Power to Choose

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 18/Proper 23
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 25: 31-46
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Matthew 25: 40 (NIV)

THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS

This is the second of four messages which are part of our givings campaign. As you probably know, we have a bunch of stuff going on right now. Last Sunday, at a congregational meeting you approved the hiring of a Family Minister. The funding for that position is in pretty good shape. Nonetheless approving the Search Committee was challenging for a lot of us because, at the same time as we’re looking at hiring a second minister, we’re deep in the hole in our operating budget. And we have to fix that by getting our financial house in order.

That won’t happen all at once. It’s going to take all of us seriously looking at what we currently contribute and then assessing if that is where we really want to be. Some of you are already maxed out in your givings. But others could contribute more. And we’re not just talking about money. We’re also talking about time, energy and talents. The church, in that respect, is not so different from most other volunteer organizations. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the church or the Rotary Club or minor sports and Scouting and Guiding. What typically happens is that a few people often carry much of the load. We also know that if everyone pitches in bit more, it benefits all and the work of Christ is advanced. That’s what we want to encourage.

Last week, we used the parable of the Good Samaritan to talk about how we, as individuals, are called to allow God’s love to flow from us to the world in which we live. And not only do we allow God’s love to flow, we want it to overflow from our lives so that it is evident to those around us. Today, we are going to focus not on each of us as individuals; rather we are going to zoom in on the ministry of the body of Christ, the church. To do that we are going to move to another story, the parable of the sheep and the goats. This is what it says in Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV):

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

A WARNING

This is a hard story. There is nothing fuzzy and nice about the parable of the sheep and goats. The sheep get rewarded and go to be with the Son of Man. The goats get cast into eternal punishment. Who is the Son of Man? That is one of the titles that is used in the New Testament to describe Jesus. Jesus is the Son of Man and it is Jesus ultimately who decides if people are sheep or goats.

The warning of this parable, of course, is very clear. Live the way God wants you to live or else. Doesn’t sound very much like a typical safe United Church sermon where we all walk away with smiles on our faces and sing Kumbaya.  Where’s the good news? Sounds more like hellfire and damnation.

How does that impact us? It impacts us because the words that Jesus spoke to the people 2,000 years ago still apply today. It’s as if he’s looking each of us right in the eye and saying, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters you did for me and whatever you did not do for the least of my sisters and brothers you did not do for me.” But who are these leasts that Jesus is talking about? That’s pretty clear, especially if we put this in context of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. The least are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the ill and the imprisoned. The least are all those people who need a hand. And not only do they need a hand, they also need to know that someone cares and maybe that’s what they need more than anything else.

Here’s the obvious challenge for us. Are we reaching out to the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters or aren’t we?

The trouble is that this begins to sound remarkably close to salvation by works which is a belief that we get our tickets to heaven punched by doing the right things. But that’s not it at all. Basic Christianity says very clearly that we are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ and not by deeds. In Latin it’s called sola fide. But the Bible is also clear that faith and works go together. That’s because real faith results in transformed lives that are lived for Jesus who calls us to look after the least of these. If faith does not result in changed lives, then it is quite reasonable to question whether or not that faith is authentic.

James writes about this in James 2:14 (NIV): “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” The question is not a rhetorical one. It’s real. If faith does not compel us to reach out to the least of these my brothers and sisters, than what kind of faith are we talking about? Does that kind of faith have any value at all? The Bible would tend to say no. If the words of faith do not result in actions of faith, then faith is worthless because it wasn’t real faith in the first place.

So, what are we: sheep or goats? Yikes! To tell you the truth, there are days when I bounce back and forth between them. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t but that’s okay. God realizes that I am only human and does not expect me to get it right all of the time. The goal, however, is that each of us needs to allow the transforming power of the Spirit to work within us so that we will do more to reach out to those in need.

WE MAKE A CHOICE

The least of these includes the hungry, thirsty, outcast, ill, unclothed and imprisoned. Those groups existed in Jesus’ day. 2,000 years later, they still do. Do you know what that means? It means that we’re born into a goat kind of world. In a goat world, the least of these my sisters and brothers go without having their needs met.

