A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 20, 2005.
Based on Matthew 25:31-46 (Last Pentecost, Year A).
Back to basics. Whenever a football team gets off track, the coach reminds his players to get back to basics. It’s a standard sports cliché. One that ranks up there with giving 110% and taking it one game at a time. But, as with most clichés, there’s a fundamental truth at its heart. As injuries pile up and egos emerge and finger-pointing starts and distractions arise and losses start to mount, the coach urges his players to shut everything else out and get back to basics. I’m not specifically referring to my own team, the Baltimore Ravens, but at 2-7 it’s definitely time for them to get back to basics.
God may not care who wins on any given Sunday, but Jesus does call us back, again and again, to the basics of our faith. And, boy is it easy to get distracted. This morning’s gospel passage from Matthew is itself distracting and often misused and abused. It’s an apocalyptic drama, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of God. A place of both judgment and comfort where the sheep are separated from the goats. The sheep are the faithful ones, the people who follow God’s commands and the goats are the unfaithful ones, the people who reject God’s commands. Set up this way, it all seems so black and white. You’re either a sheep or a goat, end of story. But of course it’s more complicated than this. There’s a bit of sheep and a bit of goat in all of us. None of us are purebreds; we’re all hybrids. God loves the sheep in us even while he seeks to transform our inner goat.
The problem with this passage, its inherent danger, is that it’s easy for us to become preoccupied with the sorting. We obviously presume that we are sheep. But then we can’t help but wonder if the person sitting in the next pew is a sheep or a goat. And of course anyone who agrees with us is a sheep and anyone who disagrees is a goat. Whole denominations of Christianity are unfortunately formed on this premise. But of course, we’re not the sorters! That’s not part of the human job description. Our job, and this is where Jesus reminds us to get back to basics, is simple. It’s to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. We are not the sorters. If we are faithful Christians, we are the feeders and the welcomers and the clothers, and the caregivers and the visitors. Not the sorters.
So Jesus takes us back to basics, back to what’s real — loving our fellow brothers and sisters. That’s what living a life of faith is all about. And thus, it’s particularly appropriate that we have a baptism this morning. The service of baptism always takes us back to the beginning, to the roots of our faith. Baptism is all about getting back to basics. The lofty doctrines of Christianity always return to that single relationship between an individual and Jesus Christ in the context of a community of faith. In this case, Ryan Matthew Fitzgerald. But it also speaks to each one of us. Which is why in a few moments, as we do at every service of baptism, we’ll renew our own baptismal covenants. Reiterating the promises we either made ourselves or that were made on our behalf when we were baptized. And remembering that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Getting back to basics.
What’s truly radical about this passage is the criteria for entrance into God’s kingdom. It has nothing to do with being a sheep or a goat. It’s not about right doctrine or where you stand on the current issues of the day. It’s simply about how you treat your fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. It’s about the basics. And that’s amazing. Because it means much of our church infighting is time taken away from the basic mission of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ. In the current political climate of the church, I’ve often wondered how much more ministry could happen if people spent as much time feeding the poor and clothing the naked as they did arguing about sex.
One point about the kingdom of God. And on this day that we celebrate Christ the King, it makes sense to reflect upon his kingdom. While this passage from Scripture is an apocalyptic vision about the kingdom that is to come, the kingdom is not exclusively a far off and distant phenomenon. Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom is also very much right here right now. Because Christ is present in our lives, when we feed and clothe and visit the least of these, we feed and clothe and visit Christ himself. So the kingdom exists here and now just as much as it exists in the world that is to come. Christmas, the entrance into the world of God in human form, is all about the in-breaking of the kingdom into our present reality. God bursts into the world as an infant in a manger. And the kingdom begins. But more about that in the days ahead.
This morning I simply urge you to get back to the basics of your faith. To remember the words of your baptismal covenant. And to revel in the one who is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005