Today’s sermon

As my homiletics professor at Dunwoodie used to say: “Preaching is like drilling for oil: if you don’t hit paydirt in five minutes, stop boring.” It was about 5 minutes long, just the right length for a cold church. St. John’s is just such a joy to visit; it really does energise me.

November 20, 2005-Feast of Christ the King
Sermon delivered at St. John the Evangelist, Larcom Street, 10 am.
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 22; I Cor 15:20-26,28; Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of God, the one, the Undivided Trinity. AMEN.

My grandfather was from the American state of Vermont. He was a Methodist for many years, until he met my future grandmother, whose mother wouldn’t let her date a Protestant. He duly became a Roman Catholic, and thus the Pyramids.

While he was a Methodist, he served as a sidesman in the church in his hometown. One day he was taking up the collection at a service for the foreign missions. A man who was locally famous for being close with a penny was sitting in the pew, and when the collection for the missions was being taken, my grandfather passed the plate to this man, who returned it without making a contribution. My grandfather passed him the plate again, and the man said, “I’m sorry; I don’t believe in giving to the foreign missions.” My grandfather shoved the plate under the man’s nose and said, “Since it’s for the heathens, maybe you should take some out.”

Modern religious discourse often talks a lot more about sin than about virtue, charity, and grace. And not just about any old sin, such as disobedience, lying, theft, coveting one’s neighbour’s goods, or setting up of false gods, all of which regularly take place either in Parliament or in the City, in the name of party politics or Capitalism. The sin that religious leaders like to talk about is sexual immorality. In some cases, the other sins that I’ve listed above are crowded out by that one class of sin. The Anglican Communion is currently riven with dissention: this has many causes, but the “presenting” cause, as a doctor or nurse would say, is immorality.

We tend to think that our time on Earth is unique: the things that we do and the sins that we commit are novel, tied to our time and our love of newfangled gadgets such as automobiles and computers. Moral theologians might now debate the question of whether email spamming is a sin or not. If they can fit it in between discussions of immorality, they might get around to it. As we all know, sadly, there is nothing new under the sun, and new sins are just old sins dusted off and set on the mantlepiece.

It’s important for us to particularly look at the sins that Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel. Not feeding the hungry, not giving drink to the thirsty, not offering shelter to the stranger, not giving clothes to the naked, nor a kind word and a smile to those who are sick, nor visiting a prisoner. These are the actions that Jesus finds sinful, and that is as true today as it was then.

Now I shan’t wear out my welcome by saying that we should never consider anything else as sinful: a person who does all these things to strangers and yet treats his or her family badly or embezzles money from his or her employer (as rich as their employer may be) is sinning just as much as someone who never feeds the hungry or clothes the naked. So why does Jesus focus on these particular sins of omission?

Ezekiel talks about the Lord being the shepherd of his flock, and says that the Lord himself will find them when they’re lost, give them pasture, allow them to rest, bandage their wounds, and even look after the sheep that are healthy. Sheep in their pasture are actually so dumb that they will eat the grass right down to the roots and then starve to death rather than find a new patch of grass. They need to be led around to new fields by the shepherd.

But in the Gospel, instead of being the shepherd and providing for the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes their judge. And the actors are reversed. The needy people among us are stand-ins for Jesus himself. So providing for the well-being of the poor and disadvantaged is providing for Jesus as well. It’s a radical thought, this: in Biblical times those who were disadvantaged, poor, in ill health, or without food were thought to have brought their misfortune on themselves by offending God in some way. Even their parents or grandparents may have offended God, and the effects were felt throughout the generations.

Jesus is telling us that these people are not under God’s wrath; in fact, God expects us to fill in for Him and help to provide for their well-being. Those who do not, do not know God and are unwitting accomplices in their own judgment. Note the surprise of both sheep and goats when told that they have or have not tended to Jesus in the person of their fellow people. It’s not obvious, without God’s grace, that helping others is actually serving God directly.

I think that, at the end of the day (and perhaps the phrase “at the end of the day” is uniquely applicable to the Last Judgment) there are two lessons to take away from today’s Gospel. The first one is the obvious one: ignore the needs of the people with whom you share Earth at your peril. Jesus expects us to be mindful of the needs of others and to do our best to help them live and thrive. If we don’t, we now know the consequences.

The second one is the one that we often miss. The person who is doing the judging is Jesus, the Son of God. Not us, not the priest, not the Archbishop, not the Pope, and certainly not the civil government. The standards we’re being judged against are not human standards-they’re God’s standards. And God’s standards are high indeed. Those who fail to recognise Jesus in their fellow humans do not pass that standard.But we are not competent to pass judgment on anyone. Jesus does that, in his role as King and Judge of all of us. Thus the name of today’s feast.

I recently learned that in some languages, the word for “sheep” and the word for “goat” is the same word. They don’t see them or eat them in some parts of the world, preferring other livestock, so they don’t need two words for these animals: they’re similar enough so that one word will do. Similarly, we can think about this: the only way to discern which are the sheep and which are the goats in our Gospel today is through the eyes of Jesus. We can’t do it: judgment is not ours to give.

Be aware of God’s grace working good things in our lives; be watchful for opportunities to help people here on earth; act as the shepherd does towards the sheep. Feed them and watch over them. Make sure that the advantages we have are not due to laying our burdens on the backs of other people, but rather from sharing out the bounty we have been given by God among everyone in need. Let God do the judging-we must stick to the giving. That is how to end up as sheep and not goats. AMEN

4 Responses to “Today’s sermon”

  1. vasilatos says:

    YAY!!! Bravo, excellent, good work.

  2. spwebdesign says:

    When I saw the length of this post, I thought I might skip it and come back to it later. I’m glad I didn’t. You did a praiseworthy job! Amen!

    I didn’t realize that the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have the same Scriptural calendar. We had the exact same readings you did.

    When I read the bit about how today we seem to focus inordinate amounts of attention on sexual immorality, I couldn’t help but think that someone’s been reading his C.S. Lewis! 😉

  3. chrishansenhome says:

    In the United States, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and RC churches have had a Common Lectionary for many years now; the Protestant denominations adopted the 3-year lectionary cycle that the RCs started off in the 1970’s. There are a few differences, but the general idea is the same. In the UK, the C of E adopted it officially about 3 years ago. Before that it had a 2-year cycle that didn’t share anything with the RCs.

    So yes, more often than not, what I hear in church on a Sunday is the same as what you hear in church.

  4. chrishansenhome says:

    Oh, and PS, I’ve not read CS Lewis at all; when I read a little years ago, I found him trite and too formulaic for my tastes. As a gay man, I think that the conclusion that the churches are focussing too much attention on sexual immorality to the exclusion of social justice issues is a no-brainer.