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.