ve given a drink to the thirsty.
  • ·         I’ve welcomed the stranger.
  • ·         Clothed the naked.
  • ·         Cared for the sick.
  • ·         And even visited the imprisoned.

Check, check, check, check, check and check.
Got it covered.
What’s frightening about that?

The most frightening thing about Jesus’ words here, for me, can be summed up in three words:
The “nations”, “people”, and “we”.
You see when Jesus describes this day of judgment, we do not come before the throne of judgment one by one, each being judged according to our own individual lives.
It’s the nations that will be gathered before him.
He will separate the ‘people’, not persons, one from another.
And the question asked will be “‘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?”
It’s unnerving enough to think of being judged for my own sins, but here Jesus indicates that the judgment will be rendered on the nations.
Think about that.  It’s not just about what we do individually.  It’s about being accountable for our nation’s actions, or lack thereof.
We’re all in this together.
We stand or fall, together.
That’s quite different from the way we tend to think.
Especially during these highly polarizing times.
When the Democrats are in power, Republicans have tried to wash their hands of responsibility.
And likewise, with Republicans now in power, Democrats are quick to distance themselves from what is happening.
“One nation, under God?”
Well not so much.  Actually, we are more prone today to look at each other from across the political divide and see each other as the sheep and the goats.  The righteous and unrighteous.
But what Jesus says is that we will stand or fall as a nation, based on how we responded to the “least of these”.
That should give us pause to think.

I think I’ve shared with you before about a conversation that I had in Russia with the members of St. Nikolai’s Lutheran Church that we were visiting.  We were asking questions about each other, and our nations, in an attempt to better understand each other.
I will never forget the question they asked us:
“Is it true that there are poor people in America?”
When we replied that yes, there were poor people in America they came back with another question:
“How can it be, that in a country as rich as yours, you still have poor people?”  “We’re poor,” they said, “but we’re all poor.”  “We don’t understand how you can be so rich and let others in your country be poor.”
That question will stay with me for a long time.
And I find myself wondering if Jesus will ask the same question of us.  “How can that be?”
Of course, similar questions could be asked of them.
How can it be that Russia spends so much on the military when so many throughout their nation have nothing?
I mean, Russia is and probably always will be a land of great contrasts.  Most of the people live in what we would call ‘slums’, and yet you can walk into the Hermitage and see Rembrandts just hanging on the walls, room after room of Picassos, and every other artist imaginable.
How can that be?
When the “nations” of the world are judged by how they treated the “least of these”, will any be left standing?
I hope not.
I hope not.
That, I believe, is the Good News associated with this text.
Against the backdrop of the history of the world and all the warring madness of the nations, with the rich and powerful always overlooking the least of these, there will be a judgment of all the nations.
And when God is done judging the nations of the world there will be nothing left but the smoldering ashes of empire after empire, that failed to be righteous in his eyes.
And in the end—there will be only one enthroned in Glory.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
There is the promise.
There will be only one Kingdom left standing when the judgment is done.
No borders.
No divide between the peoples.
There will not be ‘the greatest of these’ or ‘the least of these’.
There will not be rich and poor.
Imprisoned and free.
There will not be black or white.
They will not hurt or destroy.
The kingdoms of this world will have had their day.
And none of them will be found to have been righteous.
All of them, including our own, are destined to the dung heap of history.
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

This is Christ the King Sunday.  It points us forward toward the end of all time, and the beginning of eternity.
It points us forward to the day when God alone will reign.
We have that promise, and it is our hope.
For now, though, we live in ‘in-between times’.
We have our feet in both Kingdoms at once.  We are at one and the same time American citizens, and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  It’s like those who are born with dual citizenship.
But know this, that one day, one of those Kingdoms will come to an end.
And the other will not.
And then Jesus will say:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”


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