Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA it comes at about 29:20 in the video.
Well. Here we are again on Facebook Live, in a third, raging wave of the pandemic, in a nation divided—on the edge. This reminds me so much of a passage from Ezekiel this morning: Where God says, “I will rescue [my people] from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
A “day” of clouds and thick darkness, which I think means: A time when we cannot see what the future holds. A day of deceit and mistrust. A day when we, apparently, no longer believe what the news says, we no longer believe what our electorate says, or what doctors and health officials say. If back in the summer I thought both our nation and our souls were distrustful and lost, then where are we now? Well? We are in a day of clouds and thick darkness!
I’m sure you ask: “Why would a good God allow all this mess to happen?” There’s really no good answer to an important question like that. Because each response has it’s weak points. But I think it’s important to remember, however grim it may sound, that these kinds of “days,” these periods of collapse, unravel, and plague are found on nearly every page of Scripture.
These days of disorder and fear are the constant backdrop for the people of God, people of faith, in the Bible: Noah in the ark; Abraham on the run; Joseph sold by his brothers; the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt; an unlikely king named David, and a tiny kingdom called Israel conquered; truth-telling prophets killed; and the people of God in exile. And, of course, a little baby named Jesus born in a cow’s stall during an Empire-ordered census.
So, keeping that in mind, the tough thing in our days of pandemic and national distress—is that this kind of disorder is what is actually normal. This stress is par for the course in the world. When you remind yourself of this sad truth—a truth that many of us have forgotten because of our years of comfort & plenty—it puts all the words of the prophets and our Lord Jesus into perspective.
Ezekiel writes to a nation ripped apart by war, a people demoralized and taken into exile. To them Ezekiel prophecies that God says: “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
That sounds like Good News, right? But only if you can identify with the stress of those lost sheep. The Good News of God in Scripture is really only good in the face of the very bad news from the World. Our world says that might-makes-right, God says that peace will reign. Our world says competition, God says justice. Our world says death, God says life.
And this is what Jesus explains today in the Gospel of Matthew. Though this passage seems spooky with its language about “eternal fire and punishment.” It is meant to be the ultimate Good News. It invalidates all the bad news you can possibly imagine, actually. It says, without a doubt, with perfect insight and perfect justice—that Jesus God will have the last word. That is why Jesus is our King, our leader, our shepherd, our Lord. He will judge, he will say. Not you, not America, not whatever is on Twitter, nor anyone else. Jesus will decide. And Jesus’ deciding in Matthew between the sheep and goats is Good News, at the end of our Stewardship Month.
Jesus says to the nations here: “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.” Here Jesus is revealing something very important and cosmic about himself when he says what we do and do not do to the least of the people of the world we are really doing to Christ. This means Jesus’ coming to us a baby, living a human life, and dying a human death is not an accident or a trick.
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians today helps us to expand our understanding of what God is up to in Jesus. God put God’s [immeasurable greatness and] power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places. What Paul is saying is that: Who-God-is is revealed forever in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God’s message to us, Jesus is God’s Good News, that means that every last corner of creation, everything from the foundations of the world, is saturated with God.
That means from “the least of these” as Jesus says, and on up. As Paul writes, “[Christ] fills all in all.” Every human being is a part of Christ. When you wrong someone, you wrong Christ. When you love someone, you love Christ. In our days of distrust, days of hurt and sickness, days of selfishness and unrest, God speaks a word of reminder: My new baby girl; your beloved church family here at St Andrew’s; and your most bitter political opponents; those you think unlovable; those on their deathbeds because of Covid, and those who deny that Covid is real. Christ is in them all. They are all in Christ.
Maybe this is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is the only starting place of what we call Stewardship. If you notice in Matthew today: Jesus seems to say we will have no knowledge of our actions before his judgment seat. Both groups before Jesus, the Son of Man, the Ruler of the Universe, Say the same dumbfounded thing, “Lord, when was it that we saw you…?”
Jesus teaches us we are unable to judge who-deserves-what on our own. The doers of good are just as blind as the doers of bad. The point is instead that because of Christ all the world is soaked in God. In this Gospel lesson Jesus teaches us you don’t give or serve to please God. We don’t volunteer at church for cosmic brownie points. We give our time and talent and treasures—as the saying goes—as our humble way of helping to spread this Good News about God in Christ. That’s what church buildings are for, what capital improvements, HVac repairs, webcams & streaming gear, pastors’ salaries, volunteer hours, weeding the courtyard, and everything else: It serves one purpose, and that is to help us proclaim: God is closer to us than our days of clouds and thick darkness—God is closer to us than our sin.
Christ is the promise and sign of this closeness. Christ gives himself again, every moment, to us. The same Christ that is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, as Paul writes, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. That Christ—our King—is also in, with and under every thing and person that ever was or ever will be.
The people who declare this to be true are called the Church. And the tools we use to declare it we call Stewardship. And the outcome for us and for the world is joy.