A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 20 November 2011 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The scripture reading that day was Matthew 25:31-46.
Today in the church calendar is a special day called Christ the King Sunday. It’s celebrated on the last Sunday of the Church Year before we begin the season of Advent next week. As you know, the Church follows a different calendar from the regular one with 4 seasons. We mark our days following the life of Jesus through the six seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. So on this last Sunday in Pentecost, we bring the liturgical year to a fitting close.
It may sound like Christ the King Sunday comes from medieval times, but actually it was added to the church calendar in the 20th century. Pope Pius XI inaugurated this day in 1925 in the Catholic Church. It was a reminder of Christ’s kingship over all creation as opposed to earthly claims of supremacy by dictators like Mussolini. But even Popes don’t always get their way. Pius XI wanted this celebration on the last Sunday of October. But over the years the Church wasn’t happy with it there. So finally in 1969, it was moved to the last Sunday of Pentecost. As one scholar says, “It’s now clearer that the exalted Lord and King is the goal not only of the liturgical year but of our entire earthly pilgrimage.” Today Christ the King Sunday is celebrated not only in the Catholic Church, but in Anglican and many Protestant churches as well, including ours.
The lectionary readings in the past few weeks from Matthew have focused on judgment, so it’s no surprise that the Gospel reading for today concludes that theme in a rather spectacular way. This passage goes by various names: The Final Judgment, the Judgment of the Nations, Sheep and Goats.
In this parable, Christ returns as King and Judge at the end of history. All the people from every nation will be assembled before Him. Then he’ll divide them into two groups, like a shepherd separates his herd at the end of the day. Sheep to the right, goats to the left. It was said that sheep and goats in Bible times could graze together during the day. But at night, sheep liked to sleep outside while goats liked to stay warm in a barn. So, bed time, sheep to the right, goats to the left.
I don’t know whether that’s true or not, maybe one of those urban myths. But anyway it gives you a picture of what happens at the Last Judgment: Sheep or the righteous get to lie down in heavenly green pastures while goats or the unrighteous are going to a place a lot hotter than a barn!
So, what’s the criteria for deciding sheep or goat? According to Matthew 25, it’s how you treated the most needy in society during your life – specifically the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and prisoner. In fact, Jesus says, when you care for one of the least of these, it's the same as doing it for me. Likewise, when you refuse to help one of the least of these, it's the same as refusing to do it for me.
The message appears to be very straightforward. God says we have to care for vulnerable people in our community, no ifs, ands or buts. That’s God’s requirement for entering the Kingdom. So if you've done that, you have nothing to fear at the Last Judgment. If you haven't done that, don't expect mercy when the Son of Man returns.
That’s pretty clear, isn't it?
On one level, yes. On the practical level, it's clear what the Church should do. And for 2000 years this is what the Church has done. Christians have been leaders in establishing charities to all these needy groups and more. And care is not given only in direct aid. Churches also engage in advocacy on an institutional level; they have fought for change in our social, economic and political policies.
So, we can say the Church throughout the ages has gotten this message right, even as we admit our failure to do enough.
But the Church throughout the ages has also wrestled with the deeper implications of this passage, and sometimes that hasn't been so clear.
For instance, does this passage say we are judged at the end of time according to our deeds? Isn't salvation a matter of grace, not works, lest we should boast?
And if we are to be judged by our deeds, why these? Doesn't every culture and religion promote care for the needy? What makes these categories particularly important for Christians?
And if we are to be judged by these deeds, how can we know we have done enough? Do we need a checklist to be sure there’s at least one hungry person, one thirsty one, one stranger, one naked person, one sick person and one prisoner among our acquaintances?
I think the key to answering our questions lies within the passage itself. It's the well-known words of Matthew 25, verse 40: 'Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
You did it for me.
What’s the meaning behind this verse? Is it meant to be symbolic? Is it like the story I heard of a volunteer in a homeless shelter? He never missed his turn. When someone asked him why he was so faithful to this service, the volunteer said he had a troubled brother living far away who stayed in homeless shelters. So when he served the homeless in this shelter, he imagines that one of them is his brother.
