Sunday, November 26, 2023
Christ the King Sunday

Helping the Kingdom Come

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450

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I had gone down for a diocesan meeting to Episcopal High School. Now I wasn’t paying attention and realized I needed gas, but the stations around the high school were expensive. I found a Costco near by that wasn’t as high so I stopped there. As I got out and got ready to pump my gas, I noticed or rather heard a street preacher about 30 feet away. He looked at me in my clericals and yelled, “Brother, are you saved?” I looked at the person on the other side of the pump and said, “Oh my please know I’m not one of them.” That caused them to burst out laughing.  How many of us cringe when the person on the street or even worse someone in private conversation brings up the subject. Most of us want to flee immediately. By the way, my response to him was , “Yes about 2000 years ago.” I filled my tank and went on my way.

Believe it or not Jesus does not say that much about salvation in Matthew especially in terms of a final judgment. Today’s gospel is the only time that any of the gospel writers talk about the last judgment. This is the last real teaching before the Last Supper at least in Matthew’s gospel. Obviously, Jesus (and Matthew) draw from the book of Ezekiel that we heard this morning as well as the book of Daniel for his imagery.

To further set the stage some 1st century farming background is needed. Sheep and goats commonly grazed together and still do in the middle east. At night, especially on cold nights the shepherds would gather them in and separate the two. The sheep could stay outside in a pen, but the goats are not as tolerant of cold and needed to be sheltered more than the sheep. This is farming background that Matthew’s audience would have understood, but we don’t know.

Over the past several weeks we have had multiple references to judgement, but they are all judgment not at the end of time, but at the coming of the kingdom. We hear a lot of end of the world talk considering the state of our world with lots of trials and tribulations. However, it is important to understand that in Jesus’ time the world ending is not part of the eschatological theology. Eschatological, dealing with the eschaton means an inbreaking, a revelation about God coming into our world. No end of the world piece is implied.  If you remember nothing else today, please learn this.

The focus is what the world will be like when Christ the King comes again. When Christ the King returns all will be made right in the world. It will not end but will in fact be a world where justice, peace, righteousness, and love will reign supreme. All that is evil will be vanquished. That’s what the early church was looking for, not some world ending disaster.

The end of the world theology most of us know about is only 150 years old dating back to the 1880s or so with people like Darby and Scofield finding it by picking certain verses. Most recently we’ve heard about that with the rapture as described in the Left Behind series, which is fun fiction if you like that type of thing, but really has no solid base in actual theology. It certainly was not a part of Jesus’ teaching nor of the first century Christian Church.

So now that I have hopefully helped you set that aside and if you are confused, I am happy to sit down and talk with any of you, I want to look at how Matthew’s audience would have understood this teaching.

Of great importance is the teaching that salvation is not a quid pro quo type of deal. Neither the sheep who gain favor nor the goats who are rejected understand the sorting process in advance. Remember in the Jewish world of that time you did things to earn God’s favor. The sheep are rewarded without thought for reward, they are totally surprised. “When did we see you …..” God is not looking for us to rack up holy brownie points to get us into heaven.

The good acts come from a natural flow; they are in fact pure gift given without thought to what they would get in return. How many of us give a gift freely without thinking what will I get in return? As we enter the Advent and Christmas season you might think about giving gifts without keeping records. As I was writing this, I thought of my dad’s Christmas card file. It was on index cards and kept in a wooden recipe box. Each year he would carefully record on the cards each Christmas card as it came in. If one came from someone not in his box, he would start a card and immediately mail this person a card. If you didn’t send him one for two years, then your card got moved to inactive box. This is not how Jesus would do this.

The was a story I heard several years ago that comes from a blog by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye and is an article entitled “Gate A-4 Live and Learn[1]”. She was in an airport in Albuquerque and her flight had been delayed 4 hours. Wondering around the airport to kill time she heard an announcement, “Anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 who speaks Arabic please come to the gate immediately. “ Well she did in fact speak some Arabic and A-4 was her gate.

When she got back to her gate an elderly woman in traditional Palestinian dress was crumpled on the floor and wailing. The flight attendant asked Naomi to talk to her. Speaking in Arabic that she learned as a child she was able to connect with the woman who stopped sobbing. The woman said she had a major medical procedure in Texas the next day and she thought that the flight had been cancelled. Naomi reassured her that it was only a delay and then helped her call her son who was fluent in both languages. Then figuring what the heck I’ve got several hours to kill she helped her call her other sons. Then they called some Palestinian poets that Naomi knew. That took care of 2 hours of the delay.

Then the woman opened her bag and took out traditional mamool cookies, filled with dates and covered with powdered sugar. She shared them around the gate, and nobody refused them. Soon there was powdered sugar everywhere. Then the airline brought a cart with apple juice and shared it around.

”And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.” This is seeing the holy in another person. This is stepping in and acting as Christ desires.

What is heartening is that I have several stories to choose from to show people who are among the sheep. In my notes, there was the story of an assisted care facility that closed, but some of the residents were abandoned and had nowhere to go. Two men, the janitor and a cook stayed and cared for them, without pay and really without any ambition to become the focus of a national news story. They cared for these residents until other placements could be found. These men are among the sheep. They saw a need and filled it without any consideration for reward or credit.

What if this Advent and Christmas season we actively sought out ways to help do what Jesus commands us instead of looking for excuses not to do gospel work. What if for Advent you decided to do some random acts of charity without thought for reward. What if as we walk into Advent, you did these things and made sure the person who was the recipient of the gift had no idea who it was. Sort of a secret Santa, but your identity is never disclosed.

How much better a world if we reacted with unthinking generosity. How much better if we truly learned to be the sheep in this final teaching of Jesus before he is arrested, tried condemned and executed for the crime of practicing what he preached. What a wonderful world this would be.