Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to the congregation of Christ Church, Georgetown.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “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.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I 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.” Then 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?” Then 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Hello friends of Grace Church. I’m glad to be with you today, first in study, now in worship, later in conversation and finally, meeting with your elected leaders. Thank you, as always, for your warm welcome.
While I would always be glad to worship with Grace, this feels like a particularly important time. You are on the cusp of a profound and bittersweet transition as marked by the leave-taking of the Rev. Sarah Motley, followed by your long-time administrator Ms. Helen Buhr, and then in February with the retirement of your rector, the Rev. John Graham.
Transitions of this magnitude evoke all manner of emotion. They are ripe for the kind of reflection on the past and vision casting for the future that is our defining characteristic as human beings. Of all God’s creatures, we are endowed with an interpretative, meaning-making capacity. It is our unique gift and our work to do. The transitions at Grace Church are not taking place in isolation from other events also requiring your best meaning-making skills, in the arc of your personal lives and wider circles of collective concern. All this to say that there’s a lot you are pondering in your hearts. I’m honored to ponder these things with you.
As we’re entering the week of Thanksgiving, we can surely begin with gratitude. There’s so much to be thankful for in the lives and ministries of your servant leaders and the experiences you’ve shared. Gratitude is an essential task of leave-taking. For as you take time to remember and give thanks for all that Sarah, Helen, and John have meant to you, and what you have meant to them, those memories will lodge themselves in your awareness and will be there for you going forward. In all likelihood, what you will remember are not so much the moments of great drama, but the small expressions of love and kindness that we have a tendency to minimize as not being that important.
I suspect that’s part of what Jesus wants us to hear in the parable of the sheep and goats that is our morning text. There is another message about how we care for the most vulnerable among us that I’ll speak to in a moment, but let’s not skip over his word about the transformative power of kindness. Giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison, these acts are simply what it looks like to love. Sometimes such actions require sacrifice on our part, but most times they do not. And even when they do require sacrifice, we bear the weight of it differently when we know what a difference our efforts have made. So be sure that you take the time to remember and give thanks for the acts of love and kindness you have shared with one another and together have given to others. Jesus wants you to know that in doing so, you were also loving Him.
Now let me shift our attention to the more challenging theme of judgment at the center of Jesus’ story. He speaks of that day when he will come as our judge and separate us according to our deeds.
The story is the last of three epic parables placed before us in worship this month, all of them taken from a collection of Jesus teachings as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Recently, I heard someone refer to this body of teaching as Jesus’ Farewell Parables, as a parallel to what is known in the Gospel of John as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.
Stay with me as I lay this out.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus gathers his closest disciples for their last supper together, Jesus speaks to them at length (3 chapters’ worth) about what is to come after he’s gone. He begins with an image of heaven that we often read at funerals:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. (John 14:1-7)
Jesus goes on, verse after consoling verse, assuring his disciples of his presence with them, the gift of the Holy Spirit that will soon come to them, and the importance of abiding in him.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-7)
“Abide” is an old English word we don’t use much anymore (although it’s a favorite of your rector). It carries rich overtones of dwelling, remaining with, staying close. The point of this great farewell is to anchor our faith in Jesus. He wants us to place our whole trust in his love and allow his strength to flow through us. Yes, he warns us that when we stray from the source of our strength, we will falter. As in the judgement parables, Jesus uses fiery imagery here as he does to hint toward the eternal consequences of our choice to abide or not.
In contrast, the Farewell Parables of the Gospel of Matthew focus not on faith, but rather on our behaviour.
In the first, the story of the ten bridesmaids–five foolish and five wise–Jesus speaks of the importance of readiness, being prepared for the important moments in life that require more than a moment’s preparation. The second parable, that we read last week, was about the talents entrusted to us. It explores how we see ourselves as gifted and how we use the gifts entrusted to us. The consequences of a lack of readiness or of squandering our talents are real and Jesus doesn’t pretend otherwise–hence, his warning of condemnation. But I don’t believe that Jesus is trying to scare us with eternal punishment, rather, simply to underscore how important our choices in life are. Like interest in the bank, they compound, building on each other and setting the direction of our lives.
Finally, we consider the parable of humankind being separated at the end of the age according to our kindness and compassion to those whom Jesus calls “the least of those in my family.” This is the culminating vision, in Matthew’s view, of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s all about how we care for one another, and in particular, those who need care most. This is what it looks like to draw close to him. This is where we will find him. Again, I am persuaded that Jesus used the fiery language of judgment not to frighten us, but to underscore the eternal consequences of the choices we make and live our best lives now.
When I take stock of the life I’m living, invariably what I see first are all the ways I fall short. This week, as I imagined what God’s final judgment would look like for me, what came to me–and it felt like a gift–was an invitation to look at my life through the lens of gratitude.
Some of you may remember the film Schindler’s List from the late 1990s. It’s based on the true story of a German businessman who rose to prominence in the late 1930s. Schindler was no paragon of virtue. He joined the Nazi party and made his wealth making weapons for the Nazi war effort. But in order to keep his factories going in Poland, he advocated on behalf of the Jews who worked for him. As the war went on and he realized that the Nazis intended to exterminate all Jews, he did all that he could to spare his workers from the death camps. He is credited with saving 1200 people, spending nearly all his money to keep them alive.
In his farewell scene, as he says goodbye to his workers before fleeing certain arrest, one of them gives him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Schindler collapses in guilt, thinking of all those he didn’t save, all the money he had squandered in his life. “I could have saved more,” he wept. “I could have saved so many more.” The workers hold him in a collective embrace, saying over and over, “Think of what you have done. Think of those you have saved.”
I leave you with that gentle invitation: hear in Jesus’ words an invitation to see your life, and that of Grace Church, through the lens of gratitude–all those you have cared for, the gestures, small and large, that have saved lives, healed souls, shielded joy.
When we place our focus on gratitude, our hearts open wider. Contrast that with guilt, which contracts our hearts and keeps us self-centered. With gratitude, our desire to love and our capacity to give increase, as does our acceptance of our failings and those of others.
On this side of heaven, we can leave judgement to God and instead focus our energies on growing deeper in our relationship with Christ and love for one another.
Thus I end where I began, with a word of gratitude–to Sarah, to Helen, to John, and to all at Grace. May your days of leave-taking allow you to remember and savor all the good you have known. I know that it’s a challenging time and there is so much that cries out for our attention. But remember that God is still God. That Christ abides with us always. That we are still here, and our acts of love and kindness matter more than we know. And what we do for one another, we do for God.