based on Matthew 25:31-46 and Ephesians 1:1-2, 15-23
Welcome to this in-between time. The ending of the church year, in order that we may begin next Sunday with the season of Advent, the season of waiting and expectation, building to the celebration of Christmas. This ending Sunday is known as the Reign of Christ Sunday. These scriptures however, are so fraught with troublesome bits that I generally declare this to be favourite hymn Sunday, and we all have a great time singing our way to the edge of Advent. But, I didn’t set the wheels for that in motion soon enough, so here it is – the Reign of Christ Sunday – time for me to deal with it!
Perhaps it’s the starkness in Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ story –`You’re either in or you’re out’, that upsets my United Church sensibilities. Perhaps it’s that bold assertion of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (and us) that Jesus is in charge of it all and the church is the centre of the universe. And I’m thinking – I don’t think that’s ever been true, not in Paul’s day, certainly not in ours, and not even in the heydays of the 1950’s. So, let’s just sing a bunch of hymns! (Maybe next year.)
Several years ago I found a way to appreciate this passage from the gospel of Matthew in a new way. It comes from a book, the title of which I cannot give you without giving away the punchline. The gospel passage is beautiful and disturbing. We who see with such limited vision ask, `When did we see you God, and wouldn’t we have served you if only we knew it was you?’ This passage is beautiful when we realize that no small kindness is wasted. It haunts when we realize that we cannot and do not want to care for everyone.
There is a story about a group of nuns who were studying this passage, but weren’t sure what to make of it. The study leader asked them to put up their hands if ever, even once, they had visited the sick, fed a hungry person, welcomed a stranger. Every hand went up. “That’s great he said. You’re all sheep.”
Then he asked them to raise their hands if ever, even once, they had refused the opportunity to visit the sick, feed a hungry person, to welcome a stranger. Slowly, each nun raised her hand. “Too bad”, he said, “you’re all goats.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, as the perplexed women considered this. Then one nun exclaimed, “I get it. We’re all good goats!” Isn’t that delightful! It’s also the title of a great book Denis and Matthew Linn and Sheila Fabricant –Linn called Good Goats: healing our image of God.
We are a community of good goats – living in the tension between wanting to feel comforted and cared for when we come to church, and knowing that as disciples of Jesus, we are called always to be open to transformation, always to see Christ in our neighbours, near and far, always to seek justice and resist evil, to love and serve others.
Our challenge is to ask, ‘How might Christ’s reign of justice and peace be reflected more through my living; through our congregational life?’
We heard, as well as the gospel of Matthew this morning, Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus. We could listen in as if he were writing to us, giving thanks for our faithfulness and asking God to give us wisdom and discernment in following Jesus, who gives us energy and strength when we trust him. Energy and strength – that sounds like vitality to me.
Even when physically we do not have the stamina we wish we had, we find that we have energy for things that are life-giving. Some things give us life, some things suck the life out of us. God wants us to be about the things that are life-giving.
Remember last Sunday, we gathered in groups and came up with some key words that indicated vitality. This morning, following the pattern Kris and I did at Presbytery last month, I would ask you to gather again in your groups –and this time come up with some questions to ask ourselves around the five words your group chose.
*the congregation gathered in small groups, and did the exercise below.
As you shape your questions, please don’t ask something that can be given a `yes or no’ answer, but rather ask “who, what where, why, when, and how’ questions.
E.g. If one of your top words for vitality is `energy’, rather than saying `Do we have the energy to carry on?’ we can ask, What gives us/me energy to complete a project? Or, how can we match peoples’ energy with the mission we agree is important?
The answers were collected to be used in a congregational meeting at a later date.
Before we leave the gospel for this morning, I’m sure we can all think of times when we have gone that extra step to be compassionate to someone, and we can all think of times when we have chosen not to, or just felt it wasn’t in us to do one more thing. Let it be.
For the moment I invite you, in silence, to think of a time when someone has gone the extra step for you – when you have been treated with kindness or compassion.
A wee story to illustrate: In the fall of 1961, I was in hospital at the Ft. Nelson airport, cut off from everything and everyone I knew. I was suffering with third degree burns to my body, from a grease fire. But someone came to see me, a woman who had a daughter about the same age as me. She brought me treats – I remember juicy-fruit gum, and a story book about a gingerbread man. This dear stranger lifted my soul. I will be forever grateful to Mrs. Sime for taking me under her wing. And there is a lovely local connection – that woman’s daughter, Judy, now lives in Sicamous, and we had a great visit this fall. “When I was sick, when I was a stranger, when I was in prison, you visited me.
Find your own memory of an act of kindness done to you… Honour it and the person who blessed you and give thanks to God… Amen.