Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
My granddad, Pop Charlie, was not a talker. He was a larger set man with a respectful presence and soft heart, with never really much to say. When I would visit with him and my grandmother, he would be in his chair, reach for my hand, give it a gentle shake and a sweet kiss, letting me know he was glad I was there. I would sit with them for hours, while my grandmother and I talked. Pop Charlie’s one goal at the end of his life was to make it to 90 years old. Sadly, at 89 COPD took his body, forcing him to be admitted into the hospital where he was mostly unconscious. And then one morning, consciousness and life re-entered his body and mind. Maybe you’ve seen this with someone you love, sometimes around the end of a person’s life, there is a moment or a day where the individual will rally. The day before Pop Charlie died, he rallied. I remember walking into his hospital room and Pop Charlie sitting in his chair as aware of the world as I was. My mom looked at me and shrugged her shoulders, pointing to a spot to sit. That day we talked. We talked a lot. Pop Charlie told us stories about his time in England during the war, of meeting Marsie, my grandmother, of raising my mom and my aunts, of his mother and father and growing up in Queens, NY. It was like he had stored up those memories to share with us in this exact moment and Mom and I were just lucky enough to witness it. It was beautiful and the biggest gift God and Pop Charlie could have given to us as we waited for his death. We sat and we listened allowing his words to shower us with wisdom, warmth, and gratitude.
Whether the disciples knew it or not, in the privacy of the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave his last lesson, his last words of wisdom before he walked towards his own death. In our Scripture today, he was preparing his followers, including us today, on how to live after he’s gone. And so he tells this familiar story of a king who sits on his throne and like a shepherd, divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep, Jesus says, have done good, loving and merciful works: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” The sheep served and cared for the most vulnerable and in serving those in need, they also served him, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. The goats, in contrast, have done none of these
good, loving, merciful things. The author of commentary provided by the Salt Project shares an insightful perspective. She writes, “On first glance, the story seems to construe salvation as a matter of righteous action and reward.”1 If you do these good, loving, merciful acts, then you will receive salvation. She continues, but “God’s blessing isn’t a reward for their actions; rather, the blessing precedes their actions. Indeed, the blessing makes their actions possible.”2 They do not need to receive God’s blessing for God’s blessing is already there. God’s gifts, our genuine actions and good nature that live within us is what makes our actions possible. God’s gifts, God’s blessing, that is already within us is what makes it possible to perform works of goodness, love and mercy. As the commentator says, “Works of love and mercy are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace.”3 The grace is already there.
But that’s not to encourage apathy or nonaction, it’s to encourage thanksgiving that leads to more action. It’s to give confidence and awareness that
we have everything we need to embody the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It’s to remind us that we have everything we need from God, if we embrace it to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick and visit the lonely. Of course, these individual actions are important, but they are not the end all be all. It’s when you combine those acts that they create a just community, a community that faithfully builds each other up in God’s name and God’s image. Just before he descends to this death, Jesus tells this story as an invitation to focus on what is most important – to serve the community and to always focus on the “least of these.” That’s what most important in this life.
You may be wondering why this story of Jesus’s last lesson before his death appears right before Advent, the waiting of Christ’s birth, who ultimately arrives in the humblest of ways and in the most vulnerable of situations. On this Sunday, traditionally Christ the King Sunday, we are invited into the tension of the Advent season where we wait for a baby, a tiny baby and none other than our God, our King of Kings, Lord of Lords, almighty and humble at heart, all wrapped up in a swaddle as one.
Do you feel the tension? The most vulnerable and the most powerful as one. And it’s this King, as in our story, who invites us in his last moments with his disciples to think about others first. To put ourselves aside and be with the least of these, to live among a kingdom, as the commentator writes, “a kingdom not of domination, but of servanthood; not of mockery, but kindness; not of cruelty, but compassion.”4 To focus on the actions gifted within us that serves the wider population, not the actions that will only serve ourselves. And so as we leave this liturgical year behind us and rest into a season of waiting, may we take Christ’s last lesson and apply it here at this church, in our own lives. Seek out ways to feed the hungry and quench a thirst. We have the little free pantry and would love to serve more in person at Roof Above, if we can find the people. Get involved in
ministries that cloth the naked and shelter those stuck in the cycle of homelessness. Our Room in the Inn program is just around the corner as we
brace for the cold months. Welcome a stranger to your pew, your kitchen table, your life. Write cards to those who are sick and take lunch to those who are lonely.
Not because it’s what Jesus tells us to do and absolutely not because you think it will bring salvation but because you have all that you need set before you. You have the blessing and gift from God to be present with the vulnerable without the fear of the other, the worry of the unknown, nor the awkwardness we tend to make up, but is never really there. You wouldn’t be here, sitting in your pew if you didn’t have it, and so beloved, go into this season of waiting and be in the fullness of our Lord, a Lord born in manger and a Lord who changed this world by being with the most vulnerable and a Lord who says, “focus on the most vulnerable. Be with them after I’m gone.”