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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sheep, Goats, and the King of Kings

Christ the King Sunday 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46

After reading the Gospel this morning, the big question on my mind is, am I a sheep or a goat? (And, not to give anything away, but, the answer is “yes.”)
If we believe that, mercy and grace aside, where we will end up at the end of time will be determined by some kind of heavenly sorting system, how does the system work?
These questions bring to mind a current TV show called “The Good Place”. The premise of the show is that when we die, there are one of two places we can end up. The Good Place is what you and I would call “heaven” – it is a utopian place of peace and joy. The Bad Place, as you can imagine, is what we would refer to as “hell” – with all the negative connotations that go along with our vision of that place of eternal suffering.
       In the world of the program, there is a point system, where all our deeds are assessed positive or negative points that, when tallied, determine whether a person ends up in The Good Place, or The Bad Place.
For instance, singing to a child will earn you +0.62 points, while holding the door open for another person will net +8,815.23 points. Ruining the opera with bad behavior is assessed a -90.90 points, while selling a sick camel without disclosing its illness penalizes you by -22.22 points.
      Inexplicably, rooting for the New York Yankees is assessed -99.15 points, while remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns is worth +53.83 points; positive and negative points are added or subtracted from some total target point tally which will determine your placement in the afterlife.
      As Lutherans, we might find the whole premise quite humorous and even ludicrous, because our theology tells us that we are saved not by works but by God’s grace alone, and all those things? They sound like works. And Lutherans eschew any discussion of works.
But I wonder, isn’t such a point system often how we really think about good deeds versus bad? In secret, how many of us still worry about the “what if?” What if we got the whole grace thing wrong and God really does keep a tally? Have I done enough deeds of a worthy nature, that God will wipe out the negative impact of the bad I’ve done?
Believe it or not, today’s text is about way more than score-keeping or point counting. And yes, sometimes we are counted among the sheep and sometimes among the goats. So what then?
As Philip Yancy writes in his book Vanishing Grace, “The Bible tells us of flawed people – just like me – who make shockingly bad choices and yet still find themselves pursued by God.”
It is this endless pursuit of God that gives us hope. I was especially glad, on this final Sunday of the church year, to have heard that great text from Ezekiel that we read this morning, where we have this promise that God himself will search for his sheep and seek them out rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered.
Because I know how deeply I am flawed, I am comforted to know that God’s pursuit follows me even into the dark places of all my failures; the times that by action or inaction I have strayed; the times I have been impatient, inattentive, and endlessly ungrateful.
I could be considered one of the scattered ones. I need an understanding and forgiving shepherd to watch after me, and set me straight, and keep me in the fold of safely shepherded sheep, safe even from my own folly. Lucky for me, in Jesus God has provided just what I need.
On this last Sunday of the church year we celebrate Christ the King. The image of Christ shifts in our readings from shepherd to king. And here, Jesus tells us just what kind of king he is.
He is a king who does not value and reward beauty or wealth or the exercise of greed. He isn’t concerned with wealth or riches or conventional, temporal power. And, as his “judgments” would indicate, those who trust in him and those he favors don’t value such things either.
Those who believe in this shepherd, look out for the sick, the poor, the powerless. They accompany the imprisoned and they clothe the naked and they visit those who are imprisoned wherever they are held, in the face of whatever binds them. Theirs is a ministry not simply of charity, but of accompaniment.
They dare to look into the eyes of their neighbor, and see the eyes of Christ staring back. They serve as Christ’s compassionate face for those who are the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless.
Right after Jesus finishes this, his last parable in Matthew’s gospel, he tells his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Jesus wants his disciples to remember that he goes to the cross for them. He goes to the cross for the life of the lifeless. Jesus goes to the cross not for his glory, though his glory will be revealed there. Rather, Jesus goes to the cross as the one who suffers with the suffering and redeems the dying.
That is what our king, Jesus, does. That is who our king, Christ the Lord, is.
As Jesus was the embodiment of God in the world, so now we (in the church from many nations) are the embodiment of Christ. We are both the ones who suffer and the ones who relieve suffering in Jesus' name. The reign of Christ is known through us who love and care for our neighbors until Christ comes again.
As the sheep and goats are surprised by the king’s admission that it was he himself who was either administered or refused their love and compassion in this life, it is also he who will carry their sins and grief upon the cross. It is he whose hands, feet, and side will be pierced. It is he whose body will be raised.
       Today, even as we prepare to enter into the season of Advent – a season that marks our waiting for the coming of the Messiah to be born as a babe in Bethlehem – we are reminded through the Scriptures that while the kingdom on earth is inaugurated with the birth of the Christ Child, it will not be complete until he comes again.
While heaven and earth meet in the nativity scene that we have re-imagined over and over again, they will not be fully merged until Jesus returns in all his glory, seated upon the throne and crowned the King of all creation.
It is this in-between time that Jesus is addressing. How will we respond?
       You see, what happens between now and then, matters. There is an urgency to our lives, because every day people suffer and die and we have the ability to serve them.
Every day God presents Godself in the face of the stranger, the neighbor, the lost, hungry, and lonely one.
       For the sheep, the ones who believe in Jesus, who follow Jesus, whose lives are defined by their love for and trust of Jesus, the work is as natural as breathing, because it is their nature not to worry about doing good works, but simply to do them.
That is why, in the end, they are astonished at the king’s words. They are surprised to hear that they saw, welcomed, fed, clothed and accompanied the king. They are simply doing like the good trees earlier in Matthew’s gospel, that produce good fruit, not worrying about what kind of fruit they are, but only doing what is in their nature to do. Good sheep don’t worry about points or tallies. Their lives, shaped by the great shepherd of the sheep, reflect his values and concerns.
       Here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ consistent message from his Sermon on the Mount through this Sermon of the Judgment, has been that what we do with our lives, and how we respond to the gifts, the talents, the time, and the love, grace and mercy of God not only matters, but reflects the face of God in the world. Jesus invites us to see who we might be leaving out of the reign of God’s love, compassion, and mercy. God’s ultimate judgment is a judgment we do not control, to be rendered by God, in God’s mercy, through the Son of Man God sent to save the world. How will you respond?

Please pray with me.
O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of all that is, was and ever will be, grant that our thoughts, words and actions might be reflective of your reign in our hearts. Instill within us the urgency of our service to the poor and the oppressed whom you so love, and to whom you send us, your broken-hearted people, to serve as your faithful ones. Help us to pay it forward, living our lives in full gratitude for the love, compassion, and holy mercy you bestow upon us. As you reign over our lives, heal our world and bring us your peace, O Christ our King. Amen.

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