Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Be Kind"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017

The cast of characters in Matthew’s gospel reading this morning include Jesus Christ and a large herd of stinky animals. Also, some angels. Wait. Scratch that. ALL the angels. Also, the nations. ALL the nations.

The setting is not exactly specified but since it includes ALL the angels and ALL the nations, I’m assuming it’s somewhere quite large. Maybe some kind of stadium. Definitely larger than The Bill. Wherever it is, we are told that Jesus Christ is sitting on a throne. I imagine is it also large because this particular version of Jesus is, like, BOSS Jesus. Big guy. In charge. We are told that he arrives in ALL his glory. Not just some of it.

The time is the “end times.” I don’t have an exact date on that but we were just told to “Keep watch! For we know not the hour or the day!” So….just “end times,” I guess. Unspecified date.

Okay….got it? Jesus Christ, bunch of animals, ALL the angels, ALL the nations. Large, undisclosed location with a very nice throne likely designed just for Jesus Christ Himself. Time and date unknown.

Now, back to that bit about all the nations. It turns out the Greek for “nations” becomes a bit problematic. Because that Greek word, “ethne” at its most basic means a big mass of people. But, most particularly, it is used in the Second Testament to refer to Gentiles. You may have even noticed, for example, that if you got out a Bible and looked up this passage it might have a header (reminder: headers were not a part of the original text, just added by editors to help divide up the stories)....and the header in my NRSV says “the judgment of the Gentiles.”

What difference does it make if it’s all nations or all Gentiles? Well, a lot, actually. Because if this is a story about Christ coming in the unspecified end times to judge all of everyone in the whole world, that’s a very different story than one about Christ coming to judge all the Gentiles. If this is simply a story about how Christ judges the Gentiles - that is, those who were not Christian or Jewish - then it’s very different.

Let’s move forward with the stinky barn animals, unpacking these two different options, so you can see what I mean. By the way, the angels don’t do much. No speaking parts. No songs, even. Just observing. So you can kind of forget about them if you want. I think they’re mostly just there to make Big Boss Jesus seem even more Boss. After all, today IS Reign of Christ Sunday.

So if “ethne” means all of everyone in the whole wide world, not only do we need a stadium much larger than Arrowhead but this becomes a story about how Christ judges Christians as well as everyone else. So when Jesus divvies up the sheep from the goats and says “sheep good, goats bad” and sends the goats into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth….well, you can see how some theologians have struggled with this text. Because, after all, God is supposed to be a God of unending compassion and grace. No matter what horrible things you’ve done, the Church has historically proclaimed that God forgives us through our faith in Jesus. It’s not about what we DO it’s about grace. Grace supercedes everything.

Which makes it a little difficult to understand why Jesus is casting Christian goats into the outer darkness because they didn’t do enough good works, right?

But if “ethne” means all GENTILES this becomes a completely different story. Instead, this is a story designed to answer the age old question of people of all faiths: well, it’s all fine and good that I’m this-one-particular-faith, but what about my friend over here who believes something different than me? What’s going to happen to her soul someday when she dies?

Read this way, the story is suddenly very different. Because there have always been Christians who believed their way was the ONLY way. Those who believed that the only way to find eternal salvation was by believing in Jesus. But this story flips that on its head. In this story, Big Boss Jesus comes in glory and says, “No, actually. That’s not the only way. It turns out that if you’re a decent person, a kind person, a person who watches out for other people, you’ll be alright. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve found your meaning in another faith or no faith at all.’

(Side note: it still seems pretty problematic to me that there are goats in this story who are thrown into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. I mean, I get that they apparently never did anything nice for anyone but the God I know still extends grace to even those who have done terrible things. So I’m just leaving that here without a real answer, just in case you were wondering, too. I find it kind of icky. I’ve read some commentaries say that it’s hyperbolic and exaggerated because it’s a parable, if that makes you feel any better. But I still think it’s troublesome.)
Regardless of whether this story is meant to be about those who do or do not claim to be followers of Jesus, though, I think the message for Christ-followers is consistent. I feel pretty confident that even if this is a story about Gentiles, surely Christ expects at least the same level of human decency from his own followers? Surely we are expected to do MORE, not less, than the good sheep, right?

