The Face of Christ

Below is my sermon from Christ the King Sunday, November 26. At the end of the liturgical year, we typically have “end-times” readings, that is, apocalyptic stories or judgment stories. This year’s story, Matthew 25 of the sheep and the goats, can be particularly hard to hear, as we all know places where we have fallen short in our own lives. The good news is that ultimately, God redeems us from our shortcomings and failures and uses us to spread the kingdom message of love and care for the least of these.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When one of my seminary professors was working on his doctorate, he spent a year studying in Paris. He told us the story of how, when class was in session, he would eat most of his meals at the school. On the weekends, though, he didn’t have much money, so he tried to plan and use it wisely.

He would get a couple of loafs of bread, some cheese, and some meat, and that would last the whole weekend. But outside the bakery where he got his bread, there was usually this homeless man. He never said anything, or asked for anything, he was just there.

And eventually one week, my professor felt that he had to give this man something, that he couldn’t just walk by him again. So, very carefully, he broke off half of one baguette still inside his bag. He didn’t want the man to see how much he had, because he truly did need most of it for himself.

After he gave the man half the loaf of bread, he was walking away, and the man called him back. Wanted him to wait. His first thought was that this man probably wanted the rest of the bread. But when he turned around, he saw that the homeless man had broken the half in half, and was extending one piece towards him. “Do you want to share?” He asked.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” My professor found the face of Christ that day, though he did so begrudgingly, reluctantly. This passage from Matthew, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, for me, is a very convicting passage. I feel convicted reading it, because I often do not help the least of these when I’m given an opportunity. I often pass by the homeless, as you might too. I know logically that it would be impossible to help everyone I meet, so I try to support organizations and policies that might help the entire homeless population. But still, when I hear this passage, I am convicted.

Once I can push past my initial discomfort though, and focus on the image Jesus describes, I find that I am surprised by the passage. In fact, I am surprised by the surprise. Both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, are surprised. They are surprised, not by their actions, but by the fact that they had encountered God and not realized it.

“When did we feed you,” the righteous ask. “When did we clothe you, or give you water, or visit you?” The unrighteous wonder the same thing—they had not ignored God surely, they had never even seen God.

This passage urges us to consider a couple, I think very related points. First: Where do we see the face of God? And second: How are we called to love and to live in light of that?

So, where do we see the face of God? This is Christ the King Sunday, where we celebrate and remember that all the earth is subject to God. But the God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being upon a throne up there above the clouds, or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.

God is our shepherd, says Ezekiel. God is among the people, caring for them, guiding them. God in Jesus in right in the middle of the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, among, us, particularly in our neighbors. Particularly in the one who needs us.

If we want to see the face of God, we must look into the face of one of the least of these: those who are vulnerable, those who are weak, those who are very young or very old. These are the ones you will find me with, Jesus promises.

It was certainly true during his life on earth: we found God not in palaces, but in stables. Not in kings or warriors in armor, but in a baby, clothed only in swaddling clothes. We found God not in courts and important places, but in the countryside, in the small towns, with small, unimportant people. We found God not in splendor and glory, but instead on the cross.

Where do we see the face of God? Often times, like for the sheep and the goats, we see the face of God in places we weren’t expecting to. And so, what does that mean for us? How are we called to love and to live in light of that?

I keep coming back to the surprise in the gospel story. The righteous in the gospel weren’t loving others, weren’t feeding or clothing or visiting others—in none of what they did were they acting with calculation or expectation. In fact, they were shocked to learn that had cared for the King of Creation.

God created the whole world out of an abundance of love. Like a fountain bubbling over, God is love and overflows with love. In creation, God gives of Godself, and in sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self as well as who we are. We are created in the image of this freely giving God, and so we are called to freely share, because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

In particular, we are called to love those conventionally considered unable to give back. But we don’t do so in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s love, to curry favor, or to make sure we are considered righteous at the end of time. We give and we love as an expression of the love that is inside us, bubbling up, spilling over, and flowing out.

The righteous sheep are surprised to learn that they had cared for the King of Creation. They had simply shared who they were and what they had freely. How are we called to love? With abundance. Without expectation or calculation, but by sharing the love of God that is within us.

We are called to remember what Jesus said: that we will find him among the least of these. Among those society ignores, among those we rather wouldn’t have to see and deal with. We can’t help every single person we encounter. That is a fact of life. But what you and I can do, and are called to do, is not to ignore and overlook, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ.

Where have you seen the face of God lately? Where might you see the face of God this week?

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Bridegrooms and Bridesmaids

Below is my reflection on the parable of the bridesmaids, or the wise and foolish maidens. We tried something a little bit different at church yesterday–a narrated service. This service included explanations of why we worship the way we do and what we believe happens in worship. Because of all these additions to the service, I kept my sermon very short–so the congregation didn’t feel like they were waiting and waiting with no end in sight!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As we planned this special service, one of the things I took note of in the instructions was where it said, “A brief sermon should be preached.” I did my best. It was hard, because we have such an interesting parable from Matthew’s gospel of the wise and foolish maidens.

Since I am trying to stay brief, I’ll dive right in. This parable doesn’t make a ton of sense without understanding the community to which it was told. Matthew is writing his gospel around the year 80. That first generation of believers, the ones who knew and walked with Jesus have died, and the church is beginning to wonder—we have the promise of Jesus’ return, how much longer will we have to wait?

This parable speaks to their situation—waiting without knowing when it will happen. They are warned not to be complacent in their waiting, but to always be ready, to always be on watch. Part of the struggle with this parable is that neither of these groups of women comes off looking too great.