At this point, you’re asking, “Pastor Kim, this is all so negative. When are we going to get to the good news?” We’re going to get to it right now because while it is true that we live in a goat kind of world, it is also true that we live in a sheep kind of world. We live in a world where everyday people like you and I are making a difference. What that means is that each of us has the power to choose whether we behave like sheep or goats. We have the power to choose who we want to be.

In some ways Jesus isn’t really saying anything shocking. There is a part of all of us that knows that we should reach out to our neighbours. But Jesus raises the bar. He calls for a radical type of discipleship. He calls for a love that goes above and beyond because caring for the least is not always comfortable. Think about it – caring for the sick can put you at risk of infection. Looking after the homeless can lead you into some of the least desirable alleyways in the city. Prisons are not nice places to be, especially when you hear the clang of the prison door as it is being shut behind you.

Discipleship was and still is risky business. It’s never been easy to be a sheep who strives to follow a shepherd like Jesus. It’s demanding. Yet that’s our Christian call. It is the missional call of our church to care for the least as though Jesus’ life hangs in the balance.

Week in and week out here at Cottam United Church, we try our best to follow the Great Shepherd. We really do try to create a culture of sheep. We have a number of things coming up this fall as we head into Advent and Christmas. When we gather the hundred or so shoe boxes that we do every year for Samaritan’s Purse I believe we respond to Jesus’ love. When we provide Christmas hampers for the Essex Food Bank, we obey Jesus call to feed the least of these. Next week we will be hearing from Teen Challenge and the work that is done by that faith based ministry to help people overcome their addictions; as individuals and as a church we become part of that ministry. Proverbs 18:16 (NIV) says this: “A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.” That Proverb is as true today as it ever was. Through all of our giving and generosity, we reach out to others with the love of Jesus.

The Prayer Garden that is under way is a gift from us to our community as a place to be at peace in body and spirit. And I’ll tell you that it is just amazing to see how many people have walked it and it’s not even done. Even the turkey supper that we are planning next month, in its own kind of way, is far more than a fund raiser because it brings the community together for a common purpose. It is another way that we gather our community at the feet of Jesus and his great love for all of these the least.

I believe the Holy Spirit of Jesus draws us into the sacred stories of the Bible, the stories that both inspire and challenge us. I believe Jesus is drawing us into this story today of the sheep and the goats. I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has held our hand through this story and is now leading us by the hand out through the pages of the story into chapters of our lives. Just imagine Jesus leading you personally and taking you out of this church and back onto the street. Maybe it’s that unnamed street between Jerusalem and Jericho that we travelled last week in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Maybe it’s the street in front of your home or the street of your workplace or school or neighbourhood. Or maybe, just maybe it’s the street that runs through the heart of your relationships. There is someone on a road somewhere in your life waiting for your thanksgiving, your gratitude to overflow in love.

Imagine who that might be. Who is that someone to whom Jesus is drawing your heart? Who is hungry in the streets of your life – not just hungry for food but hungry for love? Who is naked – not only lacking clothes but deeply vulnerable? Who is the stranger, the outcast? Who is lonely? Who doesn’t fit in? Who is sick – sick in their body, their mind, their spirit? Who is in prison – a literal prison, or a thought prison, or a shame prison or a grief prison? To whom is Jesus leading you? Right now, in this moment when Jesus is calling you to draw nearer, you have the power to choose who you want to be. And here’s the choice. Do you want to be a sheep or do you want to be a goat?

And here’s the other side of it. We, as a congregation, also have the power to choose what we are going to be together. Are we going to be church of sheep or are we going to be a church of goats? Do we work together for a more compassionate and generous world or don’t we? Do we show by our example what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ or don’t we. The choice is ours together. Thankfully, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, I think we’ve already made that choice. You can see it in the ways in which we reach out to ministries such as the Downtown Mission, the Essex Food Bank, Gleaners, Murchadha House, World Vision and Teen Challenge. And let’s not forget the countless ways that each of you reach out to members of our community with the love of Jesus whether or not those neighbours are part of this church because whoever does anything to help the least of Jesus’ people does it for him.