And so what is it that Christ expects of us? It turns out it’s not all that different than what God told the Prophet Micah was expected….do kindness, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Or as Jesus says earlier in the book of Matthew - the greatest and most important commandment is that we are to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Or, to put it in even simpler terms, Jesus wants us to be kind. We are to feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, welcome strangers, give clothes to those who have none, visit the sick and imprisoned. When we do these things, says Jesus, not only are we doing the right thing and making a real and tangible difference in the world, but we are quite literally caring for and extending kindness to Christ himself.

As an interesting observation, the sheep in this story were not doing these kind things to earn salvation or to encounter Jesus. They weren’t volunteering at their local homeless shelter because they thought they’d find Jesus there. They weren’t going to the local prison and hanging out with inmates because they were trying to find the face of Christ. In fact, having done these things, they were still somehow unaware that they had seen Jesus face-to-face. But none of that matters to Christ in this story. It was enough to have simply extended basic human kindness and decency to those in need. That’s all he is asking us for.

Now we might hope that we wouldn’t need to be reminded to take care of one another. But a quick look around the world shows us that we - just like the listeners of Matthew’s time - need this reminder.

Earlier this year when the first big round of debates about health care were swirling, I remember reading an article called “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.” [1] The author, Kayla Chadwick, writes about the pain and feelings of hopelessness she experiences when realizing that there are some people she cannot engage with on political topics because they don’t share basic common values. Chadwick says she is more than happy to pay an extra 17 cents for her hamburger if it means that the people working at the fast food restaurants have enough to eat. She is happy to pay taxes for public schools - even though she’s not planning on having children - because she believes all children deserve access to a quality education.

In short, Chadwick believes that an important part of being human is simply caring about one another. Feeding and watering each other with care. Visiting and welcoming one another. Just basically noticing each other and realizing that we’re all in this together. Being kind. Choosing kindness daily - even when it’s not self-serving, even when it’s hard.

When you put it that way it just seems a little heartbreaking that we need these reminders, doesn’t it? But we do. Because, sadly, we live in a world that often teaches us it’s okay to objectify other humans. To treat them as objects that exist for our pleasure and use. We live in a world that teaches us to fear those who are different from us - to worry that allowing those we’ve falsely marked as “other” to do better means that we will somehow lose something. As if all of life were a zero sum game. We live in a world where the powers and principalities are constantly trying to convince us that nationalism is helpful and natural. And that guarding “us” and “ours” is the most important way we could spend our time. We live in a world where profit is almost always put ahead of people. Money talks and governs. Getting ahead at the expense of others is normative and acceptable.

Jesus - Big Boss Jesus, in fact - comes to show us there is another way.

There is another realm where we can choose to place our citizenship. We can opt into a way of living that consistently recognizes other human beings as just that - gifts from God who are worthy simply because they exist. They don’t have to be from the same country as us, or speak our language, or share our religious or political viewpoints to be worthy of our respect. They are not objects to be used for our own pleasure or profit. Their success does not diminish us in any way. We are free to eat together, drink together, talk and sing and dance together.

Through the Reign of Christ we are set free to be kinder than our world has taught us to be. We are free to imagine a world where people take care of one another - not because they want to earn their salvation - just simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The challenge of this text is that Big Boss Jesus is surprisingly harsh. Matthew’s Jesus is frequently like that. He does not mince words and is incredibly demanding. The fear of being cast out with the goats kind of blinds me when I first read this text and I find myself a bit paralyzed.

But then I go back and read it again and I start to think to myself, “Okay, feeding people who are hungry. Giving water to those who are thirsty. Visiting people when they are sick. Okay. Okay. This is within my grasp. This is something tangible I can do.”

When the world so frequently seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, this text can feel like a little ray of good news. God isn’t asking us to fix everything and save the world. We don’t have to be superheroes. God is simply asking us to be kind to one another. To see the beloved divinity that exists in each and every human soul we encounter. To treat others the way they would like to be treated.

We ALL have the capacity to do this. We ALL have the ability to use whatever resources and talents and gifts we have to do a kindness to another human being. We are ALL able to help meet one another’s needs as we encounter them. We can ALL continue to choose basic human kindness each and every day.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.