Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Nov. 22, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Nov 22, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Last Sunday after Pentecost

November 22, 2020

Let us pray, with words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us. Amen.

On this last Sunday of the church year, we close the year with a last word from Matthew’s gospel continuing his themes of judgment and last days. Who dwells at Jesus’ right hand, gets to the kingdom of heaven, who receives eternal life, and who heads for the gnashing of teeth and eternal punishment? This has been part of the message through many of the past weeks of parables, and if we kept reading Matthew, after this Jesus’ own last days begin in Matthew’s telling  of his passion. This parable-like teaching is simpler than most. Am I a sheep or a goat? Both ‘sheep and goats’ have heard Jesus’ teaching them to take care of those most vulnerable; those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned. Jesus as shepherd knows and sorts them by who’s carrying this out and who is not.

“The King” will say to those (sheep) at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”—because when I was needing all those acts of mercy, you did them. He sends away as “accursed” those on the left (goats) because when needs were presented, they did none of those acts of mercy. How interesting that both groups asked the same question; Lord when did we see you in such need?

Neither have understood that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Both are asking when they ignored seeing Jesus in need. That’s the crux of the parable here, not the separating of who goes where, but that both lived with the same choices yet each answered differently, and neither understood how important their actions were to God. Those who cared for others did so without considering it might be a golden ticket into the kingdom. Those who ignored their needs believe they’d have acted differently if only someone had told them that was how you got the winning ticket. The parable’s twist goes further because the ‘win’ isn’t focused on the judgement of a last day, its gift is what Jesus has been doing the whole time. In these acts of mercy those right hand sheep have the joy of seeing Christ in those they serve. It doesn’t sound like they’ve figured this out, so perhaps that’s why it made this gospel’s parable list, so that we wouldn’t miss it ourselves. The goats never even knew they missed the hidden presence of Christ in all those people in need of food and drink, shelter and clothes, welcome, healing and freedom.

It’s no surprise that the ‘unrighteous’ goat group misses this, but you’d think the sheep folks who showed mercy would have understood the gift they were getting. We don’t do these things for what we get in return, and it might seem as if there is none. So what grace that in both the rewarding times of showing mercy and those prickly challenging times, Christ is trying to reveal himself to us!

From what I see, this congregation is very well-versed in those acts of mercy, and you do it with joyful hearts, requiring nothing in return. You grasp that this giving is often a Christ-reveal. What is often harder is to be on the receiving end, and I wonder if we consider that it is in the vessel of one needing help that he is revealed. It isn’t just ‘us’ helping ‘them’ – when we are the ones who need help Christ is within us waiting for the shared reveal when needs meets mercy. It is far more difficult in our culture to be the one needing help, being seen in a food bank line, asking for rent-relief or unemployment. Even those less practical needs are rampant this week more than usual. People will miss their friends and family at Thanksgiving and possibly at Christmas too. We won’t make all those traditional foods for one or two people, we won’t look back at the pictures or tell coworkers about the travel sights on our way back. I’m painfully aware that just in our own congregation there are four women who will not have their husbands with them for the first time in decades, and now won’t even be warmed by embracing their families or friends. Jesus didn’t say those sheep folks fixed all the problems. They didn’t eliminate world hunger or homelessness, empty the prisons, cure COVID-19, or make sure no one was ever lonely again. If so, where would he reveal himself, if not in our need meeting his mercy?

That’s it. That’s what is asked of us and that’s where we see Christ. Not in fixing it all so we can get on with life and book that cruise, or by pretending we’ll make this a ‘normal’ Thanksgiving feast no matter what. Showing mercy means that we will stop and hear the pain, we sit with the loneliness, we are present for those imprisoned by pain and grief. We embody Christ’s presence by allowing another into our pain, our need, too; he is here both when the help is offered and when it is courageously received.

So it’s alright to be real and maybe admit needs, admit what a rough year this has been it leaves us needful of love and mercy. Instead of doing the goat-thing, putting on a fake smile as we exchange false “How-are-you-I’m-just-fine” greetings and rushing on, being real about a need for mercy is divinely called for. Recently someone needing help found someone else to help through our amazing Pandemic Newsletter/Journal, and now Dinah is baking desserts for Lori to share with hungry people at Issaquah Meals. The Pandemic Journal itself came about because someone (Carol C.) saw a real need and another saw a way to help (Melanie A.). I see need meet mercy every time I receive a prayer request because someone else among you is already praying, or are making sure I know about the need. Need and mercy met when Tola asked how he might help—I listed three possibilities, inviting him to pick what appealed most. He turned it around on me, and asked where the need was greatest. These are not isolated incidents, they’re legion. You do these because you seek and serve Christ, not because you’re hoping to see him or impress him.

Need is real. Mercy is real. And the opportunity for the one to meet the other is sacred. It is where we meet Christ.

I wonder if that’s what God is hoping for?

I’d like us to press ourselves to go deep into the heart of Christ by taking time each day for giving thanks for those mercies, given or received. Then ask God to show you dimensions or profundity you might have missed. Sit quietly with this. Turn off the phone, the news, (The Crown!), be still and breathe deeply. Do this alone, since it isn’t so easy through a mask—in fact let this exercise momentarily reclaim us from seeing breath and touch primarily as covid-carrying, and recall breath and touch in Jesus’ life, carrying out and receiving those mercies we just talked about.

A woman comes and anoints him with luxurious ointment—he receives this mercy and doesn’t stop her. He doesn’t say “No, no, I’m fine—give it to someone else.” He simply receives it, upholds her giving to him. Imagine how you’d want Jesus to bless you. In water poured in foot washing or baptism, in anointing, in his breath, his healing touch, how your need is best filled. Stay with this image for a while.

Then envision this blessing coming from your own hands. Who needs the blessing of Christ’s mercy? It might be unknown people, it might be one you love, or one you struggle mightily with, someone you passed by. Don’t pause to judge or question, just imagine feeling mercy poured out from you to one who needs it. Then breathe and rest in the waves of that meditation.

This receiving and giving become our prayers of thanksgiving without even trying, with no need to count it up, show it off, or catalogue it. Entrust yourself —your offerings and your needs—to God’s great mercy, knowing that nothing has to be “normal” for us to do so. Knowing that this is how God blesses the whole human family. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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