Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King


 November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25.31-46

 

+ Today is of course Christ the King Sunday.

 

 

Now, as most of you know, I have issues with authority.

 

I bristle at talk of rulers and kinds (and Presidents).

 

But for some reason, I don’t have much of an issue with the idea of Christ as King, despite my deep-seated issues with authority.

 

I love this idea of God as Ruler.

 

And, as you know, I love preaching about the Kingdom of God.

 

Jesus did it all the time.

 

The Kingdom of God is a good thing to preach about.  

 

But, it’s an important Sunday for another reason.

 

It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost.

 

Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve.

 

The old church year of Sundays—Church Year A—ends today.

 

The new church year—Church Year B—begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent.

 

So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent.

 

Today, we get a great reading from the Prophet Ezekiel.

 

We hear God saying things through Ezekiel  like,

 

“I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” 

 

And (I love this one)

 

“I feed them with justice.”

 

We also get to hear Jesus tell us that story of the sheep and the goats, echoing in many ways our reading from Ezekiel.

 

Now, I actually love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment (which everyone gets hung up on), not because of its judgment.

 

I love this story because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface, if you take the moment to notice.

 

And that subtle aspect of this story is this:

 

If you notice, the reward is given not to people who work for the reward.

 

The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they will gain the reward.

 

The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help.

 

The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward even awaits them for doing such a thing.

 

Now I don’t think I need to tell anyone here who the least of our brethren are.

 

The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and who are in prison.

 

I think this ties in beautifully to our own ideas of why we do what we do as followers of Jesus.

 

I preach this a lot!!

 

Why do we do what we do, we must ask ourselves?

 

Do we do these things because we think we’re going to get a reward for doing them?

 

Or do we do these things because by doing them we know it goes for a greater reward than anything we ourselves could get?

 

In our Gospel reading today, we find that the Kingdom of God is prepared for those who have been good stewards, who do good for the sake of doing good.

 

It is prepared for those who have been mindful of what has been given to them and have been mindful of those around them in need.

 

It is a great message during this stewardship time

 

For us, we need to realize that the Kingdom is prepared for us as well.

 

It is prepared for us who have sought to be good stewards without any thought of eternal reward.

 

For us who strive to do good for the sake doing good.

 

It is prepared for us who have simply done what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

 

To love God, and to love others.

 

That is why we do good.

 

For us, in our own society, we find that these same terms found in Jesus’ parable have a wider definition.

 

Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food.

 

It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness.

 

Hungry to be included, and treated as equals.

 

It means hungry, also, for God.

 

Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water.

 

Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace.

 

And thirsty for God.

 

Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing.

 

It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially, which many of us have known in our lives.

 

We have known what it means to be spiritually and emotionally naked.

 

To be sick, doesn’t necessarily mean to be sick with a disease in our bodies.

 

It is means to be sick in our hearts and in our relationships with others.

 

It means to be sick with despair or depression or anxiety or spiritually barrenness.

 

And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t necessarily have walls or bars on the doors.

 

The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our prejudices, our anxieties, our addictions, our very selves.

 

To not go out and help those who need help is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong.

 

To not do so is to turn our backs on following where Jesus leads us.

 

Because Jesus leads us into that place wherein we must love and love fully and give and give freely—of ourselves and of what we have been given.

 

It means to “feed with justice,” as God tells us in Ezekiel.

 

I like that because that is definitely what we have all been striving to do here at St. Stephen’s.

 

We practice our radical hospitality to everyone who comes to us in any way.

 

And, I think, we accept everyone who comes to us fully.

 

Here, we not only welcome people, but I think we allow people to be the people God created them to be—without judgment, without prejudice, just as the Kingdom no doubt will be.

 

And is.  

 

Again, that brings us back to Jesus’ parable.

 

The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you simply respond to one another as loving human beings—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to do them, the reward is yours.

 

The Kingdom is not only awaiting us in the next world, on the other side of the veil.

 

The Kingdom, when we do these things, is here.

 

Right now.

 

Right in our midst.

 

As Christians, we shouldn’t have to think about doing any of those things.

 

They should be like second nature to us.

 

We should be doing them naturally, instinctively.

 

For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned—and at times, we have been in those situations—we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives.

 

It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the Light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence.

 

And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life.

 

We embody Christ and Christ’s Kingdom when we become the conduits of hope.

 

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope.

 

Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world.

 

Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope.

