A Church and a Christianity people and want to be part of
Sermon preached November 22, 2020
Interim Dean John Ohmer
All Souls Cathedral, Asheville, NC
Jesus said, “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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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.’ 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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.’ 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.’ 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?’ 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I want to pick up where I left off a few Sundays ago, when I shared with you that while growing up in the Episcopal church, I had pleasant childhood experiences of Christianity and church, there was a time in late high school and early college where I got as far away from church and Christianity as possible.
This was due mostly to a group, in my high school, of aggressive so-called “evangelical born again Christians.”
I’ve referred to that bad experience of Christians and Christianity before without really spelling out what was so off-putting about this corrupted version of Christianity: what was (and is) bothersome, theologically speaking, biblically speaking, spiritually speaking.
And over the years I’ve come to realize that the three primary shortcomings or failings of corrupt Christianity are
one, its individualism,
two, its arrogance, and
three, its inwardness.
And lest you think I’m unfairly singling out conservative evangelical Christianity, please hear me, please -- rest un-assured -- that conservative Christianity has no monopoly on these corruptions or failings: progressive Christianity can fall into individualism, arrogance, and inwardness; progressive Christians can be every bit as individualistic, arrogant, and inward-looking as anyone.
So as I say this, as I point this out from this pulpit, I’m mindful of the saying, “when we point a finger at someone we have three fingers pointing right back at ourselves.”
So specifically what am I talking about?
Individualistic Christianity is mostly about one’s own personal journey, whether that’s on the one hand, your confession of Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, or your confession of journey into deeper levels of wokeness and awareness -- in either case, important steps on a spiritual journey, important experiences, but become corrupting and problematic when YOU and YOUR journey become central, and when knowledge comes at the cost of actual loving, non-transactional relationships with those whose worldviews are very different from our own.
Arrogant Christianity is a Christianity that has all the answers and tolerates few questions, and considers doubt -- the questioning of a premise -- as evidence of a weak or fragile faith. AND
Inward Christianity is all about one’s own church, one’s own worship style, one’s own set of beliefs, as if God does not exist outside the box we have drawn, as if other churches (or the work of the wider church), other worship styles, other sets of beliefs did not exist or are somehow inadequate, compared to US, and how WE do things.
That’s not a church, or a Christianity people want to be a part of.
Well, as I’ve told you a number of times, during a time I had rejected or run away from Christianity, someone told me that everything I object to about corrupt religion is also objected to somewhere in the bible,
And as far as my being horrified by some Christians’ rigid ideas about who “gets it,” -- who is saved versus who is damned, I was encouraged to read this passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew, a passage describing the final judgment.
Jesus comes in glory, accompanied by all the angels, and is seated on his throne.
The nations -- all the nations -- are gathered in front of him, and are separated into two groups.
The sheep are sent to the right, the goats to the left.
He declares those at his right hand “blessed” by God and invites them to inherit the fullness of God’s kingdom.
And why are they blessed? Because they fed the judge/king when he was hungry; they gave him something to drink when he was thirsty; they welcomed the judge/king when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, nursed him back to health when he had gotten sick; and went to visit him when he was imprisoned.
The sheep are confused, though, because they don’t recall doing that for the king/judge Jesus.
When?!? When did we see you hungry, Jesus, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick or in prison?
That’s when he says, “just as you did it to one of the least of the members of my family, these, my brothers and sisters, one of the little ones, you did it to me.”
Then he turns to his left and declares them “accursed” and bound for eternal fires.
And why are they accursed, condemned?
Because they did not feed the king/judge when he was hungry or give him something to drink when he was thirsty,
they did not welcome Jesus when he was a stranger,
clothe him when he was naked,
nurse him back to health when he had gotten sick,
and they did not go to visit Jesus when he was in jail.
They, too, are confused, because they don’t recall ever seeing the King Judge Jesus hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and that’s when he says,
“just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me;
Their lack of care of the least, was a lack of care for Jesus.”
So let this sink in:
According to this passage -- and not only this passage, but many others like it in scripture, this passage is not an outlier -- you know who’s going to heaven, you know who “gets it” ?
People -- individuals and nations -- who, in this life, actually take good care of the “little ones” -- the least, the lost, the lonely.
