2021 NOV 21 “This is What a Matthew 25 Church Looks Like”

Scripture                Matthew 25:31-46 

      31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 Message                  “What a Matthew 25 Church Looks Like”

Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable that Jesus shared with his disciples. Sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. And sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Great Judgment.

To call it the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats seems a little easier on the soul. As you read the story you can surround yourself with stuffed animal toys and speculate about which animal you are most like? A goat or a sheep? There are differences between these animals, as we just discussed with children, but when I see them up close, they have a similar voice – baaaa – which I think means one of two things, “Mom, where are you?” and “Hey, everybody, I’m over here”. I have a long way to go before I can declare myself a goat or sheep whisper, but I am working on it. Maybe the heart of the parable is that however and whenever we speak, God is listening and responding, when we do well or when we fall on our faces. God is always reaching out to you, inviting you to come to the Table to be fed, inviting you to live generously, inviting you to live in the joy of faith.  So give your toy sheep or goat doll a big hug, and feel the love of God reaching out to you.

To call this Matthew 25 reading the parable of the Great Judgment is much harder on the soul.  Whether you are a sheep or a goat really matters and one or the other animal becomes a big hint about your final destination in eternity.

Those who created a series of regular weekly Bible readings, starting back in the 4th or 5th century, appear to have liked placing this reading from Matthew as the last reading of the church year, which is today. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, and a new church year begins.

On this last Sunday, this parable becomes a summary of all that we have read, learned, sung, prayed for, and worked upon as followers of Jesus during the past year. It asks the key question, “How have you been measuring up?” Are we ahead of where we should be, are we behind where we should be, or maybe we have no idea where we are at all, in which case we really need to pay attention to this parable!

It is probably very uncomfortable reading this parable because it requires us to be very honest with ourselves. We know that while we often make blunt judgments about the behavior of others, we want the standards looser when it comes to others judging us. As a Last Judgment its purpose is not to declare you or anyone else guilty, but to open your eyes to need, and to act upon what you see.

The parable boils it down to this: it’s not what you believe about Jesus, it’s what you do for Jesus. It pushes the point hard – that whenever you see someone in need you have to respond as if it was Jesus himself! If you turn your back on need, you are turning your back on Jesus! This is challenging stuff. By myself the world of need is more than I can handle, but with all of us together, we can take on the things that seem impossible.

As difficult as it is to live in accord with this parable, our Presbyterian Church USA has recently adopted Matthew 25 as focus for congregations and presbyteries. It’s an effort to get our churches on the same page about ministry and mission. Our Session has not yet acted upon this invitation to become a Matthew 25 church, but I hope we will. The parable suggests areas of concern and opportunity involving hunger, poverty, and desperation. To become a Matthew 25 Church, as far as I can see, does not require us to function differently. In fact, I think that Matthew 25 already frames our ministry.

In September some of us had a great conversation about mission down in the Dining Room. We identified a whole series of mission possibilities. From local projects to a project in Africa.  We can’t do them all, of course, but any one of them would put us at the heart of Matthew 25, responding to the needs around us. In fact, we are already doing it, collecting food for children at the local school, collecting clothing and hygiene products for people who visit the food pantry at the North Bergen church, Our Sunday School constantly focuses on the stories that invite us to be loving and generous to others. Even our sewing group was formed with the idea that some of the projects can be used for the sake of others. A few participants in the group have created hundreds of facemasks for the community.

We haven’t done everything, and we can’t possibly do everything, but a Mathew 25 church has its eyes open for possibilities in the community. We can think of the Parable in Matthew as less a judgment on where we fall short, but as an invitation to make a greater difference within our congregation and in the surrounding community. Our church has so much to offer when it comes to the poverty, racism and violence that exist in our world.

Matthew 25 overlaps with our involvement in the Vital Congregations Initiative. A vital congregation seeks to engage with its community, not hide from it.  To be a congregation called and prepared to respond to the needs of the world around us requires us to understand ourselves as a vital presence in our town.

Jesus began his story by telling about sheep and goats and by the end of it he’s talking about eternity We do the same thing when we celebrate communion, we start talking about bread and the cup and that meal long ago, but soon enough are  talking about eternity, what matters, and how to respond with love and generosity to the problems in the world around us.

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