Sermon for Sunday, February 5th, 2017 || Annual Meeting || Ephesians 1: 15-23; Psalm 100; Matthew 25: 31-46 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Good morning! It feels good to be here this morning, doesn’t it? It feels good to be in this holy space, this place of safety and warmth, this place of sanctuary.
It’s like we can all exhale a collective sigh of relief. We made it. We made it through another week of chaotic schedules, competing demands, and all the noise and negativity out there. We can settle into our pews, breathe deeply, and let the familiar words of our worship heal our aching hearts and soothe our weary souls.
This, I suspect, is what draws so many of us to church. Some of us find our way here bruised and broken. Most of us come starved for spiritual sustenance. Surely all of us are indeed weary and heavy burdened. And we find comfort in the connectedness and community we find here, in the breaking of the bread, and in affirming our place in something larger, and far more grand, than ourselves.
And yet the refuge we find in church has never been intended as a destination, but rather as a way station on the Christian journey. The comfort and healing with which we are graced in this place has never been intended as an end unto itself, but as a means to a far more demanding and challenging– but life-giving, cross-bearing end. The peace we find in this sacred space has never been intended as an escape from the world, but rather as the wellspring of power through which we are to serve Christ’s interests in the world.
In Eucharistic Prayer C we pray: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with coming here for solace or for pardon. That is indeed what brings most people to church, most of the time. But the Christian life is a journey, and it doesn’t end there. So we pray, too, for strength and for renewal– that in thanksgiving for all that we receive here, we may worthily –and gratefully –serve the world in Christ’s name. We pray for the courage and the conviction to live out our baptismal vows of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, of striving for justice and peace among all people, and of respecting the dignity of every human being.
Yes, we come here to be spiritually fed and nourished. But when we leave here, we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
And this morning’s gospel gives us very concrete evidence of what that looks like.
In the last bit of teaching he does before embracing an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death for us, Jesus foretells the day of final judgment, when we will each be held accountable not just for what we have believed, but for how we have, or have not, lived our lives:
‘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… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.’”
But then there’s this:
‘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… 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.”
Now, I just don’t see a lot of wiggle room there for interpretation.
Last week’s gospel reading of the Sermon on the Mount, the very first of Jesus’ teachings, named as those especially blessed by God as the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness’ sake. In short, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.
This week’s gospel reading on the final judgment, the very last of Jesus’ teachings, says those assured entry into God’s kingdom will be those who serve the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. In short, those who serve the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.
“Even as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me,” Jesus says.
Think about that. I’ve told you before about the mentor I had who used to counsel people that if they really wanted to know Jesus, they should frequent the places he’s known to hang out. Well, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus could not be more explicit about where he hangs out. He is with the weak and the poor, with the marginalized and the vulnerable, with the outcast and the sinner, with the immigrant and the refugee, with the widow and the orphan, with the addicted and the imprisoned, with the homeless and the hungry. He is with all those who suffer everywhere.
If we want to see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, at some point we have to leave the safety of this sanctuary to stand with, and to serve, those he calls us to serve. Because that is where we will meet him face to face.
Some of you will have read by now the pastoral letter sent out by Bishop Alan last week in response to the Executive Orders on immigration. In it he writes that: “Our positions as Christians are determined not by party affiliation, nor by self-interest–neither personal self-interest nor national self-interest. Rather, our Christian positions must be determined by the core values of our faith.”
In the Sermon on the Mount we read last week, and in the Parable of the Goats and the Sheep we read this morning, those core values of our faith are made abundantly clear.
And so as I prepare to leave you I pray, my beloved St. Stephen’s, that in your future together you will unite as the body of Christ that you are as his church, and fight for those core values of our faith. That you will stand with those in need regardless of political affiliation, nationality, religion, race, gender identity, physical ability, immigration status, or sexual preference. That you will continue to come together week after week for solace and for strength, for pardon and for renewal, and that then you will get out there and serve Christ’s interests in the world!
Now won’t you join me in renewing our Baptismal Vows…