Sermon for Sunday, November 16th, 2014 || Proper 28, Year A || Judges 4: 1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thess. 5: 1-11; Matthew 25:14-30 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Once again, Matthew’s gospel seems to totally contradict the gospel Jesus proclaimed. Once again—like we discussed last week—scholars say it’s because of the context in which Matthew was writing.
So let’s do a quick review: Remember that Matthew was a Christian Jew writing to other Christian Jews being persecuted as heretics by their own people, and as traitors by the Romans. Remember that with Jesus’s return already delayed far beyond what they’d been led to believe, these early believers were beginning to have their doubts about the whole Messiah thing. And remember that Matthew’s hair-raising polemic is meant to keep these fledgling followers from abandoning the faith.
Now, that being said, let’s get one thing straight: There will be no weeping and gnashing of teeth! The One in whose name we are baptized, and in whose name Peyton and Taylor are about to be baptized, took care of that once and for all. No more being cast into the outer darkness; no weeping and gnashing of teeth, no hellfire and damnation. The good news at the very heart of the gospel is that Jesus gave his life to spare us ever having to fear that dread-filled fate. The least we can do is honor his sacrifice by taking it to heart! Like Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
“…God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ–who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
We are destined for salvation, so that we may live in heavenly glory with him who died for us. And it is in response to the gift of that blessed assurance of new and eternal life with God, rather than in anticipation of some sort of dreaded hell banished from His loving presence, that Paul calls us to be people of faith, love and hope…
…the kind of faith, and love and hope that compel us to encourage one another, and to encourage all those for whom Jesus has a soft spot—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek; the hungry, the thirsty, and the homeless; the persecuted, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers; little children, the elderly, and all those lost sheep without a shepherd who do not yet know him.
…the kind of faith, and love, and hope that aren’t invisible, lifeless virtues that one either does or does not possess— but that are concrete and observable ways of being in the world—ways that make plain the presence of the living Christ acting in our world today, here and now, through us.
Last Wednesday night Bill and Deb Viscomi and I went to a community meeting in the South End. City officials shared their plans for housing the hundreds of men and women—most of them the working poor — who were displaced by the closing of Boston’s Long Island. The auditorium was packed, with standing room only for the many service providers, clergy, and shelter volunteers—not to mention all of the men and women who gave up any possibility of a bed to sleep in that night just so they could be at the meeting and be heard.
It was a tense meeting…and a heart-breaking one, too. There was a lot of anger and frustration in the room, and one appalling story after another of men and women who left all of their earthly belongings at the shelter when they left for work one morning, only to be told they couldn’t get them back when the bridge was condemned and the island shut down in less than five hours that same afternoon. Four women have reportedly since died, newly recovering addicts have gone back to using, jobs have been lost, and already- fragile lives have been turned upside down. Talk about the weeping and gnashing of teeth! This is truly a nightmare.
But I am here to tell you that the living Christ was present in that packed auditorium! The living Christ was present in the faith, the love and the hope of all those who cared enough to attend, and all those who spoke with such passion on behalf of the hurting and the homeless—like Billy and so many others did. The living Christ was present in the poignancy with which the homeless men and women there that night so obviously cared for each other, knew each other by name, treated each other with dignity and respect, and encouraged one another with their words, their whistles, their hugs and high-fives.
So let’s go back to our gospel reading for this morning: Surely we know enough about Jesus to say with confidence that he would never mete out the kind of judgment where the wealthy get even wealthier, while the poor have what little they have—like a bed in a homeless shelter– taken away. This parable isn’t about the rich getting richer and the poor get poorer. And it isn’t about the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness of hell.
What this parable is about is responding to God’s call in Christ–with faithful risk-taking. The slaves who stepped out and risked much were richly rewarded, while the one who fearfully played it safe was not. God always calls us out of our comfort zone. God always calls us to work that feels too difficult for us, to goals that feel too challenging for us, to visions that feel too big for us.
That is how God stretches us into doing more than we think we can do, and goads us into being more than we already are. God always calls us beyond ourselves to that terrifying place that requires nothing less from us than our total reliance on Him in response. That’s faith.
So I encourage all of us this morning, as Paul encouraged the church at Thessalonica, to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.” Then let’s consider the many precious gifts God has entrusted to us—as individuals and as a community—and commit ourselves to investing them in faithful risk-taking— on behalf of the hungry and the homeless God so loves, and who so urgently need our help. Amen.