November 20, 2016. Sheep, or goat?

This sermon was delivered to First Parish Church, Newbury, Massachusetts. This service was partially led by the young women and men of the First Parish Sunday School

Texts:  MATTHEW 22:36-40, 25:31-26:2

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from Jesus our sovereign Lord, in the name of the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the creator of all that has been, all that is, and all that will be. Amen

Commandments. The law and the prophets. The son of man, come in glory, sitting on his glorious throne. The sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

When you hear all these words and imagine this scene, what’s it like for you?  How are you doing at loving the Lord your God? How about your neighbor?

When I imagine this scene, I think of a great throne up on high, maybe even in the clouds, with the glorious king looking down on us from afar.  He can see us, but he’s so far away we can’t see him, except to feel his gaze.

I find this scene frightening. I imagine myself standing to be judged before Christ’s glorious throne, feeling his gaze, and then   being sent over to the goats. How can I be worthy? Do I love my neighbors enough to get to be with the sheep? Do I love God enough to stand at the right of the glorious throne? I know when I’ve fallen short. Maybe I can hide my failures from the other people I’m around. But I can’t hide my failures from Jesus.  It’s a sinking feeling.  Gulp.

I wonder if you have the same kind of sinking feeling? Reading this we can believe it isn’t quite enough to come to church on Sundays, and then come again help out at the food pantry on Fridays. This says were supposed to  not just to feed hungry people, but also provide clothing, welcome foreigners, and spend time with criminals and people with diseases. There’s no limit to what we’re expected to do. If we don’t do these things, we’re thrown in with the goats and sent off to everlasting punishment. Ouch.

(Plus, I sure hope Jesus meant the goats as a symbol. Give the poor goats a break, Lord! They’re fine farm animals. They don’t deserve eternal punishment just because they’re goats.)

Mark Twain once said, “It’s not those parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts of the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”   This is one of those parts of the Bible.  It says, “Give food to the hungry, clothing to the freezing, and unconditional love to strangers, sick people, and criminals.” And it definitely bothers us. W know how easy it is, despite our best intentions, to fall short of those commandments.

We do work hard to show God’s love to our neighbors. We give strangers a smile. We slow down when somebody needs to cross the street in front of us. We’re generous when people ask for our help. Here at First Parish on High Road you are living this commitment to love of neighbor. You care about the ones Jesus calls “the least of these my brethren.”  You set up a preschool. You welcomed kiddos with various physical and mental challenges. Your preschool has developed and matured and become an important part of the community.

More recently you organized a food pantry. It’s become very popular quickly. Is popular good? I wonder. If Christ the King ruled unopposed over the nations of the world there’d be no need for food pantries. Certainly there would be no great swell of hungry people hearing about your food pantry and coming here on Friday afternoons. But Christ the King’s rule over the world is not yet complete, and people are hungry. And it’s good they know they can come here.

A while ago when I was a minister intern I worked at a church that made a point of welcoming a bunch of strangers. They opened their doors to a dozen Sudanese “Lost boys”.  Those orphan children arrived right about this time of year. Imagine being an orphan, and getting off an airplane from Africa at Logan. Those guys definitely needed winter coats. Five or six families in the congregation actually formally adopted those kids, and gave them shelter and clothing. But most importantly, the congregation gave them care and love.

It put that congregation on the map of their town: the church with the Lost Boys.  They even took some flak for it.  One of their neighbors passed out flyers with some sort of racist foolishness trying to stir people up against them for taking in African refugees. Their welcome for the Lost Boys became the beacon by which they made the Kingdom of God known.

In the same way your food pantry is quickly becoming part of who you are as a church.  You are First Parish. You were established by early settlers from across the ocean. You are the church on High Road with the tall white steeple. You are the church with the preschool and the food pantry. It’s a fine reputation to have. These days many of our neighbors don’t have any interest in “religion”, in worship, bible study, Sunday school, and the like.  “The church with the food pantry” puts you on those folks’ maps.

When you do good things, you attract attention.  Mostly it’s good, but sometimes it’s unwanted. I hope your neighbors never give you any trouble for inviting hungry people to your door. But, if they do, remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “”Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I trust you will give thanks to God in this season for the inspiration to serve your neighbors this way. It’s a really big deal.

But is it enough? Is it your ticket to stand on the right hand, not the left, before the glorious throne of Christ the King when he comes in his glory?

Well, no, it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. No accumulation of good deeds or generosity is big enough to buy us our tickets to stand on the right.  We want to love God with all our being, and we want to love our neighbors just as much as ourselves, but that’s a high high standard. And that’s OK. Jesus loves us anyway. And Jesus yearns for us to love him and our neighbors.

We do good things for our neighbors. Why? This parable of the sheep and goats helps us understand ourselves. We serve each other for all kinds of reasons.

For one thing, what goes around comes around.  We help our neighbors because we know we might need help ourselves one day, and we hope they’ll reciprocate. Neighbors helping neighbors makes a community strong, and that’s good. But it’s not enough.

Secondly, we do good things to build up respect. It’s good to be known as the church with the food pantry.  We crave respect from our neighbors, and we crave self-respect. We want to be able to tell ourselves we’re generous people, and even that we’re good Christians. We want to prove to the world and ourselves that we’re righteous. Respect is good, but it’s not enough.

Thirdly, we want to purchase our tickets to stand on the right hand of God. We want to prove our righteousness to Christ. But that’s unrealistic. We know we can’t afford to buy Christ’s favor, even with whole lifetimes of good deeds. Doing plenty of good deeds is good, but it’s not enough.

To summarize, we care for our neighbors because…

1.      We hope they’ll care for us when we need it.

2.      We crave the respect of others and ourselves. We want to put our churches on the map.

3.      We want to buy our tickets for the stairway to heaven.

Those things are good. There’s nothing bad about them. They motivate us to feed hungry families and to welcome refugee children and all the rest. They help our churches endure and promote the good news of Jesus. Those good things desperately need doing. But those reasons for doing them are worldly reasons.  They’re all about us, and not about Christ’s kingdom.

What does the kingdom of Christ look like? It sure doesn’t look like our imagination of a kingdom, that’s for sure. We look for the son of man coming in glory on some faraway throne we can hardly see. But when we look to the distant throne hoping to see him, we’re looking in the wrong place.

The throne of Christ, and the glory of Christ, is not like that. He’s not on some distant throne. His throne of glory is right here among us, in the most unlikely places. The Sudanese boy coming down the jetway at Logan Airport with no clue what’s coming next in his life, he is Christ. [The shivering guy who just got out of jail in Middleton after serving a six month sentence wearing only the thin T-shirt he was arrested in last May, he is Christ. ]  The hungry mother coming here on a Friday afternoon to get some food for her children, she is Christ. You may or may not recognize her as Christ. But you smile at her, listen to her, and serve her, because that’s what you do. In your encounter with her some of God’s righteousness rubs off on her, and on you. And, you’re standing next to her at the right hand of Christ’s glorious throne.

The best part of this?  You don’t even notice where you’re standing. You’re too busy doing what you do, serving your neighbor, to care where you’re standing. Right hand, left hand, goats, sheep, it doesn’t matter. You’re offering what you have and who you are to your neighbor. That’s what the glory of the kingdom of Christ is all about.

It’s my prayer that we all can catch glimpses of Christ and his kingdom in the unlikely places around us in these days  Amen.

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