What really matters

Sometimes we like to make things complicated, when really they are quite simple.

Sometimes we do that with the gospel reading that we just heard. We make it complicated. We ask theological questions about eschatology and judgement. We ask questions about when this will happen, how it will happen. We speculate about who are the sheep and who are the goats, and will the goats really go away into eternal punishment, and how does all this relate to forgiveness and grace. That’s all complicated stuff.


But really today’s gospel is quite simple.


Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Give clothing to the naked. Take care of the sick. Visit the one in prison.


This is what matters.


Jesus wants us to know that not only does this matter, it is the most important thing. In his teaching in this gospel, he does four things to convey this, raising the stakes every time.


First, he repeats this teaching four times. When you heard this gospel read, it sounded repetitive, didn’t it, and there’s a reason for that.


For I was hungry and you gave me food.

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?

For I was hungry and you gave me no food.

When was it that we saw you hungry and did not take care of you?


When Jesus repeats the same thing, the same cascade of phrases four times in the space of 15 verses, you know it matters. The stakes have been raised.


Let’s raise them even higher. This is Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples. His last chance to get his message across. The last lecture, if you like. When you get that last chance to speak to those who are closest to you, you want to make it count. What you say matters. The stakes are raised again. These are the words that Jesus wants ringing in his disciples’ ears after he is gone.


Third thing. Jesus lays out this teaching as a matter of ultimate concern. He puts it in the context of the last judgement and our eternal fate. You want to talk about raising the stakes, that’s a pretty good way to do it. Does it matter whether we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, take care of the sick and visit those in prison. You bet it does. It’s hard to imagine how Jesus could raise the stakes any higher.


And yet, he does, with one last twist.


“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”


“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”


When we see the one who is hungry, who is thirsty, who is a stranger, who is sick, who is impoverished, who is in prison, it is Jesus that we see. When we feed, give to, welcome, care for, or visit one of the least of these, it is Jesus that we are caring for.

That’s a surprising twist. There is an element of mystery here that we may not fully understand. But what we do understand is this. This really matters. The stakes are as high as they can be.


One of my preaching teachers, Anna Carter Florence used to teach us to focus on the verbs in a text, because the verbs often cut to the heart of what is being said. The verbs that matter, both in today’s gospel, and in our lives are the following:


Feed. Give. Welcome. Care. Visit.


Are these the most important verbs in your life? Are these the verbs that you or others or God would use to describe your life?


Here’s another question. What verbs are the most important in the life of the church? What are the verbs that would describe our faith? Our community? Would they be the same verbs?


When I got to thinking about this, about the verbs that people most often associate with our faith, here are a few that I came up with:


Worship. Pray. Sing. Gather. Behave. Learn. Preach. Believe. .


Now these are all good verbs. But they’re not the same verbs as the ones that Jesus says really matter.


Is there a disconnect here? A disconnect between the verbs we associate with church and the verbs that really matter?


There can be a disconnect. Sometimes we think that the churchy verbs are the ones that really matter, and that the verbs that really matter, well they’re kind of an add-on, a nice-to-have, something we can delegate to a committee. For example, we might prioritize worship every week and we might pray every day, and every once in a while we might write a check so that some institution can feed the hungry on our behalf. And if that’s the way we think, if that’s the way we act, maybe we should go back and read today’s gospel again.


Because all of the churchy verbs, worship, pray, believe and the rest, they’re not ends in themselves. They are not what really matters. They are good and they are useful, but only insofar as they support, help, strengthen and enable us to live the verbs that really matter. Churchy verbs are there to help us to feed, give to, welcome, care for, and visit the one who is in need, the one who is vulnerable, the one who is the least of these, the one who is Jesus.


Does that make sense? The churchy verbs are not an end in themselves, they are a means to an end, an important and useful means, but the end, what we’re to do, the purpose of our lives, the basis on which our lives will be judged, is whether we do the verbs that really matter.


So, for example, worship, what we’re doing right now, isn’t an end in itself. Worship is good, it’s a way to reset our priorities, to re-connect with God, to prepare and strengthen ourselves and to be blessed and sent out for what we really need to do. And you know what that is. We need to do the verbs that really matter. Feed. Give. Welcome. Care. Visit


And eventually these verbs become not just what we do, but who we are.


I could go on, but if I did, I think I’d just fall into the trap of making this complicated when it’s really quite simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple.


Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Give clothing to the naked. Take care of the sick. Visit the one in prison.


Amen.


Homily Yr A Reign of Christ, Nov 22 2020, St. Albans

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

Image courtesy of St. Luke's Table



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

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