Three days ago, our country took a day to be grateful. To stop and think about the many good things that we have in our lives for which to be thankful. Today, we have the Christian equivalent to New Years Eve…next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year.
Now, we haven’t festooned the church with balloons and streamers, we haven’t handed out paper party hats and noisemakers, and, unless I am mistaken we aren’t serving any sparkling champagne at the coffee hour later today. However, today, though, before the glow of Thanksgiving gratitude has faded, would be a great day to make some New Year’s resolutions.
When we make New Years resolutions on December 31st, it usually with an eye toward taking a shot at being a better person… My research indicates that the most popular resolutions relate to self improvement and education; money; and body weight (in that order). Resolutions that we make today, though, on the last Sunday in Pentecost…on Christ the King Sunday, should be of a different sort (even though going to the health club is an admirable goal!). In broad terms, as Christians, we are called to renew our dedication to welcoming the Kingdom of God and serving Christ in the world.
How we interpret the Gospel reading today will greatly inform how we live these resolutions out in the world. In Matthew today, Jesus is talking about the end of time, about final Judgement…and trying to help us to understand the measuring stick that is going to be used. Now…it would be incredibly easy to misread this text. This is not a story that is talking about salvation through works—a theological mistake that has been made by all sorts of people during the history of the church giving rise to all sorts of heresies.
The doctrine of salvation by works says that we are measured by what we do, how good we are. It would be easy to think that was what today’s Gospel story is about… The sheep were separated from the goats, and then then the sheep got a place of honor and the goats were sent to eternal fire.
The foundation of our faith is this: We are loved by fully, completely by God. We are changed, emboldened, and encouraged to do what is good and right by that life changing encounter and ongoing relationship.
Let’s take a closer look at the reading and see what it really does say. First, it is important to note that the contrast in the text is not between Christians and non-Christians. Jesus used this example because it would be familiar to his listeners—herders let their goats and sheep graze together. Both types of animals were valuable. The goats gave milk and the sheep offered wool. Both sheep and goats are “insiders.” At Gospel preview this week, we talked a little about why goats got the bad rap (and always seem to). I did some research and it seems mainly to be that sheep follow the shepherd and goats have a tendency to go off on their own. They are temperamentally different.
This is not a story of insiders and outsiders. In this parable, both sheep and goats represent God’s people…people given opportunities to respond to God’s call. We all have the same chance. Jesus calls us, as the Church and as individuals, to be his hands and feet, to do his will – not in order to gain our admission to Heaven but as an act of obedience and alignment with God. Good works are not the means of our salvation. They are, rather, the result and the sign of the love and relationship with Christ. Having experienced that sort of of grace-filled love ourselves, we can hope to pass it along to others. We can’t worry about whether or not it will count.
This was written on the wall of Mother Theresa’s home for children in Calcutta, and is often attributed to her:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
It’s all about our relationship with God. It’s all about a heartfelt understanding that God loves us and everyone else in the whole world in the same way. I’m in the middle of a great book right now by one of my favorite Christian bloggers, a pastor in North Carolina. His name is John Pavlovitz and his blog is called “Stuff That Needs to Be Said.” he wrote a book called A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.
He talks about the true story that he has been given by his faith about a very good and always present God. Then he adds: “Yet along with my stories about a big God who loved little me, and an affectionate family who was for me, I also inherited some false stories too, about people of color, about gay people, about poor people, about addicts, about born-again Christians, about atheists. In my handed-down narratives these people were all to be avoided or feared, or at the very least approached with great skepticism, because something about the stories I learned told I was just a little bit more deserving of the love of this big God than they were.” He says that we have to learn to make room at the table for everyone.
I had an ah ha moment when I read that… He put his finger on it. As human beings, on some level, we believe that we have to do it right, to do more, to be loved. We believe that if we fail, we are loved less and if we are weak, we are loved less. It is this teaching, attitude, thought that allows us to treat other people as less than, as less deserving, less loved, less human, less everything. When we treat others as less than, then we become less ourselves. We are less loving and compassionate, we are less giving and merciful, less understanding and expansive. We are less willing to believe in things that are holy and miraculous. We are less in tune with God.
The way we treat “the least of these” in our human family says everything about what we believe about God. In helping those we encounter, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, the sick, we live into the reality that God loves all of us the same. In believing that there is enough room at the table, and believing that everyone who wants to come is welcome, we learn to love God more and to love each other more.
Real faith must get beyond our own small world, our own limited viewpoint.. Welcome must be offered to everyone… whether we know them or not, whether we agree with them or not, whether we understand them or not, whether we feel any commonality or not. The doing comes first…and the understanding and love grows from that.
At first that can seem really overwhelming…each day as we go about our daily lives we are showered with examples of need in the world. We see and hear about people who are angry and hurt. We meet people who we do not understand. The television is filled with news stories about people who are homeless because of a flood or alone because of a car accident. Our streets and subways are strewn with homeless people, our convalescent and nursing homes are filled with people who have no family to visit them. As we go toward the rest of holidays, we are reminded of the hungry and the naked, we are invited to join toy drives and food drives and coat and clothing drives. Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed?
We don’t have to fix the whole world, though… We are all part of a big team that is fanning out across the whole world. We are called to be open and to be present to those we meet. We are called to offer what we have to those we meet. Small things grow into bigger things. These are not grand gestures, but things that anyone can do. See a human need and react to it. Ask a question in hopes of understand someone who is very different. Smile and offer a kind word. When you see someone struggling, say “Do you need help? Are you ok?”
By giving a hand to someone else you may be helping them to be open and available to someone else. By being present, we may encounter the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and faithfulness of God.
I heard a story about the scientist and writer, Loren Eisely.
Eisely was in the south of France, on the coast, attending a scientific symposium. He woke early one morning and went for a walk on the beach before sunrise. As he moved through the misty dawn he focused on a faint, far away figure. It was a youth, bending and reaching and flinging his arms, seemingly dancing on the beach. Eisely thought, “No doubt he is dancing in celebration of the new day about to begin.”
As he came nearer, he realized the youth was not dancing at all, but rather was bending to sift through the debris left by the night tide, stopping now and then to pick up a starfish and then, standing, heaving it back into the sea. He asked the youth the purpose of the effort. “The tide has washed the starfish onto the beach, and they cannot return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun rises, they will die, and the people come from town to pick them and sell them in the market place. I throw them back to the sea so they might live another day.”
As the youth explained, Eisely surveyed the vast expanse of beach, stretching in both directions beyond his sight. Starfish littered the shore in numbers beyond calculation. The youth’s plan seemed hopeless. “But there are more starfish on this beach than you can ever save before the sun is up. Surely you cannot expect to make a difference?”
The youth paused to consider his words, then bent to pick up a starfish, whirled around and threw it as far as possible. Turning to the scientist he said simply, “I made a difference to that one,” and kept dancing down the beach.
And so that should be our New Years’ Resolution on this last Sunday after Pentecost…our last Sunday in this Christian year. Let us be willing to make a difference to someone else, and to let them make a difference in us. Let us believe that, out of our gratitude and thanksgiving to God, we will be able to live out our Christian resolution. That we will have faith that we can make a difference one person at a time. That we will truly understand that God loves all of us, completely and without reservation.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo on Sunday, November 26, 2017.