Sermon for Christ the King 2020

Matthew 25.31-46

Greeting to you on this The Feast of Christ the King (one of my favourite Sundays in the year) and incidentally the final Sunday in the annual church calendar – of course, we begin a new church year with Advent next week.

I’d like to begin my sermon this week by telling you a short story that you may have heard before.

An old woman was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, she could see someone moving about a bit like a dancer. As she came closer, she saw that it was a young man picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the sea.

Young man, why are you throwing starfish into the sea?

The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,” he said.

But young man, do you not realise that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.

The young man listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference for that one.

A short, but very poignant story and I will come back to it later.

One of the greatest temptations when exploring passages of scripture such as we have heard in our gospel this morning can be to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back, or read it and be ashamed for all that we haven’t done.

I am hoping this morning to help us get to a softer place somewhere in the middle – maybe a little uncomfortable, but also a little comforted.

I think it’s really important to look at the passage we’ve heard today as a part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are ‘bookend’ verses that I think we need to hold in our minds as we read much, if not all, of Matthew.

The first occurs near the beginning – Matthew 1:21-23.

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’”

And at the other end – Matthew 28:18-20

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).

Earlier this week I was contacted at school by a local resident asking if I knew of any families who would struggle to buy presents this Christmas – the resident’s intention to provide presents for parents and carers to give to their children. Several such families immediately sprang to mind but of course, it would not have been appropriate to tell the generous benefactor who they were, so I suggested that they might make their donations and allow us at the school to contact parents in a sensitive and confidential way, distributing gifts on the donors behalf.

I was really sad to hear in their response, the ‘charitable’ donor insist that they wanted to check which families donations were going to because and I quote – “there are some people in this village who are just cheating the system and are out for all they can get”.

Regretfully I had to decline our offer of assistance in this case.

As I reflected on the conversation I had had, what occurred to me was that in some way, as a society, we have come to a place where it is the ‘norm’ for those in need to have to prove that they are deserving of help. Whether it’s filling in a particular form or going through the indignity of baring all your financial comings and goings, spending habits and addictions.

I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine and have some sympathy with the view that we need to make sure the limited resources we have get to the right people. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need have to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.

How can that person be poor?” we ask, “He has an iPhone.”

Or “If things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Radley handbag she carries.

Maybe you’ve heard “All (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders”. All refugees – All BAME people – All teenage mums – All whatever…

I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or publically display their infirmity or disability.

Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare to ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter what their ‘label’ is. We may be too busy looking for a King to serve, that we miss the realisation that our King is in the face of the pauper.

At the beginning of this sermon I shared a story about starfish and the reason for that is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But we shouldn’t forget that while yes of course, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviours of the world (We already have one of those in Jesus Christ), but we can make a difference to one or two in the world.

To be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring that we are all afforded human dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care and we’ve also been the ones in need of care.

Christ the King calls us to care for what He calls “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, then we are caring for God when we care for each other.

We need to see our fellow human beings not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine.

Imagine what the world might look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the people.

Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, native, refugee married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And my friends, allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.

Of course, this isn’t easy work, but if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. Our gospel reading this morning evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need to be cared for. We have all done the caring. We are all hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a saviour. We cannot save ourselves.

In this Eucharist, at this altar, we meet that saviour – Christ the King.

But the thing is he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man sat on the street in Inverness with the cardboard sign asking for money. He looks like the woman in the Council Service Point for the third time this week trying to get her benefits sorted out. He looks like the refugee illegally working, sending 90% of his money back home so his family can have a better life.

Christ looks like those across the world who are falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting for justice. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “You matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this Eucharist, we are reminded that we all matter. Our status here on earth is not important, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.

May God Bless you and all those you love this coming week.

Fr Simon

Sermon for Pentecost 24 (Sunday 15th November 2020)

Zeph 1:7, 12-18; Ps 90:1-12; 1 Thess 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The US Congress is scheduled to certify the electoral result on 6th January. So is that the day of judgement then! In writing to his community in Thessalonica, Paul’s preparing them for the Day of Judgement.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

1 Thessalonians 5:1-3

No one knows exactly when it’ll be, but it should be quite soon. That bit about the pregnant woman does rather resonate with us this week. On Tuesday Anna and I became grandparents for the first time when Alanna was born to Tracey and Andrew and coincidently on the same day my niece Hannah produced Henry, her third boy. Both were a little ahead of their predicted time.

