What Will It Take?

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Extended)

In the past few weeks I have found myself reflecting on two seemingly disparate statements intended, I think, to rally the troops as we once again ramp up the fight against this pandemic.  The first of the two  appeared last spring very early in our journey with COVID, simply “# in this together.” 

I remember, when it first came out, thinking that it did feel as though we were in this together — that as a small business owner closing up shop and cutting our employees’ hours, that as painful as it was, at least, we were #in this together.

As a church musician, being separated from my choir and the joy and energy the choir members bring to the assembly — as difficult as that was, I remember taking some comfort again from the thought that we were # in this together.

As we closed the doors of our church building and said goodbye to the space that is usually so vibrant and full of life, I felt we were, at least, # in this together.

As friends and loved ones, colleagues and collaborators, began to test positive and suffer symptoms of this illness, again my heart held on to the thought we were # in this together.

Last Sunday after we celebrated what was to be our last in-person worship service for at least a month, we gathered as a staff for a brief prayer.  Stephen led us in a prayer of gratitude and hope, remembering the tenacity of this congregation and how we now, more than ever, must dig deep as we continue to reach out and draw together this amazing community.

Fighting back tears, I commented that this time somehow felt different. The first time was a shock, but we were # in this together.  Courtney chimed in and said, “Yes, but this time we know more.”

Her comment stayed with me, churning in my psyche and prayer.  Indeed, we do know more, and what we know seems to contradict the thought that we are #in this together.

We know that racial and socioeconomic background, as well as education level, strongly affects your likelihood of coming into contact with and being infected by COVID, not to mention your subsequent treatment and hospitalization.

We know that the arts community has been devastated by this illness and that help for those in this community is slow-coming or non-existent.

We know that some of our private schools in the area have spent millions of dollars on ventilation systems to maintain in-person learning, only to shut down after ballooning infection rates, all the while public schools still struggle to maintain contact with students in economically challenged neighbourhoods. 

And we know now, families, communities, cities, and our nation as a whole remain divided when it comes to wearing masks, in-person learning, and social gatherings, and our nation has recorded the highest daily death count in six months.

This brings me to the second sound bite to catch my attention, “what’s it going to take?”

With the closing of the Church year and the beginning of a new liturgical year in anticipation of the great feast of Christmas, and the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, our lectionary provides for us what is called “apocalyptic” literature — mostly parables that prepare us for the end times.  Through metaphor and hyperbole, we are called to take a close look at what life will be like when we fully realize the reign of God.

For a few weeks now, we have been hearing about what true discipleship looks like and the consequences that await those who live their lives outside of the reality and responsibilities that come with being a part of Christian community and embracing fully the reign of God.  John R Donahue, Moral Theologian and Bible scholar writes the following about a trio of parables in Matthew:

“The three parables which precede the Sheep and the Goats (the Wise and Faithful Servant, 24:45-51; the Ten Maidens, 25:1-13; the Talents, 25:14-30) all deal with proper discipleship and all threaten exclusion from the presence of the returning.

What’s it going to take?

I find it both poignant and painful that, just as our own actions and inactions, and the actions of those around us, are bringing us to record-breaking moments in the continued spread of this pandemic – and forces us to contemplate the awful consequences of our shortcomings – so, too, does the apocalyptic rhetoric of the gospel parables for this time in the church year. 

Donahue continues: 

“One critical aspect of apocalyptic thought is that the scenes of judgment disclose the transcendent values which should have been operative prior to the judgment. Apocalyptic is a view of history and human life from God’s side…Apocalyptic affirms that the sufferings and injustice which mar this world will be bearable because the order of justice will be restored. Sin and evil will be unmasked and goodness rewarded. Simply put, the world will be made ‘right’ again.”

As Donahue affirms, “Matthew adopts this perspective, since the parable of the Sheep and the Goats reveals the actions which should have been normative in the world.”

“Actions which should have been normative in the world…”  What’s it going to take?

While we at All Saints celebrate the 3rd Sunday in the Season of Advent, many of our Christian brothers and sisters celebrate today the Feast of Christ the King.  And although our gospel pericope opens with a rather regal description — “When the Son of Man Comes in his glory, with all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory” —  that is not where it remains or, in fact, ends.  Indeed, Christ the King is to be found in a very different setting.

Again from Donahue:

“The structure of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats underscores its Christology. In a series of rhythmic statements preceded by the verb in the first person, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison,” the King recounts the deeds of mercy which were done or neglected. The suspense arises from the three questions of the blessed [i.e., the sheep], “When did we see you?” which unfold with an equal rhythm. …”As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (v. 40). (The dialogue with those on the left, the goats,) unfolds initially as an exact parallel to the first but with a negative before each act of mercy. However, the response of those on the left [i.e., the cursed, the goats] is condensed to a sentence, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger, naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”61  Since both groups know what works of charity are demanded, the surprise comes in the answer of the King that he was identified with the least who were aided or neglected by those assembled. The primary thrust of the text is the disclosure of the King/Son of Man as hidden in the least.”

So today we must ask ourselves: When will we, like the sheep in Matthew’s parable, perceive the King, the Son of Man, in all of us, and begin to perform the necessary deeds of mercy, and justice.

What’s it going to take?

Once in a preaching class my professor took a moment to remind us that even when we are called to break open and preach difficult texts, above all we are called to preach the good news. The good news that we as followers of the way have seen what it takes to live in the reign of God.  We know that this, too, shall pass and that soon and very soon the Sun of righteousness will shine upon us.

The good news is that for us, unlike some of those in our gospel story today (those poor goats), it is not too late.  There is no spoiler alert required; we know the end of the story.  We have lived it and continue to live it.  We know God dwells in the least of “us.” Look around you now more than ever for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned.   The good news is that we can make a difference because we are # in this together, even if now our response must be virtual and socially distanced.  The day will come when once again we will be able to be physically present with everyone, fully realizing the reign of God in our midst…..Will we be prepared?  Will we be ready??

Daily we hear great news of promising vaccines and hopeful treatments. We know that, as difficult as it is and has been, we must continue to focus on the end times of this pandemic, and “prepare the way of the Lord” . . . to look and find Christ hidden in the least.

What will it take?