 

And in doing so, we too will hear those words of assurance to us:

 

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for….”

 

I am going to close today with the prayer they pray at All Saints, Pasadena on this Christ the King Sunday.

 

It’s a beautiful prayer.

 

So, let us pray,

 

Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.

 

 

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

24 Pentecost


Stewardship Sunday 

November 15, 2020

 

Matthew 25.14-30

 

+ Today, of course, is Stewardship Sunday.

 

It is the Sunday when we begin this short but very important season of Stewardship.

 

It is a time in which we look hard at ourselves and ask ourselves the important questions of what St. Stephen’s means to us, and how we contribute of ourselves and our resources to St. Stephen’s.

 

For some churches, stewardship time is a difficult time.

 

It is a time of uncertainty.

 

It is a time when people kind of groan and inwardly complain.

 

“The priest is going to talk about money!”

 

But for us at St. Stephen’s, it’s never really like that.

 

For us, here, people LIKE to be members here.

 

And people here LIKE to help our congregation out.

 

People here like to step up to the plate.

 

Why?

 

Because people can see what we do.

 

People can see that although we are not a mega-church, we are not a giant church, we do make a big difference.

 

We are a place where we don’t just “talk the talk,” we very much “walk the walk.”

 

We don’t just pay lip service to our commitment to making a difference in this world.

 

We actually work hard to make a difference.

 

And let me tell you, we have done so even this past year, during the worst pandemic we have ever had.

 

Although we, like every church, had to adjust to the pandemic, we also knew that we had to still provide something for people.

 

We still had to DO something.

 

Although we closed for public worship, we quickly adjusted to online worship and, without a beat, provided Mass each Sunday and Wednesday, even in the darkest, most frightening days of pandemic.

 

And because we did, as we heard from many people who tuned in, we provided some comfort, some sense of normalcy, even then.

 

Of course, behind the scenes, we also struggled.

 

We weren’t certain at times how to do what we needed to do.

 

None of us were tech-savvy.

 

We didn’t even have a tripod at first.

 

All we had were our phones and, thankfully, our Facebook group.

 

But before we knew it, we worked it all out, and we were able to provide Mass for people.

 

And even during the pandemic, we also did the ministry we needed to do.

 

People’s pastoral concerns were met, although at a distance.

 

We still did funerals, and baptisms and weddings, although all of them were done in new and innovative ways.

 

We even welcomed 5 new members into our congregation.

 

And we even were able to celebrate the ordination of our first Deacon during this time.

 

Plus, we renovated and made fully available one of our most public and visual ministries for the public, our labyrinth, which has also provided spiritual substance to people during the pandemic.

 

What does all of this show us?

 

It shows us that we are not a lazy congregation.

 

We could’ve been.

 

We could’ve closed our doors.

 

We could’ve chosen not to do virtual worship.

 

We could’ve postponed the baptisms, the weddings and said no to the funerals.

 

We could’ve just stopped.

 

But, when the going gets tough, we all rose to the occasion.

 

We did the ministries that needed to be done.

 

And we served Christ and each other the best we could.

 

All this talk of laziness ties in well with this strange, difficult parable for this morning.

 

We get this parable of the talents, of money lent and the reward awaiting those who were entrusted with the money, complete with its not-so-subtle wag of the finger at us.

 

Trust me, I did not purposely pick this scripture for this Stewardship Sunday; it just happened to come up in the lectionary today.

 

But, man, is this parable is a very good story for us today!

 

Most of us can relate to it.

 

We understand how good it is to have people invest money for us and to receive more in return.

 

It certainly speaks in a very special way to us in this strange, scary and unstable time in which we are living at this moment.

 

But, this parable isn’t really about money at all, as we probably have guessed, just as Stewardship I just about money either.

 

The parable is about taking what we have—and in the case of today’s reading Jesus is talking about the Gospel—and working to expand it and return it back to God with interest.

 

We, as Christians, are called to just this: we are called to work.

 

We are called to do something with what we’ve been given.

 

And the worse thing we can imagine as Christians is being called by that ugly word I mentioned earlier:

 

“lazy.”

 

Lazy.

 

See. The word cuts like a razor.

 

I hate that word!

 

None of us want to hear that word directed at us, especially regarding our faith.

 

It is that shaming admonition we hear in this parable: “You wicked and lazy slave!”

 

It’s not what we want to hear.