But where were we, oh yes we were talking about the Day of Judgement. Unlike the US election, the timescale is rather uncertain, “we know not the hour nor the day”. Paul finishes his letter the same way he started it with – faith, love, and hope.

Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”.

1 Thessalonians 5:8

At the beginning of the letter he talks about:

your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”.

1 Thessalonians 1:3

Faith, love, and hope he sees as the marks of the community of faith, whilst preparing for God’s Judgement.

The parable of the talents is among the most abused texts in the New Testament. Contrary to what you might hear if you tuned in to the God channel on the TV, this parable isn’t a justification of economic success. It isn’t part of a prosperity gospel that says you’ll become wealthy and successful if you’re a good Christian and poor or unsuccessful if you’re a lousy one.

Yes there are tele-evangelists who’ll tell you that, and also add that by sending them money you’ll be doing God’s will and get a first class ticket to heaven. Now who thought that the paid-for indulgences to offset future sins, popular in the middle ages, were a thing of the past. No, this passage challenges believers to emulate Jesus by using all that God’s given them, for the sake of His Kingdom, not to line the pockets of preachers.

The main point of the story is faithfulness towards the absent master who’ll one day return, but the servants know neither the hour nor the day. On his return, the master will want an account of how his business has been conducted in his absence. Remember that this is a story that Jesus told. The master’s apparent willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any interpretation that equates him, in an allegorical sense, with Jesus, who never acts for personal gain, but a wealthy man acting like this does give the story topicality. You know the “I don’t pay taxes because I’m really smart” type of person!

The first two servants do their master’s business in exemplary fashion, taking what’s been entrusted to them and putting it to good work. When the master returns, these two are found to have been faithful, and they’re rewarded. Their efforts have increased the master’s wealth and built up his kingdom. The third servant however is afraid to make use of what he’s been given. To protect himself, he’s hidden it away. Although this may seem odd, in Jesus time burying treasure was the safe option for things of value, so long as you remembered where you’d buried.

The master’s furious. He’s entrusted part of his business to this servant to put it to good use. But he’s played safe, afraid to take any risks, even though being courageous and prepared to take risks is an inherent part of his master’s business. Instead, he looks to his own interests, neglecting his master’s. In the end it costs him a heavy price. “thrown into outer darkness, where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The target of this story is the pharisees who’ve been entrusted with the Torah and the oral law handed down from God via Moses on Mount Sinai through their predecessors. They’ve preserved it by hiding it away where ordinary people can’t get access to it. They haven’t lived up to their responsibilities. You see they liked their religion just as it was, with them in control and they didn’t want any change and they didn’t want to take any risks. They’re the faithless servants, who’s prized possession, the law, will be taken from them and they’ll find themselves far away from God and the Kingdom of Heaven in outer darkness, etc.

Jesus tells this story to his disciples to prepare them for the days ahead when he’ll no longer be with them in person and their faith will be severely tested. The parable is to help them to see how to be faithful whilst they wait for the return of their Lord. So what does faithfulness look like in a time of waiting? In Matthew’s Gospel faithfulness is like Jesus announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom by feeding the hungry, curing the sick, blessing the meek, and serving the least. All this involves risk, but it’s these things that bring rewards in God’s Kingdom.

Everyone who wants to follow Jesus is to preach the Good News of the kingdom by doing the work that the master’s set them to do. This work includes visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry. Those who are found faithful will hear their Master say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

The trouble is that none of us knows the hour or the day when the Master will call us to account and reckon up how we’ve done in carrying out his business. It’s so easy to put off for another day visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry, but none of us can be sure that we’ll have another day to do these things and we could be left clinging to an empty shell of religiosity, going through the motions, a bit like that third servant who wouldn’t take any risks. The consequence might be that on the Dat of Judgement there will be a wailing and gnashing of teeth and that doesn’t sound very pleasant does it?

Paul’s letter suggests that as much as faith, love, and hope are important characteristics of a Christian community, so is encouragement. This strengthening of the community in Christ through encouragement is, for Paul, evidence of holiness of life. Holiness isn’t an individual thing, but a daily practice of building up the people around us, no matter who they are or whether they’re like we think they should be.

Thomas Merton wrote:

It is both dangerous and easy to hate man as he is because he’s not what he ought to be. If we don’t first respect what he is we’ll never suffer him to become what he ought to be: in our impatience we do away with him altogether.

Thomas Merton

In times of anxiety and uncertainty as Christians we can’t go it alone, nor should we try. We’re all responsible for one another in encouraging and building up the faith, love, and hope of others. We need each others’ support in being Christian, all of us without exception.