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"When Did we..."

Matthew says in the previous chapter that his disciples came to him “privately” with questions about the end of the age: what will happen, when will Jesus’ return, what signs to look for. The unspoken question underneath all those questions is “How should we live?”

Detail of “Donkey, Llama, Goat, Sheep” by Eli Halpin
[1] Detail of “Donkey, Llama, Goat, Sheep” by Eli Halpin

Matthew 25:31-46

November 26, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Today, we come to the end:

The end of the liturgical year.

The end of a series of parables in which Jesus is teaching his disciples how to live.

The end of his freedom – he will be arrested soon.

And the end of his life – he will go to the cross and be put to death.


The end is a good time to pause, to step off the path, to catch your breath.


The end is a good time to look back: for followers of Christ to reflect on what we have learned; to evaluate what we’ve done; and to give thanks for the grace we have known!


The end is also a good time to look forward: to consider how we can act on our discoveries; to repent of the ways we have failed and vow to do better; and to commit to following our Savior.

 

As we said a few weeks ago, Jesus is nearing the end. He was welcomed into Jerusalem but had to face constant questioning by the religious authorities. It had to have been exhausting … and disappointing. He has retreated to the Mount of Olives, hoping to find a little peace.


But even in the beauty of the garden he cannot escape questions. Matthew says in the previous chapter that his disciples came to him “privately” with questions about the end of the age: what will happen, when will Jesus’ return, what signs to look for. The unspoken question underneath all those questions is “How should we live?”


So Jesus tells a series of parables:


What kind of life does God want you to live?


A mindful, joyful life – (remember the parable of the bridesmaids two weeks ago?);

a daring, fruitful life – (remember the parable of the talents last week?);

and finally, a generous, compassionate life – (remember what we just read?)


According to Matthew, this is Jesus’ final teaching before the passion. These are the words he wants ringing in the ears of his disciples as he heads to his own judgment; this is the image he wants planted in our hearts as we seek to live after the end has come.

 

What does the end look like for you?


Maybe it is as simple as the end of classes: a break from your studies; a respite from the pressure of expectations; a time out from being formed or trying to find your own path.


Or maybe it is as complicated as the end of a career: discovering who you are apart from your job; discovering how you will invest your time; discovering how to make ends meet.


Maybe it’s as unexpected as the end of a marriage or the end of the life of someone you loved: learning who you are without them; learning new skills; learning to navigate loneliness or freedom.


Or maybe it is as literal as the end of another year: in some ways just the flipping of a calendar page, in others it may feel like the end of a particular era.


Whatever the end looks like for you, this passage invites us to consider our lives in light of our ultimate end – when Christ come in glory.


At first, it seems like a surprising context in which to consider our life!


You might protest that all these “endings” pale in comparison to the one Matthew describes, even if some of them feel like the end of the world as you know it. But, if we take the opportunity, every single one are the chance to wonder about who we’ve been and who we are becoming.

 

I cannot tell if Jesus intends this reflection to be individual or corporate, whether he is glancing around the circle from Peter to James … all the way to Judas. Or if he, and the gospel writer, are wanting the whole church to spend some time in soul searching. Probably both.


Here at the church, Christ the King Sunday marks the end of lectionary year A (Matthew)


We’ve had worship series asking “How can this be?” and exploring the first Advent in Palestine, and, most recently, “Looking for the Kingdom”.


We’ve gathered peanut butter and backpacks and toilet paper.


We’ve worshiped with Trinity Lutheran on Reformation Sunday and with Morris Memorial Methodist and St. Agnes Catholic for Thanksgiving!


Our kids studied Paul’s letters and made T-shirts with fish and nets and played solos in worship!


We’ve celebrated Jule’s 100th birthday and baptized both children and an adult!


We have grieved the loss of some of our saints and welcomed others into our midst.


We’ve cooked breakfast at Ronald McDonald house and donated to the Bream shower ministry and staged another huge Pay it Forward event!


And, focused on our future, the Thriving Congregation group has helped us explore what it might mean to partner with others on a project; and we’ve agreed to replace some of our pews with chairs; and we are in the process of going solar!


You’ll want to add to the list.


You’ll also want to consider whether we’ve gotten the spirit of this text right. Have we been feeding the hungry and welcoming strangers; have we shared clothing and visited the sick; have we helped those imprisoned by addictions find freedom? Have we seen the face of Christ in others? Have we served with no expectation of reward or glory?

 

I find it interesting that neither the sheep nor the goats have any sense of the importance of

what they are doing. Both ask, “When was it?” Their actions are so habitual that they honestly can’t remember what they have done.


I’ll bet you are like that. Many people are.


I recently did a funeral for Mr. Chin, owner of Chin’s restaurant here in Kanawha City for 36 years. We marveled together at all the people he had fed, even if they could not pay; all the people he had given jobs to; all the people who found in his restaurant a place to gather, to celebrate, and to enjoy comfort food.


I doubt he gave it much thought. Being generous and hospitable was just part of his nature.


Jesus says there are eternal rewards for acting like that.

 

But there is a risk of misunderstanding here. You might think that this implies that salvation is a reward for doing the right things. Actually, this story does the opposite. When the King passes judgment on the sheep he says, “Come, you who are blessed by Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” “God’s blessing isn’t a reward for their actions; rather, the blessing precedes their actions.” notes one scholar. Or, in a memorable turn of phrase: “works of love and mercy are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace.”[2]

 

So, as we come to the end, take a moment to remember the year and review your actions. Then take a breath and give thanks for the grace of God that frees you from any anxiety about the judgment. For every time you have shown love and mercy to the least of these, you have served Christ without knowing it! And for any times when you have been goat-like, remember: “salvation is always — in every single case — the forgiving, loving rescue of creatures who have fallen short.” Amen


[1] Detail of “Donkey, Llama, Goat, Sheep” by Eli Halpin
[2] Here and following from a reflection on the text by the SALT project, 11/21/23
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