Again I want to welcome all of you from First Lutheran Church who are joining us for worship today. Our two congregations have had a long relationship together, as we have shared pastors, members, and confirmation classes in the past. And while you all are in a state of transition between pastors, it is good that you are all here to worship, to pray, and to have your socks knocked off with this sermon.
That being said, it was hard sermon to write. Not just because of the nerves that come from preaching in front a new-ish group of people, or the self-induced expectation to knock socks off, but that this text actually is really hard to preach on. I mean today is Christ the King Sunday, the day that ends the church year and is to recap all the things that we’ve learned throughout the weeks and seasons of year A of the lectionary cycle. At this point I really hope you all from First have been going through the Revised Common Lectionary, otherwise this wouldn’t be making any sense, and I really hope you all from Grace know what the Revised Common Lectionary is, or else I need to hang my head in shame as your pastor.
But throughout this year, as I said is year A, where we follow the gospel according to Matthew, we saw themes around privilege, around God surprising us with God’s blessing, around who we are as called children of God. We talked about Jesus’ charity, compassion, and care for all people, even when we feel like they don’t deserve it. But above all, as any good Lutheran church would talk about, we talked about God’s grace. Not just this congregation, but God’s actual grace that this congregation is named after. We talked about how this grace bestowed upon all of us, not because of what we have done, but because of what God decides to do and who God is.
And so to wrap all that up with this parable of sheep and goats? That doesn’t seem to be an easy task. Rather, it is almost hard to see where God’s grace could be found in a parable like this. It is like the parables that we got in the past few weeks, parables full of do good and be smart and be rewarded, or be foolish like those oil-less bridesmaids or that scared servant with a shovel or that party crasher that didn’t have the proper attire and be thrown out into the darkness where there is much weeping and… wait for it… gnashing of teeth. That doesn’t sound all that gracious, does it?
In fact, it sounds a lot like “do this, or else.” You better be prepared for the bridegroom, dressed properly, and have some sort of return for the master. You have to shape up or ship out. Produce, produce, produce, and great will be your reward in heaven.
For a guy who was born into an ethnicity where honour and hard work prevail, all that sounds natural. Do well and life will treat you well. Get all A’s and get a good job and you’ll be rich. Listen to your parents because they know best and they’ll lead you in the right paths. And I’m sure any of you who aren’t born of the same ethnicity as I am have heard similar things while you were growing up and throughout your lives. It is like the goal in life to be more disciplined, more hard working, more productive and so you can reap the rewards that will come because of all that which you have done.
And is there anything wrong with that? No, not at all. I mean it takes hard work to get certain things done. It takes discipline and dedication for our society to have gotten to where it is now. We need to be productive if we want to be better and to make the world better.
Isn’t that the whole point? To make the world better? Isn’t that what Jesus was teaching us all this time around being prepared and properly using our talents and following instructions? Aren’t we supposed to be disciplined disciples, keeping ourselves from falling into sin and having our eyes focussed on God? Aren’t we supposed to be making the trek out to church every week, even when we’d rather sleep in or worship is at a different place than we’re used to?
Again, there is nothing wrong with those things per se. But that isn’t what this parable is about. That isn’t what Jesus means. That isn’t the gospel.
Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats does seem kind of straight forward though, as I said, produce or else, feed the hungry or else, visit the sick and lonely or else, do what Jesus would do or else. Everyone wants to be included with the sheep and no one wants to be seen as a goat. Pretty straight forward.
The problem with that is there is no sign of God’s grace. There is no room for forgiveness. There is no space for God’s redemption for us, by very nature sinful beings, but welcomed into God’s arms of love. And on this 500th anniversary year of the Lutheran Reformation, we remember the teachings of Martin Luther and how we must always preach together Law and Gospel. The two go hand in hand, with the law telling us that we need gospel, and the gospel telling us that we have the gospel.
We have the law here in this parable, do or else, but where is the gospel?
Well, very briefly Jesus mentions the reactions of those deemed as sheep and those deemed as goats. Very briefly Jesus sheds light on the life-altering power of the Spirit. Very briefly Jesus shows us how God’s gospel runs deep within us, through us, and all around us.
And that is where both the sheep and the goats ask the Son of Man “when”. “When,” they ask “did we do these things to you?” “When did we not?” “When did you deem our actions as righteous?” “When did we bring this curse upon ourselves?”
See, the sheep and the goats didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know they were serving or ignoring Jesus. They didn’t know that it was Jesus with them all along, staring right at them.
I mean, if they did know, don’t you think they would have been more helpful? Don’t you think they would have been like, whoa Jesus, you hungry? Here, have some of my sandwich. Or they put Jesus in jail? Let’s go see how he’s doing. Or Jesus you want to come into my house and be a part of my life? Come on in, please, and don’t mind the mess I have young kids at home.
Them asking “when” tells us that they didn’t know, but they acted anyway. They didn’t know, but Jesus was still present. They didn’t know, and God showed up as always in the most unusual and unexpected places.
And you might think, uh, that still doesn’t sound like gospel. That isn’t good news telling me that I have to be prepared for something that I don’t know when will happen. Or treat someone who may or may not be the very presence of Jesus. That is just nerve wracking. But the point isn’t to get us to act, but the point is to remind us, reassure us, reveal to us that God is with us.
As I said, God shows up when and where we least expect it. God shows up in the hurts and pains in the world with comfort and peace. God shows up in the brokenness and disarray of our lives and brings healing. God shows up among the poor, the meek, those who mourn, and those otherwise seen as the least of us, and brings us blessing.
For as I’ve said a few times in the past, whenever we draw a line between us and them, we will find Jesus more often on the other side of that line.
This is good news because we sometimes find ourselves on the other side of that line too. We sometimes find ourselves marginalized, oppressed, or wrongfully judged. We sometimes find ourselves pushed out and told that we are but the least of these and are undeserving of whatever it is that we are hoping for.
And we find God with us.
In our isolation, in our loneliness, in our failures. God is with us.
In our imprisonment, oppression, scarcity. God is with us.
In our poverty, depravity, desolation. God is with us.
And God is not only with us but God welcomes us, brings us into God’s fold with a word of love and grace and calls us the beloved. And that is good news.
But then, you might think, what of the goats? How do they fit in with all of this? How does God’s grace cover them? And I think it is best explained by this story that I once heard from another sermon whose source escapes me, but it is about a young monk one morning asking an older, more seasoned monk how God can deprive anyone of God’s heavenly kingdom. And as he was asking this, the older monk noticed the younger moving his head back and forth trying to catch some shade from the rising sun so he could see clearly. The older monk then said that it isn’t God who deprives anyone of the kingdom, but rather the light of the kingdom is just too bright for some to see, so they chose to turn away.
See the goats aren’t goats by God’s punishment, but they are goats by their own choosing. Just as the bridesmaids and the lazy servant and the underdressed party crasher weren’t expelled from their respective communities for their misbehaviour, but they allowed themselves to get in their own way and were unable to see all joy and celebration that God has to offer in God’s glorious and majestic kingdom.
And so this parable offers both a word of grace and a word of warning. The warning is that we are destined to a life of scarcity if we choose not to see God within others and in the unexpected places of the world, but at the same time, God is with us in our scarcity and urges us to return into the fold of love, grace, and peace. The light is indeed bright, but with God’s grace we can look full on at the light, feeling the welcome into God’s vast and marvellous kingdom.
So this is how we end the year, with a reminder that God is always with us, always has been with us, and always will be with us, ruling over our hearts with a mercy beyond all reason, a grace beyond belief, and a peace beyond understanding, and draws us in to abundant blessing and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.