24th Sunday After Pentecost – November 15, 2020
The latest information from our public health authorities is unsettling. The daily rate of COVID-19 viral infections is rising rapidly. New rules are now in place for everybody to exercise even more caution and prudence than we have to this point. And now there’s even an official ban on religious gatherings.
I had hoped that in December we could begin to implement a plan for the resumption of worship services at Peace Lutheran, with a view to providing a service or two at Christmas. But at present that does not seem very likely.
I miss all of you and wish that together we could attend to God’s Word, share the Holy Meal, raise our voices in prayer and praise, and encourage one another in the new life that we share in Jesus Christ. That just isn’t possible right now. I do want you to know, however, that the Council has approved an initiative for our leaders to develop online worship services. That’s going to take a while, because old dogs like me will have to learn some new tricks. But if we are able to pull it off, then Peace Lutheran Church will have a new tool for outreach that will serve us well not only during this pandemic, but also in the months and years to come.
Meanwhile, as your Part-time Interim Minister, I will continue to minister as effectively as I can with the resources at my disposal. That includes a devotional resource for Advent, featuring the Jesse Tree. Watch for that in separate email messages.
It’s hard to believe that the church year is coming to a close, but as of Christ the King Sunday, November 22nd, we will bid farewell to the Year of Matthew. In the coming church year, we will focus on the Gospel According to Mark. From time to time, we will hear from the other gospel writers as well, but by and large we will hear the Good News from what I think is the strangest and most unsettling of the gospel accounts.
That’s in the weeks to come. First let’s proclaim Christ the King!
Prayer of the Day: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made; through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Surprise, surprise. In fact, king-size surprise!
The scene is the last day. Jesus comes in heavenly glory and takes his place on the throne with the nations gathered before him. He separates them as a shepherd separates sheep and goats at the end of the day. To his right he places the sheep, and to his left the goats. And then he speaks to each group in turn.
Let’s hear again what Jesus says to the group at his left: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Note what Jesus calls them: they are the “accursed.” And note why he addresses them that way: it’s because they failed to minister to Jesus, the King, in his time of utter need.
These accursed express surprise. They can’t figure out just when it was that they had failed to minister to the Son of Man. He explains, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
As for those at his right hand, Jesus welcomes them into the kingdom, saying to them: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Just like those who are accursed, those whom the Heavenly Father has blessed also express surprise. They can’t think of a time when they had ministered to Jesus Christ, the only beloved son of the Father, the King of all creation. Their surprise is just as genuine as the surprise expressed by the accursed.
And that’s what really surprises us.
We would expect an expression of surprise only from those who failed to minister according to the call of God. We would expect ignorance as an integral component in their lack of spiritual attentiveness to the needs of God’s creation. We say that because the Biblical writers sometimes equate ignorance with sin.
But look at those whom the Father blesses in the time of the great judgement. They likewise never caught on to the presence of Jesus in the world! In this respect, they are no different from the accursed.
Surprise, surprise! The failure to discern Jesus in the world is NOT the sin that leads to terrible judgement.
So just what is the great sin that leads to damnation? The great sin is failing to discern the world FOR WHAT IT IS, complete with its desperate needs, and responding in compassion. The king-size surprise is that the presence of the King of salvation is not at all apparent, even to us who have been baptized into death and resurrection of our Saviour.
Jesus, the King, is hidden in the world. And that’s how he wants to keep things.
What should we look for? Whatever is right in front of us! Whatever we can see! And what we see is the marks of human distress upon the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. What we see is the disfigurement of disease, natural disaster, and war. What we see is the ravages of malnutrition, addiction, abuse, and mental disease. What we see is the despair and desperation wrought by prejudice and persecution.
For the sake of those who suffer, Jesus prefers to remain hidden. What Jesus wants from us is down-to-earth engagement with the needs of this world. So, do you want to be spiritual? Do you want to do something holy? Then learn first of all how to be a creature of this earth, in right relationship with God, and in right relationship with all creation.
By all means let us support the service arm of our church, Lutheran World Relief. Of all religious aid organizations, it has one of the best reputations. But let’s also acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage non-religious agencies in their humanitarian work. Whether they know it or not, they are serving Jesus Christ, the King of love and salvation. You and I can be sure of this, because Jesus tells us so.
We don’t need to look any further than the needs of the person next door: your neighbour struggling with the loss of a loved one; a driver stopped at the side of the road with vehicle trouble; a child looking for a parent (or anyone trustworthy!); a stranger who just needs someone to show a smile and speak a word of kindness; a refugee who has no place to go and urgently needs a word of welcome.
And maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about whether a particular government or political party embraces our religious convictions, or defines sin and righteousness the same way as we do. According to Jesus what’s really important is whether our leaders are attentive to human need.
Every year I attend the annual Affordable Housing Conference of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association. The Lutheran Manor Society of Vancouver BC is a member-organization of the BCNPHA, and I’m the chair of the Board. So I attend.
Back in 2017 that Annual Housing Conference featured Al Etmanski. He is a social entrepreneur, author, and community organizer. In his keynote address he was passionate in his affirmation and encouragement of our non-profit housing societies. He declared that we are catalysts for enduring social change. Then he told the conference why he is so passionate: he is driven by his personal experience and family need.
In the introduction to one of his books, he writes: “When my second daughter was born with Down syndrome, I became a parent activist in the disability movement. I soon became head of the largest disability rights group in BC. Our activism produced a string of successes, including the closure of BC’s three large institutions for people with developmental disabilities, all its segregated schools, and many of its segregated classrooms and sheltered workshops. We blocked roads, sued governments, and won an important right-to-treatment court case. This all gave birth to what is now called the community living movement.”
There were more challenges along the way, including the growing awareness of the social isolation that people with disabilities suffered, together with the challenges they would face once their parents died.
Etmanski writes that he and his colleagues have not been able to solve all such problems. But in his keynote address in that conference in 2017, he summed up all his efforts in one word: Love.
I don’t know whether Etmanski is a Christian, but in his actions and words, I discern the sheep whom Jesus blesses and bids join him in his eternal home. For, just like those sheep, Al Etmanski sees human need and responds to it with compassion, imagination, resources, and personal energy.
Inspired by what Jesus says in our gospel lesson, we might paraphrase his judgement day declaration like this: “When you provided a community-living environment for people with Down Syndrome and similar disabilities; when you showed compassion instead of judgement, patience instead of social banishment, and provided resources for a safer and better life – then you did all that for me, the King, hidden in beautiful bodies and lives which in some ways are different from yours.”
In the same spirit, we must urge our governments to develop new policies governing the glaring social issues that continue to plague our country: the crisis in housing for low-income families, persistent child poverty, the proliferation of crime-gangs and guns, and the snail-paced process for resolving First Nations land claims. In love for the “least of these” for whom Jesus shows particular concern, I believe we Christians we can do a lot more politically, calling on all leaders to give their attention to the persistent needs among us.
Christ himself calls us to such love, a love that is truly heavenly, precisely because it takes stock of life in a thoroughly down-to-earth way. This is the King-size Surprise. Jesus, the King, is hidden in the here and now.
One day he will return in heavenly glory to judge all the world. When that day comes, we will have nothing to fear; for we, too, are embraced by God the Father within the righteousness of God the Son, Jesus. We are free now to be the perfect subjects of the King, for the sake of the world he loves so dearly.
Christ is the King! Christ is our King! Sustained by his promise, let us serve him with confidence and joy.
Peace be with you all.