Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sermon: Living in God’s Kingdom Right Here, Right Now

Readings for Last Sunday after Pentecost—Year A

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, "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."


The Sermon: Living in God’s Kingdom Right Here, Right Now

Here’s a quick summary of today’s Gospel: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit prisoners. If you do that, when you die, you’ll go to Heaven. If you don’t, you’ll spend eternity burning in Hell. Pretty simple: Be good, or else!

So, I guess I can just sit down now?

Well, no, I don’t think so!

· Life doesn’t work that way: deferred rewards & punishments don’t work.

· No gray areas.

· No allowance for repentance & forgiveness.

· No place for the saving power of faith.

· No place for a loving God.

· It sets up another set of rules.

Today’s lesson is another of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God. Parables aren’t about the future; they tell truths about the reality of the here and now. Further, they usually have an element of surprise—they overturn some piece of common knowledge. So let’s look at this parable as an expression of some surprising truth about life in the here and now.

There’s nothing unusual or surprising about the idea that God wants us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In Jesus time, every Jew knew that. Throughout the Hebrew scripture, God’s people are called to love their neighbor as themselves. They were to also to love the aliens among them as themselves, and to care for widows and orphans, among other things. Today’s OT reading condemns those in power who haven’t cared for the people in their charge, comparing them to the fat sheep who crowd the weak animals and butt them with their horns until they’re scattered all over the place.

And it doesn’t surprise anyone that the story has a powerful judge who sentences people. Everyone knows that those in authority have the power to reward and punish in this world. It’s common knowledge that we need to pay attention to those who have the power. Conversely, we all know that we really don’t have to pay that kind of attention to the powerless. We may decide to be benevolent, but the common knowledge is that there’s no consequence if we don’t.

It’s at this point that the parable turns the tables on the people in the story—and on us. In the story, the judge suddenly calls the powerless and disadvantaged his family! The implications quickly become obvious. Everybody knows that if you want to get on the right side of the powerful, you better treat their friends and family well. When the judge calls the powerless his family, suddenly, the powerless have become powerful—and they’ve just gotten the power to judge us.

And that’s actually how it is in real life. We carefully watch—and judge--the people in our lives who have power over, just as those who are less powerful than we watch—and judge us.

Jesus preached the Kingdom of God as being “at hand” right here, right now. So what are the consequences in the here and now of being a caring person vs not? The here & now truth that the parable points to is that caring people are already living in God’s Kingdom in a way that uncaring people are not.

I think we love Dicken’s Christmas Carol story because it gives us a neat example of how this can be. The stingy mean Scrooge is living in his own little hell on earth; after he sees his situation in a new light, the generous caring Scrooge goes on to live in a little bit of heaven.

It’s important to understand that today’s Gospel isn’t setting up a set of specific rules to follow—yet another list of good works to perform. No, it has to do with living a life of mercy and joy--of living a life of thankfulness for the gifts we’ve been given and of experiencing joy in sharing what we have. When we live like that, we are already living in the Kingdom.

Contrast that with living a life of concern that what you have won’t be enough and a life of fear--fear that even what you have will be taken away. That’s not a life that could be described as living in the Kingdom, and that stance toward life would be reflected by acts of selfishness and greed and mistrust.

I don’t mean to imply that living a life that cares for others is all sweetness and light. Real life isn’t that easy. It’s like there’s an Olympic event called caring, and there are degrees of difficulty in this event, like there are with the Olympic diving event.

The easiest kind of caring is caring for the Deserving Poor—those who have become disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

Caring for them is lots easier than caring for the Undeserving Poor—those who got themselves in trouble through something they did or didn’t do—those whom we feel deserve what they got.

This dichotomy plays out in our national life. It’s easy to think about welfare when we think it’s for people like us who have simply fallen on hard times, but it’s harder to think about supporting people who don’t ever seem to be able to get it together. This situation comes up clos to home as well. How many times do we help a friend or family member get back on his or her feet after they’ve messed up yet again? When is it helping, and when is it enabling? Tough question; no easy answer. But to me it’s clear that caring and trying to do the right thing is way better for us and for them than either giving up on them and opting out or conversely, giving up and giving in to demands that aren’t helpful in the long run.

Now, I’d like to present another, more modern twist to the story. People who study such things report that some people simply have more capacity for caring than others. In some people, the senses of empathy or sympathy are simply not well-developed, and, in psychopaths, they’re entirely lacking. They become the mean-spirited among us. Perhaps they’re racists or sexists or gay-bashers. Some of them may be among that rich and powerful 1% that people are complaining about. Where do these people fit in our lives as caring persons?

Because they lack the capacity to care for others, they are denied the joy of living in the Kingdom here and now. So, even though they may be rich or at least have some power over others, this puts them in the ranks of the disadvantaged. For short, let’s call them the Undeserving Rich. They present a third degree of difficulty to those who have been granted the gift of caring. So, after the challenges of caring for the Deserving Poor and caring for the Undeserving Poor, now we’re presented with the challenge of caring about and for the Undeserving Rich!

Is it possible to have an impact on even these people’s lives? A Christmas Carol does portray the conversion of rich uncaring stingy unhappy Scrooge to a rich caring sharing happy Scrooge. That’s fiction, but we have real-life examples as well: Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie used his fortune to fund schools and libraries all over the US. Microsoft founder Bill Gates quit heading his company to devote himself and his fortune to enhancing healthcare and reducing poverty worldwide. I’d like to believe that some caring person was instrumental in these people’s decision to devote their lives to caring for others.

Closer to home at Grace Church, we, as a community, and as individuals, have learned to include people who were previously excluded—and we have come to understand that we are much the better for it—that we are now blessed to be living more in God’s Kingdom than ever before. As Phillis has said, “We’re smaller now, but we’re better.”

Now, if you or I aspire to be living even more in the Kingdom, how might we become more caring? The answer is the same as it is for anything else we want to learn: practice, practice, practice. And we don’t let the fact that there are hard cases out there stop us from doing what we can. We start easy and we work up.

Our daily life gives us lots of chances to practice caring. When we’re driving, for example: At a four-way stop intersection, do we wave the other person through before us? When we see people in crosswalks, do we stop for them? When people are merging into our lane, do we let them in--even when they’ve run ahead of us and don’t deserve to be let in?

Even closer to home, at the Snack ‘n Chat following the service, being a caring person can be as simple as being on the lookout for anyone who’s sitting or standing alone & make it a point to chat with them.

Remember the promise of today’s parable: the more we act like we’re a caring person, the more we’ll be a caring person and the more we’ll find ourselves living in God’s Kingdom—right here, right now.

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