St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

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The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

November 22nd  Advent 3, The Reign of Christ           2020   Neil Seedhouse


Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46


We have just had a series of parables that appear to emphasize preparation for the master’s (Jesus’) return.


This reminds me of being a Scout Leader where the moto for everything is be prepared.


The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (25:1-13), where readiness for Christ’s return consists of being prepared by keeping awake and ready, or at least being prepared if you fall asleep.


The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), where being prepared consists of faithful stewardship over that which the master has provided.


I have found that the interpretations of these parables have been pretty consistent over the years until last weeks when it was pointed out that a Talent was a huge amount of money. That the modern interpretation of talent as a skill, developed out of what has become the common interpretation of this parable.


This brought to mind what a former priest of ours often said that, “if you quickly come to an obvious interpretation of a parable, then you have probably missed the point.”


Or as the buddhist teacher Pema Chodron said: “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”


Todays parable too has what appears to be an obvious interpretation of good and bad. In fact, the interpretation of this parable is a perfect example of our tendency toward polarization, our love of clear boundaries especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.”


Have we missed the point of this parable too? Are we clinging to the wrong truth? I hope so, because to be honest, selections make me nervous. There are selections to pick the team, to make the grade, to pass the test, or to pair up and then be the one left standing alone. When it comes to ‘final’ selections, as with this passage, I can’t help but hear echoes of ‘final solutions’ in which judgement is taken to the ultimate degree, where selection is for total rejection: all goats are rejected, not just ‘bad’ goats but all goats.


Is there really a difference between saying ‘All goats are condemned’ and saying all Jews, all blacks, all Muslims are condemned? This fundamental injustice is the foundation of all organized massacres of helpless peoples, witch hunts, inquisitions, and crusades all of which have claimed to serve the ends of justice, truth and purity.


I wanted to see if I could find another way to interpret this parable.


The first question I had was what does Jesus, who spent most of his time on a lake shore with the fishermen, know about sheep and goats? Was there, at that time, a common understanding of sheep and goats that we know longer know of since we have become so urban? So, I did a little research.


Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times. They were mentioned as valuable livestock and the term sheep was also used throughout the Bible to refer to God’s people.


Goats are mentioned in the Bible 42 times. Most of the time it is for Sin offerings.


Sheep and Goats really do need to be separated because they have different fighting styles. Goats tend to rear on their hind legs and come down and butt heads. Sheep simply back up and ram each other. If a sheep and goat fight, the sheep will often win because it will hit the goat while it is still posturing and can really damage the goat’s hip.


As no other secrets were forth coming, I started to think that the use of sheep and goats was actually a distraction. It is very easy to look at the sheep, those on the right as righteous, and the goats, those on the left as unrighteous, yet I think that the teaching is much more nuanced than that.


Right and Left may not mean good and bad. For example, James and John, the disciples who wanted honour and power, asked Jesus if they could sit one on each side of him as an honour (Mark 10:35-45). So, both right and left may be positions of honour, depending on who you’re beside.


Let’s have a closer look at the wording that comes next.


Those on the right hand are told, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you” (25:34). The kingdom is an inheritance, a gift, not something earned. Moreover, those on the right are unaware of what they have done. “Lord, when did we see you hungry?” They have not been acting in some calculated way to earn God’s favour. They have simply been doing what comes naturally for them in caring for their neighbours in need. Their actions are an expression, a sign, of love and mercy. Perhaps an expression we might call God. NOT a way to collect brownie points to get into heaven.


Those on the left are equally surprised to learn that they have encountered Jesus in the least and the needy. They too have simply been doing what comes naturally -- looking out for their own interests and not being bothered with the needs of others. Maybe they are really busy. They have a lot on their minds. Maybe they have compassion fatigue. Maybe they have just grown complacent.  As we heard last week, everyone knows that’s just how it is . . . that’s just how it works around here. Just go along. Don’t worry too much about it. You’ll do well.


They close their ears and avert their eyes from the calls of love and mercy.


These works of mercy are practical. These works of mercy are physical: food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, and visitation. Each meets a specific need of a particular needy person. Of course, these deeds of mercy are illustrative rather than exhaustive. A kind word or listening ear can help a person in despair. Assistance with a flat tire can redeem the day for a stranded driver. The possibilities for mercy are boundless, just as human needs are boundless. But they all involve work, and discomfort and certainly inconvenience to the one who is offering. And the results can be unpredictable.


Just because you do something nice for someone it doesn’t always go well. It can get messy, but it still opens up possibilities, for good and ill, of relationship. And works of mercy are not without risk - welcoming the stranger, deep hospitality, risky hospitality, is not checking your security camera when someone knocks at your door. Risky.


What I know about myself is that I fit very comfortably in the grey area between right and left, both sheep and goat. I don’t know about you, but I find it really exhausting to be mindful of other people’s needs and to respond to them all the time. When I am tired and worn out, I am very goat like. I think that I drift between the right and the left. Sometimes I do notice needs, heed the call of compassion, offer love and mercy, and other times I do not.


So up to this point this parable has invited us to an inspiring way of seeing things. Jesus, the anointed one of God, has declared that the holy is present in everyday, compassionate responses to the needy. But from here on in it undoes all the potential and possibility it has invited. It turns out the author has an agenda. Instead of the unconditional there are now strings attached everywhere by the storyteller.


By giving the sheep a reward for their unconditional action it has now become contractual – acts of mercy will gain the reward. All the open-heartedness gets converted, perverted, into an economic exchange. Compassion and kindness in exchange for gifts or rewards. It turns compassion into a commodity. Deeds of mercy you can save up in a heavenly RSP you cash out in the Kingdom.


The kingdom does not exist, it insists. It calls in the cry of the helpless, it aches in response to need. The kingdom is found every time the displaced are given shelter and the hungry are fed, every time the poor are comforted, every time the imprisoned are visited. It is in our response, in those acts of compassion and love and justice, that the Kingdom shimmers into possibility. It emerges unexpectedly.


Opening your eyes and your ears and responding and noticing the reign of God in your midst, in the mess, in the mutuality of removing pain, and fear, and isolation and degradation and violence, for we are all in need, and we are all agents of compassionate care.


In Advent, we prepare for the coming of the Christ. What if, while we’re waiting, actually IN our waiting, we can be manifesting the reign of God in our response?


What if the reign of god shimmers into possibility through open hearts, open ears, and open eyes as we respond to calls of compassion?

What if the reign of god is already happening?


I wonder how those compassionate sheep are feeling as they watch their neighbours, the goats, being herded off to eternal punishment?