THE GRAND SURPRISE ~ Matthew 25: 31-45

Christ the King / Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 25/26, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

Today is Christ the King Sunday … the last Sunday of Pentecost. The Church Year ends now, but not simply with the harsh blowing of dry leaves and cold wind in the morning to warn us of the onslaught of winter.

No, the Church Year ends with a reminder that the hope of the world rests on Christ’s shoulders. Every Sunday we confidently proclaim:
He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his Kingdom will have no end.

We live our lives not knowing whether Christ will come again dramatically … or at the end of your lives and mine. No matter which comes first, in faith we believe it will be a time for sorting things out … not so much a judgment as an accounting of what people have considered to be most important … the ultimate concern … in their lives.
Those who have lived lives that mirror the love and compassion of Jesus … whether by decision or by instinct … will be gathered to be with the Lord forever.
Those who have lived lives that have been self-centered, immersed in self-aggrandizement, with little concern for those suffering around them … will receive for all eternity what they have consistently chosen … the opportunity to be alone and not forced into relationships they have shunned.

So, in our Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us, in effect, that the Lord has shifted the mantle of responsibility to our shoulders. Our Gospel lesson tells us that our sense of justice is to be scrutinized. Today we are told that our instinctive compassionate and concern for others will matter.

There was a time when the Last Sunday of the Church Year was known as Judgment Sunday … a time for preachers to dangle two stark contrasts before their people: heaven or hell, asking, in effect, if you were to die tonight where would you go … a place of joy and happiness or a place of misery and torment?

We seem to have moved away from such edgy preaching or thinking. For most people this is the Sunday of Thanksgiving Weekend. These days that is not a problem because I do not think we do guilt, condemnation, and hell very well in the Episcopal Church … not that Lutherans are any better at dangling people over the fiery pit!

Three pious church ladies died … a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, and an Episcopalian. They appeared together at the pearly gates, fully expecting a warm welcome. Imagine their shock when Saint Peter told them they would have to wait whole their lives were reviewed.
 The Roman Catholic lady said she had no idea what the problem might be, although she acknowledged: I remember that once, in a moment of weakness, I said that I thought women should have a choice on issues related to their health!
 The Baptist woman said: This is not right … the only thing I can remember is that once, at a wedding reception, I took a glass of the alcoholic punch!
 The Episcopal lady sighed heavily and said: I know what it is … it has been a burden on my heart for years … at a formal dinner with the Bishop I once ate my entire main course with my salad fork!

Our Gospel lesson is clear that behavior in life matters. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats stresses that those who love the Lord should act clearly and decisively when they see a human need. Earlier in his ministry Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which made a similar point: it does not matter who you are or what you know. What matters is how you live your life.

William Barclay, the great 20th century British theologian, once said:
This (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear — God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given. [The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, p. 359]

Today we are reminded that what matters to God are our acts of genuine concern that embrace people’s urgent needs. We do not have to be people of wealth who make large charitable contributions. The things that Jesus notes are acts of hospitality and kindness: the offering of a meal, a cup of water for the thirsty, an act of welcome to the stranger or a visit to the sick or to someone suffering in confinement.

The most radical thing Jesus says is that concern for other in distress becomes an expression of concern for Christ … those our Lord calls … my little brothers and sisters. What a wonderful way to look at those people around us who are often terribly isolated with no one to care about them. Francis of Assisi heard Christ’s words and they changed his life forever. He walked away from the carefree life of a shiftless young man of affluence in order to assume the burden of the poor all around him.

I do not think we are called to be Francis of Assisi, but we should know that our faith and life-orientation is shaped by what we do or fail to do every day.

I hear this parable and I am haunted by the people I have passed on the exit ramps in Philadelphia, the ones with the sign that reads … I need food! In the last few years I have started to stop and give them money. Are they playing me? Perhaps they are. But perhaps they really are Christ’s brothers and sisters!

I hear this parable and I am haunted by the invitation I received a few years ago from a friend who encouraged me to get involved with Kairos, a prison ministry program. Despite my extensive experience as a Protestant chaplain in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, I said, “no.” I felt I was too busy at the Chapel. Maybe it will soon be time for me to give a different answer,

Thank God for those people who lead with their hearts ~ whose lives are spent serving the least of Jesus’s brothers and sisters. I think of those people who work on the firing lines of poverty and human need and see a reality as harsh and frightening as any of our military troops deployed abroad. They do not use guns or drones, but they defeat their enemies with medicines, tents, mosquito nets, potable water, rice, schoolbooks, and blankets.

Thank God for those large-hearted people who love the rest of us – bringing us along in their prayers, remembering our birthdays and other important events, taking the time to speak words of friendship and encouragement as we journey together on the path of life.

I truly believe we are living at a time when our faith is severely tested.
Will we stand up and have our voices heard when so many doors are being closed to the poor and the refugee? Doing nothing is doing something!
Will we remain silent when our government seems determined to improve the lives of our most wealthy citizens, while denying health care, housing, and education to those at the margins of life? Not to decide is to decide!

Let us pray: Almighty and merciful God, you break the power of evil and make all things new in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe. May all in heaven and earth acclaim your glory and praise you forever. Keep us in your care, and give us the heart of Jesus, that we may see in those around us Our Lord’s little brothers and sisters. We ask this in the Name of Jesus, The Victorious King. Amen.

Washington Memorial Chapel