By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:1-3; 25:31-46
Last weekend Britt and I were in San Diego for the annual Society of Biblical Literature Convention. San Diego, of course, is an important port city, home to a large and active naval fleet. Security is tight, so recognition is important. The SBL meeting is held at the San Diego Convention Center and all attendees must be wearing their SBL nametag. If security doesn’t see your nametag, they will stop you. The nametag is how they recognize that you are someone who belongs there. Our hotel was also along the waterfront. The elevators are activated by your room key. Without a key card, you cannot access your room. You simply bob back and forth between the lobby and the mezzanine. It’s all a little annoying and inconvenient to dig that keycard out of your purse or pocket. But it is life in our post-9/11 world. Nametags and key cards provide recognition and recognition provides access.
To a certain degree this morning’s gospel story is a story about recognition and access. It is recognition that provides access.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks that precede the celebration of Christmas. The word Advent means “coming.” The season of Advent is a season in which we spiritually prepare for the coming of Jesus: we remember his first coming as a baby in Bethlehem long ago and we anticipate that he will come again at the end of time. And so, lest we turn this season into nothing more than historic nostalgia – a season of Christmas pageants where we all get to coo over the crib that too often holds a baby doll with lily white skin, Advent historically begins with an emphatic reminder that Christ will come again. It’s a core Christian belief that we affirm each time we celebrate communion: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. But most of us don’t think about it much. I confess; being raised in a somewhat fundamentalist culture where, as a child, I often feared I might be “left behind,” this “second coming” is a place on our Christian landscape where I rarely linger. It may seem to many of us that this proclamation of Jesus’ return at the end of time is, today, the domain of televangelists and fringe religious extremists who stir up fear, incite panic and stoke divisions that lead to violence.
So what are we to do with it? Well, we certainly shouldn’t ignore it. After all, Matthew’s gospel records two full chapters of Jesus teaching his disciples about this topic – what they should expect and how they should prepare. Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows… Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”[i]
This morning’s gospel story from Matthew is Jesus’ final parable or teaching. This will be his last gospel word before his passion begins. It is often referred to as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats but is, perhaps, more aptly entitled “The Judgment of the Nations.”
In the ancient world, kings were often referred to as shepherds of the people and so it is no surprise that, within this parable, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd king. As a good shepherd might separate his most valuable and vulnerable sheep from more unruly, rough and tumble goats, Jesus divides up the nations. But, he judges in a way that takes both sheep and goats by surprise. He separates them based on their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the foreigner, the sick and the imprisoned. But this is more than works righteousness and the earning of heavenly brownie points. This is – ultimately – about their response to Jesus for Jesus identifies himself with those whom society has treated poorly and neglected. Again, this is a parable about recognition and access. If we are able to recognize the presence of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the foreigner, the sick and the imprisoned and respond with mercy and hospitality, then Jesus will recognize us and grant us access into his kingdom at the end of time. So again, just to be clear… this isn’t merely about writing a check to a charity now and then and viewing it as our convention center nametag and hotel keycard. Remember, being a Christian means having an authentic relationship with Jesus, not merely acknowledging his existence. And so, to recognize Jesus in those whom society has neglected and marginalized means to engage with them and build relationships. It is about breaking bread and visiting and actually tending to their wounds and alleviating their suffering.
Again, some religious extremists and charlatans relish in these end time descriptions that involve violence and destruction and a desperate shortage of resources. After all, fear is a great motivator and control mechanism. And certainly, Jesus gives fair warning that some pretty ugly stuff is gonna go down. But, all that ugly stuff is not really the end. It is the penultimate chord in this cosmic symphony. When the end truly comes, all evil and ugliness will be no more; only peace and justice will remain.
This morning we lit the Advent candle of peace. This morning’s parable reveals that true peace cannot come without justice. True peace provides security, hospitality and abundance for all people, especially the marginalized. Peace does not come at the edge of a victor’s sword. Rather, peace is the inevitable result of compassion, hospitality, and generosity; a view shared by the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah’s depiction of God’s judgment of the nations, he tells us that swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and that war will be a lost and forgotten art.
This morning’s scriptures call us to reckon with the truth that many of society’s values – endless acquisition, wasteful consumption, defensiveness, division and harsh judgment of one another – have no place in the kingdom of God. As bible scholar Megan McKenna writes, “Each of us must choose whether to accept the kingdom of heaven coming upon the earth and remain faithful to that choice day in and day out in the society where we live, notwithstanding that society’s greed, violence, competition, and inequality.”[ii] Friends, when Jesus comes again at the end of time, this world’s current values and structures – economic, political and social – will all come to an end and God’s kingdom values – compassion, hospitality and generosity – will be all that remain. These are the things that make for peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace and there can be no peace without justice; justice revealed through acts of compassion, hospitality and generosity.
Each week during worship, we pray that line in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But do we really think about what that means? God’s kingdom will mean the end of this world’s competitive, self-serving political, economic and social systems. That is what we are signing up for every time we pray that prayer. That is what we are committing to; we are committing to seeing differently; to seeing and responding to the image of Christ in the most neglected and marginalized of our society.
Friends: Advent is commonly a time of renewed commitment to spiritual practices. So might I suggest that, throughout this season, we begin each morning with the simple prayer of the early Christians, “come, Lord Jesus” and that we then commit to seeing and responding to Jesus as he comes to us through those in need around us. It shouldn’t be too hard. We are an urban congregation. All around us are people in need. This Advent let us practice responding to the presence of Jesus in concrete and practical ways. If you need ideas, just email or call me and we can discern something – or rather, someone in need – together.
Each of us has a choice about how we will see those around us and what – or might I say “who” – we will recognize when we look upon the needy. This parable makes clear, if we hope for Jesus to recognize us at the end of time and grant us access into his heavenly kingdom, then we must be committed to recognizing his presence among us here and now.
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison? If we wish to inherit the kingdom of our Lord, let us open our eyes and look around because recognition means access.
[i] Matthew 24:36, 44
[ii] Matthew: The Book of Mercy by Megan McKenna; New City Press; 2007; p, 155
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