A Holy Kingdom – Lectionary 11/22/2020

Matthew 25:31-46

          “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Sermon Text

            Thanksgiving will be here in a few days, and it will be different for us in a way we have never seen before. We have never had to worry about whether family gatherings will become spreader events until now, never had to worry over whether it was safe for grandparents and grandchildren to mingle with one another. Four days away from us, the day that usually brings about feasting and celebrating, is causing an uneasy feeling in our stomachs already. How can we be thankful in so hard of a year? How can we gather in safety in the midst of an ever-worsening pandemic?

            Ultimately, our answers must be developed individually by each person and family who must make them. While one family may be relatively certain of their ability to gather safely, another will know that this year must be a smaller affair, for the good of all people involved. For some of us, finding the things to be thankful for will be easier than for others. While we as a society and a community have been given ample reason to mourn, there have been flashes of hope and joy despite the darkness that overshadows us. For some of us the light outshines the darkness, for others we simply cannot pretend to be happy right now, nor should we be made to be.

            Thanksgiving is weird this year, everything is weird this year. It would be wrong of us to pretend anything but that reality is off kilter. Even we who know that God has not vacated the throne, that the universe is still guided by its architect, we cannot help but be a little off balance as of late. Thanksgiving is coming, a holiday to pull us out of ourselves and to survey the bounty which God has set before us. How will we be able to celebrate in the midst of tragedy, confusion, and altered plans? We will do so by digging deeper into the faith that has saved us and in accepting that that does not mean pretending all is well.

            This Sunday also celebrates the Reign of Christ, the final Sunday before Advent in which we acknowledge what the wait will be for. For four weeks we will be talking about the dawning of a Kingdom, a Kingdom we inhabit and yet have never seen. Today is the last week we count after the Pentecost, next week the first day we count down from till Christmas. On the edge of the mundane we now begin to approach the sacred and ineffable space of Christ’s arrival into the world – that which occurred long ago and that which we know not the day or hour of.

            Usually, the dates of Thanksgiving and reign of Christ have a week or so between them, but not this year. Why would we think otherwise, but to have our rhythm thrown off with an early Advent? The timing, as much an accident of civic and religious calendars overlapping as anything, nonetheless has the ability to offer us something we would not otherwise immediately grasp. The order of our observances this year allow us to realize that the reality of God sitting on the throne and our ability to give thanks are connected. We are able to give praise and to give thanks in the midst of hardship because we know deep down that God is in control, and as difficult as that reality can be to reconcile with our lived experience it is an endless well of potential and hope.

            God sits on the throne, and God offers us that at the end of all things there will be a setting straight of the crookedness of the world. The illnesses that keep us from our loved ones abolished, the poverty that keeps people from living to their fullest potential erased, and all hardness of heart and brokenness of spirit wiped away with the abundant grace of God who attends to the needs of all who love him. We started the month with All Saints Day, dreaming of Heaven, we will end it with Advent, God coming down to bring heaven to us, today let us find time betwixt and between to give thanks.

            Our scripture today is the third in a line of texts in which Jesus explains where the Kingdom of God can be found. It is found in those who are prepared, even in the moments that they fall asleep on duty, to meet Jesus. It is found in those who steward their worldly possessions well and appropriately make use of God’s gifts. Now today we find that God’s kingdom will be peopled by those who enact the principles of the last two parables. It is all fine and good to talk about being good with money or ready to help, but to actually do things for the benefit of others – that is another thing entirely.

            Christ lays out for us the difficult task of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned. In other words, doing the work that no one else would like to do. The delicate works of love, often categorized as acts of mercy or charity, are the Church’s true mission in the world. When all else passes away, and our ability to love remains with us in the perfection of paradise, it will be these things that demonstrate whether we were able to truly take on our Christian call in this life.

            Love, the oldest and most powerful of all God’s gifts. This is the foundation on which all of creation rests. Without love, we are nothing. Without love everything is left to chance and the whims of passing time. Love invests meaning into anything it touches, and our ability to act in love is ultimately the greatest sign of our adherence to a Christian life. As the hymn goes, “They Shall Know we are Christians by our… love” In the rush of the modern world, with bombardments of bad news available with just a click of the mouse or a flick of the finger, it can be easy for us to be overwhelmed. The sense of dread that fills us, of problems too big to do anything about, or too distant to worry over. Disaster around us, or disaster that happens to us, either are enough to threaten to force us from love and into despair, to lose our footing on the surety of God’s love for us and our need to love one another.

            Our scripture today is not just a warning to get our life together before judgment. It is a reminder that, in the midst of our suffering, Christ is with us. While the primary message of this parable is in line with those we’ve discussed in previous weeks, namely “Be alert and be ready and be righteous,” it is also the first to show us how Christ continually appears to us. The parable is clear that Christ is somehow present when we help those in need – implicitly this means that God never leaves those who are in distress.

            Much like the beatitudes, we are simultaneously given an imperative and an indicative statement. When Jesus said blessed are those who mourn, the statement stands on its own as a statement that God cares for those who suffer loss. It also inspires those not in mourning to empathize with those who are. The same can be said for the blessings of the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and of all those blessed statuses which Christ lists in Matthew 5.

            When someone is without food, without water, naked, alone, in prison, or any dire straight of life, they are especially beloved of God. Though it is not possible, nor advisable, to make a hierarchy of God’s concern for God’s creation, scripture is clear that those who are suffering are those who God desires to be near more than any others. Joy leads us to celebrate, it leads us to dance and sing, but it also risks us becoming blind to the source of our gifts. In suffering, as dark and dismal as it is, it often becomes clearer to us that the one permanent source of goodness in life is God.

            As anyone of us would attest, simply knowing that God is in control is not assurance enough. We know God loves us, we know God reigns, and we know that after Christ comes again all will be set right. Knowing that and feeling it are different things, especially in the midst of a difficult year where everything is up in the air, when daily the list of worries and fears we have, have seemed to multiply exponentially.

            It is not always in triumph that thanksgiving comes into our heart. The elation we feel after some great success or happenstance in our life, after good news or an addition to our life, that is a real and incredible summit from which to praise God. However, Thanksgiving can also be a quiet thing. When we find ourselves sitting in a chair late at night, unable to stop our mind from wandering and our body from rejecting sleep. When nothing has gone right, and the noise of a world in tumult threatens to overtake us. In the moment, just before our eyes shut, when we find a moment of peace – that can be a profound place to give thanks.

            I often think of the song, “Hallelujah.” The song itself can be taken to mean a great many things, but the lyric that lodges in my mind, and comes to me in the darkest moments of my life, is that which describes love like this, “it’s not a cry you can hear at night, it’s not somebody who has seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Love, both the love we show in loving one another and that we render to God in thanksgiving, can be loud and joyful, but it can also be broken and tired.

            This Thanksgiving let us celebrate not as we feel compelled to by culture – with shouts of acclaim and a blindness to our own pain. Instead, let us come to the altar as we are able. If that means we can shout out the praises of God without reservation, then we should do so. However, if it means that we can only bring ourselves to say the Lord’s prayer quietly as we lay ourselves down to sleep, then so be it. Life is never static, and life with God is the same way.

            God holds us in the palm of God’s hand. Christ is beside us and the Spirit within us. God is on his throne and as we work out how we will gather with family and friends this week, let us allow ourselves to be comforted by that fact. God is near to us and God embraces us. Sometimes, that is enough. Our thanksgiving can simply be accepting the love we are offered and resting in the knowledge that – even when all is not well – something is constant. The love of God is ours forever. – Amen.

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