The Sorting


Here we go, one last time. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, with the crowds gathered around him, and he has one last story to tell, the final words of his public ministry.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory” Jesus begins.

“And here I am!”

That last bit doesn’t get recorded, probably wasn’t said. But it was proclaimed loud and clear. Jesus is the Son of Man who embodies God’s coming in glory to his people, a glory that will be full of surprises. He will sit on the throne, but that throne will be a cross. This isn’t about some future coming, it’s happening now, in the present moment, right before their eyes.

Today is the Sunday we celebrate the reign of Christ. Sometimes we think of the reign of Christ as a future event. I get that, I understand that there is a lot happening in our world today that makes us think that Christ does not yet reign in this world.

But the reign of Christ is not some future event. It’s happening now, right before our eyes, if we can see it, if we’re part of it.

Does Christ reign through you?

That’s a judgment question, isn’t it?

Judgment makes us nervous. For months now, we’ve been reading from the gospel of Matthew, and there is a lot about judgment. Matthew insists on it, he heightens the rhetoric, he makes sure we hear about weeping and gnashing of teeth. And his insistence makes us uneasy. We get nervous about what it might mean for us and for those we love. And it creates a tension in our theology, a tension in how we hold together our understanding of the God of judgment and the God of love and mercy. The gospel of Matthew is relentless, pushing us deep into this tension. The word of judgment is not the final word – Jesus’ death and resurrection, the most profound revelation of the depths of God’s grace, love and mercy, that word is still to come.

Judgment is not the final word. But it’s a good word.

It’s a good word because first of all it says to us that how we live matters. And that’s good. I want my life to matter, I want it to have meaning and purpose. I want to have an impact, even if it’s a small one in the grand scheme of the universe. Because imagine what it would be like if the opposite were true. If your life was irrelevant. Totally meaningless. No purpose, no impact, no significance. If life doesn’t matter, why bother getting out of bed in the morning?

In today’s gospel, Jesus says that your life matters. That’s a good thing. Then he tells us something else that we need to know.

The word of judgment tells us what matters to God.

Today’s gospel is a sorting. Whenever we do a sorting we make judgments, judgments about what is valuable, about what’s important to us, about what to keep and what to throw out.

Some of you will be familiar with the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books. Every year when new students arrive at Hogwarts, they are sorted into one of four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin. The sorting is done by the Sorting Hat, a patched up old hat that is placed on the heads of the new arrivals one by one. The Hat was enchanted centuries ago by the founders of Hogwarts to ensure that their values would continue to be respected. Gryffindor wanted the most courageous students in his house. Ravenclaw valued the most intelligent. Hufflepuff would take the hard-working. And Slytherin wanted the pure-bloods, the most ambitious and cunning of the youth.

How we sort things says a lot about what we think matters. The Sorting Hat says a lot about the values of the Hogwarts founders. But we do the same thing all the time, don’t we? We sort, we categorize, we prioritize, we analyze, we slice and dice, we accept and reject.

We sort based on whether people are good-looking or not. Whether they’re intelligent or not. Whether they’re our friends and family, or strangers. We sort on the basis of what sort of connections people have, on the basis of whether they are interesting or not, useful to us or not. We sort into male and female, rich and poor and middle-class. When there is a conflict somewhere, we count the number of Canadians killed but not the number of Iraqis. And every time we do it, every time we sort, we are making statements about what matters to us.

But this is how Jesus sorts:

“He will separate people and put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. And he will say to those at his right hand, “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.”

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.”

This is what matters to Jesus. Not wealth. Not fame. Not how you pray or how you worship. Not your nationality or your religion. Not whether you can sort out the theological tension between judgment and grace.

But this: what matters is whether you feed those who are hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. This is what matters. This is how God sorts.

And both the sheep and the goats are surprised. The sheep had been caring for those in need – but they didn’t seem to think it mattered that much. The goats hadn’t been caring for those in need, and they didn’t think it mattered much either.

But caring for those in need does matter. In fact Jesus’ words would tell us that this is what matters most.

It’s not like we’re hearing something new. It’s what God has always done. In our first reading from Ezekiel, we hear God’s words spoken through the prophet:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I will rescue them. I will feed them. I will seek the lost. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak.

It’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry. The feeding of the hungry crowds. The healing of those who were sick. Welcoming those who were strangers. Visiting those who were marginalized.

But just in case we weren’t listening, just in case we weren’t paying attention, here, in the temple in Jerusalem, in the final words of his public ministry, Jesus says it again, and repeats it not once but four times:

Feed the hungry. Give drink to those who thirst. Welcome the stranger. Give clothes to the naked. Take care of those who are sick. Visit those who are in prison.

This is what matters. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. And we are invited to participate, to be citizens of that kingdom, to be the people who do these things, now, not in some distant future. These were the final words of Jesus’ public ministry. Do you remember his first words? “Repent ,for the kingdom of God has come near.” It’s here, it’s within our grasp. We live out the kingdom of God, we experience it as real and present, we make it real and present, we meet Christ as real and present, when we care for those in need.

This is what matters. This is how Christ reigns.

Does Christ reign through you?

I dare say that for most of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, we spend only a tiny fraction of our time caring for those in need, we spend only a small percentage of our incomes caring for those in need. We get distracted by other things, we get consumed by other demands, we forget what matters. We are very much in need of God’s grace and mercy, that final word that tempers judgment.

But we also need to know what matters.

Feed the hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.

Amen.

Homily. Reign of Christ. Nov 26 2017. St. Albans

Readings: Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Ps 100; Eph 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46

ReImagine: Preaching in the Present Tense now available from Wood Lake Publishing

Mark's books are available at amazon.ca and amazon.com

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