But here’s the goofy thing. I don’t think Jesus is any more interested in separating sheep and goats than I am in separating my laundry. What he’s really interested in is motivating the sheep to contribute to the building of the kingdom, a kingdom of love, generosity and compassion. The kingdom that the church prays for “thy kingdom come!”

The good news today is that Jesus leads us by the hand and heart individually and collectively to experience him in the least and lost. When we are there on the road, when the least are in front of us, we need to make a choice. We can choose who we are going to be. And when we choose well because ultimately when the day comes for us to approach the gates of the kingdom of God, we want to hear Jesus say to us: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Amen!

Let us be strengthened in our mission as we recommit ourselves to be the church. Please join your voice with mine. Let’s recite the creed together:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.

We believe in God: who has created and is creating,

who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:

to celebrate God’s presence,

to live with respect in Creation,

 to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Thank you God, that you are with us this Thanksgiving Sunday. Thank you for the harvest and for those who plant and reap. Thank you for farmers and migrant workers. Thank you for producers and manufacturers. Thank you for those who remind us to give the glory to you and to not let our affluence blind us to the needs of this world. Thank you for your presence and your purpose in our lives. Thank you for peace and relative safety in a world that often seems to be in turmoil. Your love flows to us and we are so grateful that you care for us in more ways than we could ever understand or appreciate.

We are thankful that you have given us the key to living in peace through faith in Jesus Christ. Help us to reflect continually on the place we give him in our lives, for as we do so, we know that peace, joy and love will grow stronger in our lives every day.

We are thankful especially this day for the marriage yesterday of Laura Jones and Brian Phan. Bless them and their family as they move forward into this new and wonderful relationship of your making.

In our time of celebration,  keep us mindful, God of Creation, of those who are less fortunate. Many who hungry and thirsty. We pray for the refugees who wander the earth as homeless people. We pray for those who suffer injustice, oppression and indignation at the hands of the powerful; lift them above their chains. We pray for those who do not have the peace of knowing Jesus our Saviour. May the healing balm that flows from his wounds cover the whole earth and bring all the world to know your love.

We also pray for those who are sick at home or in hospital, remembering especially Sharon, Jacqui and Mary. Bless each of them with your Healing Spirit, O God, and bring them your amazing and abundant peace.

Father God, help us to act in all situations with love and concern for others and to consider you in all of our decisions. You are our source of strength and joy for you alone offer us true and lasting peace and safety. Thank you for your faithful watchfulness and care for all of your children. Our prayers are lifted to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

October 13, 2019 / Pentecost 18 / Proper 23 / Thanksgiving

SCRIPTURE

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; Luke 17:11-19; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

CALL TO WORSHIP

God’s love unites all Christians in one family of faith.

We are reminded that we are called to get along;

we are called to forgive and enable;

we are called to sing, to praise and pray;

we are called to worship in spirit and truth.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

Lord Jesus, we seek your presence. We ask for you Spirit to come upon us. We want to grow in knowledge and faith. We want to mature in hope and love. We ask that you would enable us, in our worship, to better understand how we can bring peace, love and justice to your Creation. Open our minds to the possibilities for evangelism that lay before us. We give ourselves to you as you have given yourself for us. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

Forgive us, O God, for the sinfulness and separation that plague our lives. You have given us commandments but we do not always follow your laws. Instead of serving others, we put ourselves first and we worship other gods. We forget to pray and to listen for the hope that you would share with us. Thank you, God of Mercy, that even in our times of sinfulness, you call us to be one with all the saints who are in Jesus Christ. Hear our confessions and cleanse us. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

God invites us to the table and offers to forgive all who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to follow in the way of Christ. In the name of Jesus, I assure you that you are forgiven.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

Together with all of your people, we offer our tithes and offerings, O God. We come with our lives. We come with our gifts. We come with our needs and our yearnings. Accept us and what we bring that our whole beings may be used for the glory of your Kingdom. Amen.

COMMISSIONING

As Saints of God, we are blessed with the holy task of sharing the Good News of salvation with all humanity. Go with the confidence that the Spirit of God is with us and will stay with us as we seek the fulfilment of Christ’s reign in Creation.

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