That is a touching story. Yet, I believe Jesus is saying more than that the needy are substitutes for the Lord himself. He said, "You did it for me." If we take these words at face value, it means Christ is actually present in the one we serve. Christ is there, making it possible for us to love God and love our neighbour at the same time.
So in fact it is not our deeds that will save us at the Last Judgement. It’s Christ Himself, Christ who on the Cross, accomplished everything that was needed for us and our salvation. All we are asked to do is to follow Him, follow Him to the neediest people and places on earth. Why?
To learn. That’s right. To learn. As Alison Boden puts it: to learn who Christ is and how wide are his love and presence.
Boden is Chaplain at Princeton University and she tells her own story in a sermon delivered a few years ago on Christ the King Sunday.
It was the mid-1980s. She was a fresh university graduate, living in New York, trying to be an actress. Through her church she heard of a need for volunteers to go to Harlem Hospital and hold the infants and toddlers who had HIV and AIDS. She loved babies so she thought that would be fun for her and service to them, so why not? As she put it, a win-win.
What she experienced however changed her life. She said, “What I found on that pediatric AIDS ward was a place of love, of suffering, of grief, of addictions and poverty, of anger and pride, of economic and racial discrimination, of joy and tenderness and grace overflowing. Christ was so present there, and in every way, not just in love but so deeply in the suffering. The one who endured the cross was in the steel crib, frightened, often in significant pain.
There was nothing sentimental about it, nothing patronizing about any helper’s presence there. The situation was so real, so challenging and emotionally demanding, so close to the bone that it burned off the charity and left the justice. And Christ was still there, not making everything nice but making everything redeemable: the pain, the inequities, the addictions – none of this is how we were meant to be. It [may be] our present but not our inheritance, not our future.”
Much to her surprise, Boden found that ward was one of the most hopeful places she had ever been. “For in the place no human wants to be, poor, abandoned and dying, Christ is there, present in the little [ones] who were suffering the most, redeeming us all one by one, from the bottom up. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but he is like no other King in heaven or on earth, and his reign of love and mercy looks like no other we’ve ever known.”
If there’s anything we should get then from Matthew 25, it is hope. Hope for you and me, hope for those in the Church and those outside. I know it doesn’t look very hopeful for those goats. But remember, God didn’t set the requirements so high, that 99% of us will never make it into the Kingdom. God didn’t say only great theologians will make it into heaven, did he? God didn’t say only those with a great mystical experience would be counted among the righteous or only the most successful people on earth would enter into his eternal rest. The only demand he made is that we join him in fellowship with the least and the lost. Anyone can do that. All is takes is love. So whether the Last Judgment is good news or bad news is ultimately up to us. Sheep or goat – we get to decide.
Today in Kowloon Union Church it’s not only Christ the King Sunday. This month we’re also focusing on the theme of stewardship, and it normally coincides in churches with pledge campaigns or special appeals. In fact, earlier this month I got an appeal from the United Church of Christ (UCC). It’s one of the American denominations that support my work in Hong Kong.
They were running a national campaign called Mission:1 for the first 11 days of November. The goal was to collect more than 1 million food items for local food banks, 1 million dollars in donations for hunger ministries in the US and 1 million for East Africa famine relief. All this would be collected by Nov 11th, or 11-11-11, or 111111. That they all may be one, get it? I think it was a brilliant idea because it was not only addressing the immediate need of hungry people but also confronting food-related injustice around the world.
But I have to confess that I had been getting emails from the UCC for many weeks about this campaign. But I hadn’t looked at them because I’d been busy doing other things like working on this sermon. Finally on Friday Nov 11th, I got 4 emails from them. I thought, “I’d better open these.” Then I realized Mission 1 was about feeding the hungry, of all things, and it was the last day to make a donation to be in the online tally. I felt like I would be a hypocrite if I stood here preaching to you this morning and didn’t do anything about this hunger appeal right in front of me. So I sent in my donation right away, breathed a sigh of relief and got one more tick on that ‘good sheep’ checklist.
