I had a post all thought up in my head yesterday, ready to go. Then, my team lost the big game, and I was very sad, and it took extra concentration to finish my sermon for this morning. So, I will share the sermon, and maybe later when I am less sad about football I will remember what that other post was about. At least Penn State won the conference - their first Big 10 championship. Nice going, guys.
And now, A Sermon For The Feast of Christ the King
How do you feel about final exams? As a student of the social sciences and humanities, I honestly haven’t had that many final exams since high school. My professors were more the paper-assigning types. Recently, A friend in a similar kind of program told me that one of her classes this term is having exams. It turns out, though, that the professor is bending over backwards to ease their anxiety. He knows that many of them aren’t used to exams – especially those who have been out of school for several years – and so he has provided them with a list of questions, and promised to pick the exam questions from the list. He really wants his students to feel that they can do well.
As I read the lessons for this week, it seemed to me that my friend’s class is somewhat like the situation we have in today’s Gospel. Jesus is warning us what the final exam question is going to be – presumably because he wants us to do well. There are no trick questions here. The question is straightforward and plain: Did you – or did you not – feed me, care for me, visit me and welcome me by doing it to just one of the least of God’s children? Now, depending on your feelings about final exams, you may think this one is rather unfair in its scope. After all, there are lots of good things we do in our lives that don’t seem to matter to Jesus. Can Jesus really mean that all we need in the end is to have fed one hungry person, visited one sick person, or welcomed one stranger in the name of Christ? What about all those Sundays when we got up and went to church, or all those days we remembered to read the Bible, or those years we served on the Vestry? Its only natural to want all of our good days to count.
But even with this small complaint of unfairness, today’s Gospel makes it seem easy – salvation is within our grasp. The invitation into God’s kingdom is not reserved for those with extraordinary lives of faith – martyrs and famous saints and brilliant leaders of the church. Any one of us can answer the call to feed hungry people, to care for people who are sick, or visit people in prison. And its great to know what the final exam question is in advance, because on that day, we can stand up and say – yes, I did that! We donate food and clothing to Katrina relief, gather our coins for the United Thank Offering, and visit our friends and family when they are sick. Jesus asked the question, and we have an answer. With salvation right there in our grasp, we are free to celebrate God’s goodness. Now, there are many ways to celebrate and praise God. For me, that might mean pulling out my guitar and singing some praise songs from my camping days.
But if I did, I would come across a particular cartoon that was given to me on a high school retreat. I keep it in my binder with my camp music, along with several other stickers and bookmarks and mementos from those times. The cartoon strip is called Pontius Puddle, and the scene is a pond, where two frogs are chatting. The first says “Sometimes, I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it.” The second frog asks, “Why don’t you?” and the first replies, “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”
And I would remember the second half of today’s Gospel story, when Jesus explained to those on his left that “just as did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” It seems that our final exam question may not be as easy as we first thought. As easily as we can remember the good times, when the love of Jesus reached through our lives to touch other people, we are aware of those times when we missed the opportunity to help those who needed us. Whether we were distracted by our own busy lives, or weighed down with our own concerns, or simply chose to ignore the need, we have all fallen short in the category of “loving our neighbors.” The prophets of the Old Testament warned the people of Israel about the day of the Lord for just this reason: for all the good they thought they had done that would save them on the day of the Lord, there was injustice and oppression among them that God would not ignore.
God will not ignore these things in our midst either. God cares for the poor, the outcasts, and the sick – and expects us as followers of Christ to do the same. Yet, today there are eight million children in America without health insurance and over 1.5 million children with a parent in prison . In the next 24 hours, more than 30,000 people will die of hunger around the world , and millions are still displaced by the hurricanes in our own country and earthquakes in Pakistan. These problems can seem paralyzing. None of us can solve problems of a global-scale on our own – and no one, especially Jesus, expects us to. But how many of us can even say we have done all in our power to help fight them? Even knowing what is on the final exam, we are too busy, too distracted – too much a part of fallen humanity to pass such a stringent test of good works.
So, we are left with quite a paradox: the same people who celebrated God’s goodness and could count ourselves among the sheep are just as easily herded in with the goats. How are we to know where we stand with God?
The key to that question lies in the nature of the paradox. Today’s reading is really a parable, and it has much less to do with whether or not we can be sure of our invitation to the kingdom than it has to do with the nature of God. It is a story that tells both of God’s judgment and of God’s mercy. God counts us a sheep because God loves us so deeply that mercy will find even the one good moment in our lives, when we helped another child of God. But. God counts us as goats because God loves everyone else so fiercely that even one instance when we could have helped a child of God and did not help is an eternal affront. And we will all be crowned by the one and convicted by the other.
So, perhaps Jesus is not trying to give us a special study guide to pass the final exam and earn a passing grade into heaven because none of us will ever work our way into the kingdom based on good behavior. Thankfully, God never thought we would. Instead, we have a God who loves us deeply and fiercely – and wants us to love back. It may be simple, but it certainly is not easy.
This week, I finished Anne Lamott’s book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. In one chapter, she writes about making her teenage son Sam come to church every other week, even though it would probably be easier not to fight that battle. She writes, “And there are worse things for kids than to have to spend time with people who love God. Teenagers who do not go to church are adored by God, but they don’t go to meet some of the people who love God back. Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive.”
Like her son, we all need these lessons in loving back. All of these big and small commitments: reading our Bibles, coming here on Sunday mornings, gathering our coins for UTO or Episcopal Relief and Development, spending time talking about our vision and how to be a welcoming church – all of these things teach us to love back. These things shape our hearts until we are the kind of people who visit prisoners and provide clothing as part of our very nature, rather than to win points at coffee hour or at Judgement Day. In short, the kind of people that Jesus calls sheep – flaws and all.
Jesus chose this “final exam” question to illustrate the point for a good reason: because if we haven’t done these things, then we never really got the point of everything else. God loved us so much that Christ the King came to us as a baby so poor and humble that he was born in a barn. That love frees us from fear of judgment, frees us from our need to keep score so that we can love back. Jesus gave us this story to remind us of that love, and to say “its not that the rest doesn’t matter. Its just that the rest of it looks like this – glimmers of light, actions of love and sheep in God’s pasture loving back.