And you know who’s going to hell, who is far from God?
Peoples -- individuals and nations, societies -- who neglected the little ones, the least, the lost, the lonely.
You see how this passage is a corrective against corrupt Christianity of the right and left?
There is nothing individualistic: this is a judgment of nations, peoples, an ethos of a whole culture.
There is nothing arrogant: neither side has a clue if they are “saved” or aligned with God, no clue why they are on the side they are on, until they are told.
And there is nothing inward: it is all outward: all about how peoples treated the least, the lost, and the lonely.
The sheep and the goats and us have the same problem: not knowing that God is already with us.
God is already with us!
That’s a profound, even mind-boggling statement about God, about the nature of God.
The God we believe in -- the god revealed in scripture -- is not distant, “above it all,” or someone inaccessible. God is nearby, in human lives, and easily found.
As one of the promises in our baptismal covenant puts it, “will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
If so, if you intend to keep that promise, and find God, it’s actually relatively easy:
You can seek and serve Christ by helping stock Manna Food Bank’s shelves, as many of you did the past couple weeks through the blue bag food drive, or through participating in All Souls and BeLoved Village’s Tiny Homes initiative, because Christ is in the face of the hungry and thirsty and unhoused.
You can seek and serve Christ in the faces of refugees trying to flee to safety or apply for asylum, and you can serve Christ by insisting it is the ethos of this nation to welcome the stranger, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and helping organizations such as Together Rising reunite separated asylum-seeking families.
The All Souls Children First Committee has a new name: “Focus on Children” Committee, and you can seek and serve Christ in the faces of children looking for adequate clothing by participating in the 2020 Holiday Giving Program for the Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County, because the King/Judge Jesus is in the faces of those who wanting a warm coat.
You looking for God? Christ has told us where God can be found: as near as a sick person, or an incarcerated person, and you can seek and serve Christ, loving your sick or imprisoned neighbor as yourself.
At the final judgement, you want to be a sheep and not a goat?
Belong to -- identify with, involve yourself deeply in -- a peoples, a culture, a community, that cares for the little ones, the least, the lost, the lonely.
One final thought:
In thinking all this through, it’s important to remember that salvation is not something we achieve.
As the Presbyterian pastor Lindsay Armstrong says,
“salvation is something we discover, often when we least expect it.
Notice that the righteous are surprised to realize they had cared for the King of creation;
evidently, they simply shared who they were
and what they had freely,
without calculation or expectation.
And the unrighteous are shocked that they missed opportunities to show love to the King;
had they known God was in their midst, they would have done the right thing.
Yet the King is looking for a natural outflowing of love,
not calculated efforts designed to project a certain image.
This is the kind of love Jesus has come to demonstrate and share.”
Think about that.
It’s the difference between, on the one hand, doing something extemporaneously,
as a natural outflowing of love,
verses doing something in order to avoid punishment or reap a reward.
The purpose of this gospel passage -- of all the gospels -- is transformation.
It is not meant to motivate you to do the right thing in order to win a reward.
Neither is it meant to scare you into avoiding doing wrong things in order to avoid punishment.
The purpose of this gospel -- of all the gospels -- is transformation. Change.
“The king is looking for a natural outflowing of love, not calculated efforts designed to project a certain image.”
There’s a scene in the Jennifer Aniston - Vince Vaughn movies “The Break Up” that captures this pretty well, where the Jennifer Aniston character tells the Vince Vaughn character “I don’t want you to do the dishes. I want you to want to do the dishes.”
We don’t want you to come to church,
get involved in a ministry,
read the Bible daily,
support the church financially.
We want you to want to come to church,
we want you to want to get involved in a ministry,
we want you to want to read the Bible daily,
we want you to want to support the church financially.
The purpose of this gospel -- of all the gospels --
and for that matter the purpose of worship, of liturgy, of Bible reading, of prayer, of giving our time and money...the purpose of all Christianity -- is transformation. Change.
To transform us into people who have a natural,
non individualistic, non-arrogant, non inward
outflow of love.
People being transformed, every day, with God’s help, into people who naturally seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s a church and a Christianity that people are drawn to, and want to be a part of.