Members of the Family

Passage: Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-24; Thanksgiving Sunday
Date: November 20, 2005
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

What I learned on my trip to Jordan last month is still unfolding. It was the first trip I've had to the Holy Land or any other part of the Middle East. It was a wonderful trip-through it all, I felt safe and welcome. I remember as I walked off the airplane, and saw the inscribed greeting in Arabic on the entrance to the airport terminal, my first thoughts were a reminder to myself: "I am a guest here."

Jordanians went out of their way to welcome us, a group of mostly Presbyterian pastors-all from the United States. One of the best parts of the trip, was being in a culture so different from my own. . .and experiencing a mutual respect, in spite of our differences. During the trip, at times, when I noticed women covered from head to toe; or when I heard the sound of prayers being sung in the morning, afternoon and evening; or when I was trying to communicate with children in Petra, whose English was limited, and my Arabic non-existent. . .I knew that I was a stranger. Being in a foreign land, a land in which 92% of the people are Sunni Muslim, and knowing that in the past and present, Christianity and Islam have been in conflict, I thought about what it meant to be on the outside.

Outsider. Like me, you have probably felt it as an adolescent, or as a school child. The in-group, the out-group. Member; non-member. Believers and the non-believers. Clean and unclean. Sinners and righteous. Separating people: That's what religions do: Help establish identity by marking the lines of right and wrong behavior and belief.

Now, in our time, with terrorist bombings, and war, and ‘culture wars' in the name of religion-Religions seem mostly like dividers of people. Christians I know and love seem intent upon clarifying the divisions. But the divisions and violence in the name of Christianity and Islam and Judaism-are off the mark. Those are examples of using religion to justify cultural, economic, ethnic and other divisions that human beings create. Jonathan Swift once wrote, "that we have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another."

Today's scripture-- "the last judgment"--is not about people deciding who's in or out, who's saved or unsaved. God is the one who sorts the "righteous" from the "unrighteous" and it's not based on beliefs, doctrine, piety, nationality, wealth or ethnicity-it's based upon compassion!

And the judgment is for all the nations-in the Biblical world, all the peoples whom the disciples were preaching to-that included Jews and Gentiles (everyone else!)
In this time of war, and the internet and globalization, we have come face to face with the stranger. It makes all the difference whether we find this threatening or enlarging. Will being Christian help us to see God's presence in the face of a stranger? Or will it help us to heed the cry of those who are dis-empowered in this age of unprecedented powers?

This final day of the church year, we celebrate "Christ the King". This liturgical designation of "Christ the King" emerged as a counter to the abuse of power in the Nazi era. Christ the King, or Ruler, or Boss or President or CEO-- whichever term we use from among those titles, the whole idea of authority is radically changed by the word, "Christ". In the Kingdom, the new realm of God, all acts of loving care for anyone who suffers, honors Christ.

The Biblical world (and the Middle East today), had a rich view of family solidarity. Even "the least of these who are members of my family" could represent Jesus legally and socially. What would have been surprising was the list Jesus gave of those in "his family," those he regarded as his surrogates. Who are they? The prisoners, the hungry, the sick, the stranger, his disciples, sent out with no food, no money.

Side by side with the image of God as a glorious King, is the image of God as a shepherd who gathers in, and cares for the flock. Our second reading today, is from Ezekiel 34:11, lifts up the Shepherd image.

"For the Lord God says: Now I myself shall take thought for my sheep and search for them. As a shepherd goes in search of his sheep when his flock is scattered from him in every direction, so I shall go in search of my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they were scattered in a day of cloud and darkness. . .15 I myself shall tend my flock, and find them a place to rest, says the Lord God. I shall search for the lost, recover the straggler, bandage the injured, strengthen the sick, leave the healthy and strong to play and give my flock their proper food. The Lord God says to you, my flock: I shall judge between one sheep and another. . .As for you rams and he-goats, are you not satisfied with grazing on the best pastures, that you must also trample down the rest with your feet? Or with drinking clear water, that you must also muddy the rest with your feet? My flock has to graze on what you have muddied. Therefore, the Lord God says to them: Now I myself shall judge between the fat sheep and the lean. You push aside the weak with flank and shoulder, you butt them with your horns until you have scattered them in every direction. Therefore, I shall save my flock, and they will be ravaged no more; I shall judge between one sheep and another."

Friends, the good news is that the judgment is God's, not ours! God is gracious, and God loves the whole flock. Yes, in reality, the fat sheep get too much; the lean sheep are weak and need a fair portion of food. Justice is needed and will come, because God loves the whole flock.

Just turn on the news, read the papers: Religion is used to divide us! Should we distance ourselves from Christianity, because some Christians use our faith in divisive ways? No! Someone once said, "Many Christians are inoculated with just enough faith to be resistant to the real thing." More than ever, we are called to live our particular faith more faithfully: care for the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, the stranger. Our world needs us to live our Christian lives with the understanding that we love and care because we are beloved of God-and that God loves and will gather in all the peoples!

In January, 2002, a group of world religious leaders stood at Ground Zero, in New York. The Archbishop of Canterbury said a prayer, as did a Muslim imam, and a Hindu guru. A Chief rabbi of Israel said a prayer for the dead. Among those leaders was Orthodox Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. In a book called The Dignity of Difference, he wrote:
"Economic superpowers, seemingly invincible in their time, have a relatively short life-span: Venice in the sixteenth century, France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth. . . The great religions, by contrast, survive. . . World faiths embody truths unavailable to economics and politics, and the remain salient even when everything else changes. They remind us that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth, but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows the vulnerable."

Now, deeply rooted in our life in Christ, we need to search for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of those, who are not of our faith. Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?

In Jordan, our Muslim guide, Ali, led our group to the top of Mt. Nebo, to the place where Moses stood. At the end of his life, Moses, who had led his people from slavery and brought them to the brink of the promised land, assembled them and gave them this fateful choice:

"See, I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your children may live."

That is still the choice facing humanity. Will we endlessly replay the hatreds of the past? Or will we choose differently this time, for the sake of the world's children and their future?"

What would it be like, if we lived as though all the world, will be gathered to God, and if we saw in each stranger, in each prisoner, in each hungry person, the face of Christ? What if our focus was upon "the least of these?"How would the world be different? What would our lives be like, then?