“Christmas is Cancelled…Or is it?”
Mt 25:31-46 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ November 15, 2020
Given the social restrictions in place these days, I wonder how Santa Claus will find a way to visit our homes this Christmas. You know…the reason for the season that we are just starting to get ready for…Santa’s visit! When I was a young Dad, I recall explaining the intricacies of Santa shrinking down to fit through our tiny chimney and enter with all the presents; magical snow foot-prints would appear between the fireplace and the tree; specially wrapped presents carefully selected from Santa for each of the children; and, of course, the evidence of cookies and milk consumed by a jolly old elf. Yet, as we begin to prepare for the festive season, I wonder: will he come? Questions will be asked by our young people this year: “Mommy / Daddy…how will he come?” And as we shift to the REAL reason for the season, we search our hearts this year and wonder ‘will Christ be born this season?’ Will Jesus be born anew into this pandemic world? Will there be room in the manger for Christ to come this very odd year? Will Christ reign anew?
Perhaps this year will be one that there will be no room at the inn? Perhaps there will be no room in our social family bubble? Perhaps we need to keep things a little simpler? A little safer? Yet, as we think of the world that Jesus was born into, there are a lot of parallels between then and now. A community that lived amidst a time fear and trembling. It was a time of uncertainty. It was a time where they yearned for a cure to come and cure the darkness, the sadness, the fear. It was a time where they yearned for the hope that would begin with a Messiah who would say “I am the light of the world”. It was a time where they yearned for peace, not from a sword, but through love. It was a time where they sought joy for, not just the privileged, but for all God’s children. It was a time where they dreamed of love to be a universal heartbeat where love of neighbour was the currency exchanged between brother and sister, and towards all creation. It was a time where they yearned for the coming of the Messiah! And as we consider the state of world today: as we continue to seek these things now, we also ask the same question: ‘will he come?’ Will he be born? Will he reign in our world?
Today is the ‘Reign of Christ Sunday’ and as we come to the end of this Christian year, these are the yearnings that we deeply hold. It seems all the more poignant this year to gather this Sunday because, we are not gathering for a ‘new year party’ where we pop champagne corks and dance, kiss our beloved, and shout: ‘Happy New Year’. This year we find ourselves touching on our yearning for Christ to truly come and reign in our world. This is a stark time of evaluation, of pondering, of consideration for the New Year that lies ahead, of Christ being born and reigning! I used to think we should synch our calendars. I always wondered if the commencement of the Christian year a month ahead of the Gregorian calendar was problematic, but lately I have come to love this timing. Our spiritual work that begins now and proceeds throughout Advent is all about pondering and preparing for how we will invited Christ to reign in and through our lives. For we know that we live in a world where there is no room at the inn; we live in a world that is so contrary to Christ’s Way. And it is good to begin to pause and ponder, in this world filled with a plethora of authorities which vie for our loyalty, how will we embody the Christian Way in our hearts, minds and souls. How will we make Christ the King of our lives?
As we turn to the text, we find ourselves in a very interesting section of Matthew’s gospel. This is the final set of conversations that occur before everything turns ugly and the plot to kill Jesus begins. Prior to our focus text, there were six parables that centre around the call to live in a state of readiness, a call to living responsibly as followers of the Way. There is the ‘lesson of the fig tree’ ~ where its fresh branches reveal the coming of a new season; the parable of the Son of Man coming like a ‘thief in the night’ ~ and the call to be ready; the parable of ‘the faithful or unfaithful slave’ ~ who is ready even when his master comes at an unexpected time; the ‘parable of the ten bridesmaids’ ~ with the 5 wise bridesmaids prepared with lamps filled with oil for the arrival of the bridegroom coming in the night; and lastly (as we visited last week), the ‘parable of the talents’ ~ where the master rewards the slaves who invest the talents entrusted them, and doesn’t hide them away. These six parables speak to a call to readiness in one’s faith; a call to living one’s faith responsibly ~ with care, with love, and with a deep passion. And then we shift from examining the things we are called to do, to examining the things we have failed to do. You might have noticed that this morning’s text looks at things from in the negative. What have we failed to do in living the Way of Jesus? What have we left out of our Christian living? What we have we neglected in our discipleship? Jesus puts it like this: “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?” 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.” They didn’t see Jesus in the hungry beggar; they didn’t recognize him in the unknown stranger; they didn’t notice him as the prisoner; they were blind to Jesus’ presence in the last and the least.