 

Rather, we want to hear:

 

“Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

 

Over and over again in Scripture, we find this one truth: God is not really ever concerned with what we have; but God is always concerned with what we do with what we have.

 

And we should always remind ourselves that it is not always an issue of money that we’re dealing with when we talk about what we have. 

 

The rewards of this life include many other things other than money—an issue we sometimes forget about in our western capitalist society.

 

The fact is, God is not always concerned about who we are or what we do.

 

God does not care about our ego.

 

God does not care about your ego!

 

But, God is always concerned with what we do with who we are and what we have.

 

And when we’re lazy, we purposely forget this fact.

 

When we’re lazy, we think we can just coast.

 

We think we can just “get by.”

 

We think we can just give lip service to our gratitude and that is enough.

 

We expect others to do the hard work while we sit back.

 

But it isn’t enough.

 

To be "good and trustworthy”  is to take what we have and do something meaningful with it.

 

By doing something good, we are showing our gratitude for it.

 

In these two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we might find ourselves thinking about all the things in our lives we are thankful for.

 

And we should be expressing our thanks to God for those things.

 

But what God seems to want from us more than anything else is to let that thankfulness be lived out in our lives.

 

Yes, we should give thanks to God with our mouths.

 

But we must give also thanks to God with our actions.

 

Today, we are reminded that, essentially, from that first moment when we became Christians in the waters of baptism, we are called to live out our thankfulness to God in our very lives, in what we do and how we act.

 

Our thankfulness should not simply be the words coming from our mouths, but also the actions we do as Christians.

 

As Christians truly thankful to God for all we have been given, we are to live a life of integrity and purpose and meaning.

 

Integrity.

 

Purpose.

 

Meaning.

 

And standing up again and again to what is wrong.

 

We show our thankfulness to God in our stewardship—in the fact that we are thankful by sharing what we have been given.

 

By sharing the goodness we have been given.

 

And in that sharing, we find the true meaning of what it means to be gracious.

 

In that sharing, we find purpose and meaning in our lives.

 

In that sharing, we find true contentment.

 

We all have our treasures in this life.

 

We all have these special things God has given us.

 

It might be our talents, it might be our know-how, it might be a blessing of financial abundance.

 

It might just be our very selves.

 

We have a choice with these treasures.

 

We can take them and we can sit on them.

 

We can store them away and not let them gain interest.

 

And in the end, all we have is a moldering treasure—which really isn’t a treasure at all.

 

Or we can take a chance, we can invest them and, in investing them, we can spread them and share them.

 

During this stewardship season, the message is not “Give”

 

The message of this stewardship time is “be grateful.”

 

Even in a pandemic.

 

Be grateful to God for the treasures of this life. 

 

These are the things we have—our talents, our God-given abilities, the material blessings of our lives—and to be truly thankful for those things, we need to be grateful for them and to share them.

 

We can’t hoard them, we can’t hug them close and be afraid they will be taken from us.

 

And we can’t go through life with a complacent attitude—expecting that others are going to take of these things for us.

 

We must share what we have.

 

And we must share what we have with dignity and self-assurance and with a graceful and grateful attitude.

 

We must be gracious

 

We must not be the lazy slave who hoards what is given him, afraid to invest what he has.

 

We must instead be like the wise servant, the one is alert and prepared, the one who is truly gracious.

 

That is what Stewardship is really about.

 

It is about giving of ourselves, even when the times are tough.

 

And it is about making sure that we at St. Stephen’s can continue to do that and be that place in the future.

 

So, let us be the wise servants this Stewardship season.

 

Let us continue to step up to the plate and do what we must do.

 

Let us make sure that we as a congregation can continue to be a place of safety, of integrity, of holiness and love, when times are good and when times are bad.

 

Even during a pandemic.

 

Let us give thanks to God for all that St. Stephen’s does and is and continues to be.

 

And let us make sure that we can continue to be this radical place we are, this unique and eclectic and Holy Spirit-filled place we are.

 

And let us all do what we are called to do in our service of God and one another.

 

And if we are, we too will hear those words spoken to us—those words we all truly long to hear—“Well done, good and faithful one…enter into the joy of your master.”

 

Let us pray.

Abundant God, you provided us always with just what we need; we ask you during this Stewardship time to continue to provide this congregation of St. Stephen’s with the resources we need, with the time and talent needed, to do the work you have called us to do, to be a place of love and acceptance to those who need shelter, to embody those principals in this often dark and uncertain world, and to make a difference among those who need us; we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.