Now I’m OK with churches and charities appealing to our conscience and our wallets in this way. But I don’t want to lose sight of what Christian stewardship is really about. At the heart, it’s about gratitude. Christian stewardship comes from the need to give out of gratitude to God, not from the need of the church or any other charity to receive. Churches and charities will always have needs. That’s why they have fundraisers and capital campaigns, and good stewards should take those appeals seriously. But Christians respond first and foremost out of thanksgiving to God, a generous God who has given us everything we have including hope through Jesus Christ.
There’s an old hymn I used to love to sing on Stewardship Sunday. The words are: ‘We give Thee but Thine own, What’er the gift may be. For all we have is Thine alone, a trust O Lord, from Thee’. It’s in the green hymnal, but some of you may find the words a bit old-fashioned. So let me try to convey this truth in another way. Let me close this morning with a folk tale, appropriately enough about a King. I heard it from one of our speakers on RTHK, and maybe you’ve heard it as well.
There was once a King who ruled wisely over a happy kingdom. Once a year the King invited all his subjects to his castle for his birthday party. For the people it was the highlight of the year.
One year the King’s birthday was not far off and he invited everyone to the castle as usual. The people were delighted to receive the invitations. They were upset though to read on the invitation that this year the King wanted them to bring him gifts. He wanted gifts that could hold water. But he wanted them to be made of gold.
Many people decided to give the King thimbles and eggcups – gifts that met the King’s request, but didn’t cost too much. So many thimbles and eggcups were ordered from the goldsmiths, and the goldsmiths were about the only people in the land happy about the King’s birthday. One young woman, however, loved the King very much. She didn’t approve of the other people’s behaviour and she decided to sell all she owned to make a large bowl out of gold.
The day of the party arrived and all the people went to the palace. They put their gifts on a long table in the banqueting hall. The young woman’s bowl stood out amongst all the thimbles and eggcups. Then the party began and there was great feasting and drinking.
After the people had sung Happy Birthday to the King, he spoke to them. “Thank you for my gifts,” he said. “I asked you to bring a container because I have decided to share my treasure with you. Please take the gift you brought with you down into my treasure store below the castle. Fill your container with jewels to take home with you.”
Imagine the people’s surprise! They were suddenly ashamed of their small gifts; they realised they should have been more generous. The young woman was at first embarrassed that the King would not keep her gift. But when she looked into his loving eyes, she humbly obeyed. She filled her large bowl with jewels, and when she went home, she realized the King had given her enough riches to take care of herself and many others many times over for the rest of her life.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 6 November 2011 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Joshua 24:14-25 and Matthew 25:1-13.
Dear God, may the Holy Spirit dwell upon us. May your words inspire us and transform us to become more like Christ. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you. Amen.
The parable of the ten young girls (bridesmaids) waiting for the bridegroom to bring them to a wedding feast at night is a familiar gospel account. Five clever young girls prepared enough oil for themselves while five foolish young girls did not. Eventually the unprepared were not allowed to go into the wedding feast and were left outside. The Lord even said to them, ‘I don’t know you’. The parable is shared to remind the disciples to keep guard for they don’t know at what day or at what hour the Lord may come.
Stay awake and be prepared for the coming of the Lord is the key message the author would like to share with his audience.
The key message of ‘be prepared’ for the coming of the Lord reminds me of my time with the Girl Guide Team during my secondary school days. The Motto of the Girl Guide is BE PREPARED. This means that Guides are ready to cope with anything that might come their way.
As we do not fully know what would happen in our life and when would the Lord come, it is thus wise to prepare ourselves in every moment. I knew this teaching only in concept. I had deeper understanding of ‘be prepared’ after my brother died in a car accident. He was 33 years old when he passed away. How can a young man die all of a sudden? My family and I were totally shattered by this incident. We were all unprepared for his leaving in such a traumatic way!