We all know the types—there’s the ones who don’t prepare, who try to rush and do everything at the last minute. The ones who don’t pull their own weight on the committee or project, but expect others, who have worked and prepared to cover for them. These bridesmaids didn’t take any oil at all. It’s not that they ran out, they made no plans and anticipated no delay.

Then are the maidens who had enough oil. Good for them, we have to say, but couldn’t they have been a little nicer about it? There’s more than a hint of “I told you so,” in their response. Why couldn’t they have shared? Why do they assume there won’t be enough for everyone? The announcement of the groom’s imminent arrival has already been sounded, after all. At the very least, could they have propped a side-door open at the feast?

But when we get so focused in on comparing the maidens to one another, I think we miss the broader point of the parable. And that is the bridegroom. For Matthew’s first listeners, the point was that they ought to stay alert and active in the faith, even though the delay seemed long.

For Christians today, we are not anticipating the second coming of Christ any day now. In fact, we’re probably ok with a longer delay. For us, I think the heart of this parable is that the bridegroom, that Christ, arrives when least expected.

The love of God will continue to appear in our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, if we are paying attention. Jesus Christ comes when Christian people live in hope and never give up. Jesus Christ comes when faithful disciples express love and compassion and work for justice. Jesus Christ comes when critically ill people know they are ultimately safe in God’s love.

When God’s love breaks into our world, into our lives, when it wakes us from our slumber—how will we react? May we continue to announce with a glad shout the places we see God at work, those surprising, unpredictable places. And let us join in, lest we miss the feast. Amen.

 

Saints of God

Below is my sermon from All Saints’ Sunday, November 5. While it touches on a couple of the readings, it mainly focuses on 1 John 3:1-3. Who are some of the important saints in your life?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

So my latest Netflix binge has been a re-watch of the show Mad Men. It premiered in 2007 and wrapped up a few years ago. The details of the show aren’t that important for this sermon, but something that happened in an episode I watched recently made me think about All Saints’ Day.

The main character’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes to a funeral for her friend’s mother, and he is quite upset. What he said to her, and what stuck in my head was, “I don’t want you going to funerals.” Now, no one ever really wants to go to funerals, but what he was implying was that he didn’t want her anywhere near anything to do with death.

And he is not alone in that. As a society, we make a lot of effort to avoid death. A lot of money is spent in chasing and prolonging youth. Deaths almost always used to happen at home, but now death is institutionalized, and sanitized.

All Saints’ Day, though, forces us to confront death, to acknowledge our own limitations and mortality. It is a day when we remember all the saints of God—the St. Paul’s and St. Lydia’s who give us examples in the faith—but also those names that may only be special to us, or our families. Those who have given us life and love and who now rest in God. The day forces us to be honest about death and loss in ways we often try to avoid, because it’s uncomfortable territory.

Yet, however much we want to avoid death itself, we remain fascinated with the afterlife. Images, imaginings of heaven and hell are too intriguing to turn away from. When a loved one dies, we wonder: what are they experiencing? What is it like? Can they see me? Are they the same?

But the Bible is frustratingly vague about this. None of the handful of people raised from the dead offer any descriptions or details. All Jesus has to say on the matter is that our expectations are woefully inadequate. And yet we wonder still.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying that “Some people are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” We can become so focused, especially as church people, on what happens after death that we don’t pay attention to what is happening right now.

This is what the author of First John is dealing with he writes that, “What we will be has not yet been revealed; but we are God’s children now.” We are God’s saints now. All Saints’ Day is not just about those saints who have claimed their eternal reward, but it is truly about ALL the saints of God. You and me included.

We are God’s saints here on earth. Those whom God has marked as loved and called and blessed. We will be celebrating with Ian McGuire(at the second service/in just a few minutes) as we make public witness to the ways that God loves him, and calls him, and blesses him in baptism. That is a calling and a blessing that we all share.

I think it is a lot harder for us to talk about ourselves as saints than it is to talk about the faithful departed as being saints. We know ourselves, and, when we’re honest, we know that we aren’t always all that saint-like. We hear this list of Jesus in the Beatitudes, and wonder if any could be used to describe us.

Blessed, holy, honored, Jesus says, are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus give us a list of characteristics that the world does not consider greatly honored and says, these are some of the people that God considers highly honored.

And we think, that doesn’t describe me. That list sounds like the perfect person, the perfect Christian, and that’s not me, at least not all of the time. Maybe not most of the time. That’s okay, because it doesn’t have to. Being God’s saints in the world right now doesn’t require perfection, or none of us would qualify. Instead, God uses us, and claims us, imperfect, fallible humans as saints.

All Saints’ Day requires a great deal of faith on our part, more than we as individuals can muster within ourselves. Instead of berating ourselves about the ways we fall short of perfection, let us give thanks and be grateful for how God’s love brings us to perfection.

Let us remember and cling to this grace: none of us is defined in the eyes of God by either the worst thing we have done or the best thing we have done. The eyes of Love do not view us as the sum of our virtues, minus our grievous errors. Instead, we are defined by the Living Word of love, which is Christ Jesus.

On this day, let us remember those saints who have gone before us and who cheer us on in our pilgrimage. Let us give thanks for the examples of faithful living that they have given us as they navigated the stormy waters of life. We give thanks for the fullness of eternal life in which those saints who have gone before us now partake. Yet, let us also rejoice in that we are also made saints, not by what we have done or left undone, but through what God has done for all people in Christ. We are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit for acts of faithful service now, in our own time and season of life.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, for that is what we are. What love the Father has given us that we should be called saints of God, for that is what we are. Amen, and Alleluia.