I must be honest with you…I have some real discomfort with this parable. I don’t know about you, but as I look at that list, it is quite a list to live up to. I feel culpable before I even begin any assessment of my living. I haven’t visited anyone in prison for a long time. And when I did, it was a required part of my training to become a minister, and (frankly) I was afraid. I haven’t given many people clothing who were naked. I have given some thrift store donations to folks in need, but I haven’t gone into my own overstocked closet, that I, a person of privilege take for granted, and given from what I have to others who don’t. I see many people who look lost and lonely on the street, and I say ‘hello’, but it is extremely rare that I stop and take the time to hear their story and let them know that they truly matter. It seems like there is never enough time in the day; never enough as we seek to fulfill the responsibilities we hold as professionals, as parents…all the roles we seek to balance. Do you see my discomfort with this story? Perhaps you share it as well. Except…there is a glimmer of hope…then I remember…that this is a parable. It is a story designed to point us further towards the Kingdom of God. It is not a “go and do likewise” story. It is a “point your life in this direction” kind of story. A further ‘parable-kind-of thought’ for us to consider: I wonder what final words you might offer at your deathbed to your loved ones? These are Jesus’ parting words! His last words before his followers begin to stop their ears and plot to kill him. The essence of Jesus’ teaching here is a call towards the care for others. This is the measure, this is the yard-stick, this is the call Jesus offers to those who follow. And these powerful, challenging words are the ones that we can come back to each and every year, that we must come back to, as we prepare to enter into the New Year. They are a Christ-guiding compass that keep us on track, and further point us in the direction of the Kin-dom of God.
I wonder, rather than these words making us feel uncomfortable and inadequate in our Christian discipleship, I wonder, rather, if their function is to point us to a new way of finding and experiencing Christ’s Reign. For, in this text, we learn that God is not a supreme being on a throne ~ distant in the heavens above. We learn, rather, that God is here ~ right here ~ in the messiness and muckiness of life (the hungry, the prisoners, the vulnerable, those hiding in fear) God is there just waiting to be received. God is in the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the naked and the vulnerable. These words are a call to seeing the face of Christ in the needy. And this brings us full circle back to our conversation about Santa’s tentative arrival this year. If we take this text seriously, Christmas will come. In fact, this Advent and Christmas holds the potential to be among the most beautiful ever experienced. For we can see Christ in ways we hadn’t ever imagined before. We can see him in shut-ins who are lonely; we can see him in people ringing Salvation Army bells; we can see him in people asking for spare change; we can see him in those losing loved ones to cancer amidst the season of cheer; we can see him in the mess and muck of life. More than Santa coming this…Christ will come and reign!
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the historical books originating from the same era of many of our New Testament books. While the early church did not assign it into the canon that later comprised the Bible, it is still, to a degree, part of our tradition. There is a section in Thomas where Jesus is reported to have spoken these words as he was passing alms to the poor. “Bless you, if you do not know the good you are doing. Curse you, if you know the good you are doing”. I think this re-examination time we enter into in this New Year season, is about fine-tuning…sometimes re-vamping…and sometimes even overhauling our lives to the Way of Jesus. It is about separating the parts of ourselves that are spirit ~ (the sheep as Jesus calls them) and lifting them up and feeding them. It is also about releasing those other parts ~ (the goats as he calls them) which do not lead us in the Ways of Christ. And the more we do it, the more we become enabled to walk in the path that leads us towards the Kin-dom. It is about opening space, as we pray, for ‘thy Kin-dom come”
There is an old wisdom story of a young monk speaking with an older monk, "Father, if God is infinitely merciful, how can He deprive anyone of His heavenly kingdom?" The older monk noticed that the younger man was looking into the sun and squinting. He answered, "my young brother, why do you keep turning your head from side to side?" The younger monk replied, "the bright sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won't leave me in peace." "Then you've answered your own question," the older monk laughed. "God doesn't deprive anyone of His heavenly kingdom. Some simply cannot bear the light."
And so, as we come to the end of this Christian Year and proclaim Christ as King, may we do it with the blessing of St. Teresa of Avilla who profoundly said: “May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road. May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, Reach out your hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart, open your hearts to love. May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet. And may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you.