I learnt one important lesson from the sudden death of my brother. No one can control the length of his or her life. We all know the fact that we will die one day. But we don’t know when that day would come. When we are young, we may think that death would be far away from us. In fact, it does not necessarily work that way in reality. We may die at anytime. Just like the coming of the Lord, we don’t know the day or the hour.
While we do not have any control of the lengths of our life, we are however able to decide how to lead the life we want. It is us who can decide the depth and meaning of our own lives. It is our choice and also our responsibility to live a life that is well prepared to meet with God when the Lord is coming to us.
Very often, we procrastinate in our plans because we think we may still have time. We may fail to prepare our life for God’s sake. There are times we do not respond actively to Christ’s invitation for being a faithful disciple and a good steward. Too often we are bothered and pre-occupied by many different things. They could be pressure at work, school and family, worries arising from financial crisis and marital crisis, uncertain future and insecure life. The list can be endless.
Steve Jobs shared in his speech to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005, an important aspect on death. He shared his personal story by saying “remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
Dear sisters and brothers, what is truly important to you in life?
If today is the last day of your life, what would you want to do?
If the Lord is coming to you today, what would you do to prepare yourself to meet with God?
As Christ’s disciples, how would you relate your life with the church community in which God has called you to be part of it?
God is love and merciful, and yet he has expectation on us. God has called his people to prepare their lives to take up his call to serve as faithful stewards for His creation. Jesus Christ the Lord has also demanded his disciples to love one another and serve the Church in unity. How much do we prepare ourselves for this?
As we gather here at KUC as a faith community to witness God, we are required to serve in the congregation in different ways so that God’s kingdom will be advanced by the participation of the church.
If Jesus Christ comes to us at KUC today, asking us what have we done for him in his church and in the community, what would we say to him?
I hear the first voice saying:
KUC is a unique church. We have a holy sanctuary to worship. We offer a quiet place for people to pray in the midst of busyness.
Jesus then asks the congregation: have you prepared yourself to attend the worship with reverence to God? Are you prepared to serve in the maintenance of the church building and the worship space to make it a nice place for the people coming to it?
After this, I hear the second voice from the congregation, saying:
KUC is unique for she is a home for people who are away from home in other countries. People from different background are all accepted and embraced by an open arm. They feel they are welcome.
Jesus then asks the congregation: are you prepared to greet people every Sunday and take up a role in the care and fellowship team to offer your friendship to people?
Then I hear the third voice from the congregation:
KUC is unique with her stand for the marginalized and the vulnerable. We have funds allocated to projects both local and overseas to serve the needy. We do give our voice and join in actions that are concerned with social justice.
Jesus then asks the congregation again: are you prepared to serve in the MOE committee and engage in the mission and outreach ministry?
A fourth voice comes up:
KUC is unique for her ecumenical tradition and spirit – that is to embrace diversity in unity, and tolerance to differences.
Jesus then challenges the congregation by saying: are you prepared to educate the children and the young people and nurture their spirit of inclusiveness and Oneness in Christ?
Joshua, a Jewish leader had challenged his people to make a choice. The Israelites, God’s chosen one were asked if they would keep their faith and serve their Lord wholeheartedly.
Today, we are asked by the same question. Do we as a church family choose to serve the Lord.
Dear members and friends of KUC, have you prepared your life to meet with God through your service in his church? The Stewardship campaign in KUC has posed a challenge to you today.
It has been a tradition and practice of KUC to designate one Sunday Worship with the theme stewardship. The purpose of this arrangement is to remind church members to reflect on God’s call to be his faithful steward and prepare them to respond to the invitation of pledging to offer their gifts for the service of God at KUC.
Stewardship in a Christian context refers to the responsibility that Christians have in maintaining and using wisely the gifts that God has given. God wishes human beings to be his collaborators in the work of creation, redemption and sanctification. Stewardship is the way our time, talents, material possessions or wealth are used or given for the service of God.
Our Church is in need of sisters and brothers to serve together to build up God’s church and the community at large.
Dear sisters and brothers, life is short and uncertain. Will you seize the day to prepare yourself to serve? Do you want to make a difference to KUC? Are you prepared to do so? Are you ready?