20 November 2011
Christ the King Sunday
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Based on St. Matthew 25: 31-46
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Have you ever had someone say to you something like this: “I know plenty of atheists, agnostics, secular, or non-religious people who lead perfectly good, happy lives…and they’re some of the most kind, compassionate, caring and loving people I know. And I know too many Christians who are judgmental, critical, closed-minded hypocrites who could care less about their neighbors.” Or maybe you’ve thought it yourself. Well, I’ve had that conversation plenty of times. It’s can be a frustrating conversation to have – especially when you come from a Christian community that is welcoming, nurturing, open and accepting, as I believe St. John to be. There is plenty of information from the media that seems to only give voice to versions of Christianity that are exclusive and fundamentalist, but unfortunately sometimes these perceptions of Christians are earned. A few years ago, a book called UnChristian was published, documenting how young people outside Christianity feel about the religion. The vast majority of the people in my age group, from ages 16-29, described Christianity and Christians as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, out of touch, insensitive, old-fashioned, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing. Less than 20% said that Christianity was a faith they respect, shows love for other people, offers hope, something that is genuine and real, and relevant to their lives. A fifth of these young people said they had these opinions, not because of the media, but because of direct interactions with churches and Christians. These are more than numbers and statistics, they are a warning sign of a difficult future if Christian culture isn’t radically reformed. These perceptions of Christians come out of real experiences, and we have our work cut out for us. But, several years ago when the United Church of Christ premiered its ‘God is still speaking,’ message and commercials saying that ‘No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,’ many people were excited to find out about a church that not only isn’t exclusive and judgmental, but has been on the forefront of welcoming persons from the margins of society and a leader in civil rights and social justice. People who have been alienated by the church are still spiritually hungry. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Many nonreligious people, including those who are formerly Christian feel the same way – and as is revealed in this book, often feel like people in the Church are unchristian. It is a sad state of affairs when a religion that was known in its earliest days as caring for its most vulnerable members, sharing all property in common, and not letting others go in need, is now so negatively viewed by those outside it.
I believe that today’s gospel passage, one of the most oft-quoted passages in the New Testament, has much to teach us about the way Christians are perceived, and what our goal might be. This passage is about judgment – something we might not find helpful when trying to counter the idea that Christians are judgmental. But, as counterintuitive as that might be, it really is there. Jesus says that on judgment day all people will be divided like a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. To the ‘sheep,’ he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” But they, the ones Jesus calls righteous, say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” They had no idea they were serving Jesus – they were just doing what was right. Here Jesus says that part so many of us know by heart: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And to the others, the goats, he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” But they did not know it was Jesus they were turning away from either. The passage says, “hen they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Essentially what Jesus is saying here is that those who cared for the poor and marginalized, knew him even when they didn’t acknowledge him –and those who ignored those on the margins, did not know Jesus even if they did acknowledge him. It is when we treat others, especially those in need, as Christ treats us, that we really see the face of Christ, and really follow him.
Episcopal priest Fr. Rick Morley writes that “What Jesus is doing here, at the end point of his earthly ministry, is making it very clear to people who claimed to be his disciples and supporters that there is no gray area at all when it comes to following him. You’re either with him, or you aren’t. The way to tell which it is, is by looking at how you live your life. To be on Jesus’ side means that you’re actively caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, and the lonely. To not do such things means that you’re really not with him at all, but against him.” The end message Jesus is leaving with his disciples, just a week before he will be crucified, is that if they know him, they will do what he did. The message is that if we know Jesus, our lives should be different.
But all too often our lives aren’t different – and people outside of the faith see this. The active perception of many Christians as too legalistic, exclusive, and judgmental should be a reminder to us that when we act that way, we are just acting like a bunch of goats. Stanely Hauerwas says that, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid ‘the least of these.” We have no excuse for our lives to be different. Sure, we could make up plenty of excuses – but the reality is that if we are really followers of Jesus, if we love Christ, our lives should be marked by that. They should be marked by caring for the sick, hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned. If we know Jesus, we realize that the judging in this story is done by him, not by us. If we know Jesus, we realize that our behavior matters. Even if we believe all the right things and follow all the rules, but ignore the cries of the needy – what good has it done us? Are we really following Jesus? Even if we go to church every Sunday, sing every hymn, and pray every prayer, but it does not take root in our lives, and we’re still running the rat race for the rest of the week – what good has it done us? Are we really following Jesus? Remember St. Paul said “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” God can give us marvelous gifts, including material goods and the ability to support and advocate for others less fortunate, but if we don’t use them we are a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. Or worse yet – we could be alienating others from the Christian. Certainly, I don’t think any of us want that. I’d imagine that most of us desire that others come to know the Risen Christ and the power of transformation it can have on lives. So much of our world is desperate for a message of grace, hope, acceptance, and love. Many would receive it openly – but only after work is done to heal much of the alienation and hurt caused by those who claim to follow Jesus, but do so in a goat-like manner.
Many people don’t like being called sheep – it sounds demeaning. Sheep aren’t the brightest animals. But they have one thing right – they follow their shepherd. If the Lord is our shepherd, we should be following him, and that means ministry with the least of these, doing what we can in our small corner of the world to bring healing to this broken world. If Christianity is ever to recover from this idea that we are a soley judgmental and fundamentalist people, we who come from an open and accepting Christian environment have to demonstrate transformed lives. Our belief should lead to right behavior, and our being faithful members of the Church should mean that what we do on Sunday changes the way we act and relate to others the rest of the week. It’s not about showing how we’re better Christians than others, because after all we all stumble on this journey of faith. But it’s about love. Dorothy Day said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” It’s struggling to love those we really don’t want to. It’s living into a higher calling – because what the world needs now really is love. And if those outside our doors are going to be able to accept that love, and the grace and mercy of God, we have to be able to show that it really makes a difference.
To God be the Glory.