"Finding our way to the Kingdom of God"

Last Pentecost.A.2023
Matthew 25:31-46
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

Today is the Last Sunday of Pentecost. It is the end of the liturgical year and we are gathered at the cusp between what has been and what is to come. It’s a time of taking stock.

In the Gospel lesson for this morning we behold Christ, our King, who sits in judgement of the world. It’s quite the contrast from our preparations for Christmas as we set out our nativity sets, looking forward to the birth of the Son of God. The looking ahead of today, Christ the King Sunday, isn’t to quaint manger scenes soon to be unpacked and displayed; it’s looking ahead to the end of time and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here is the vision. On the Son of Man’s right hand is the twelve-gated city of God, and he is gesturing people into the rich light of its holy welcome. They’ve come ever so far, and it has taken so long for them to reach this place, and yet they are amazed to hear the words “Well done!” from their Savior. He tells them: “for 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.” And they are astonished.

To the others, he waves them away. And they are confounded. And Jesus tells us that the king says to them “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. Truly, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The Kingdom of God is a place where there is more than enough for everyone. That’s a tricky concept for those of us living in a society built upon competition, to understand. There never seems to be quite enough—we’re running out of fossil fuels, there is a water crisis in the western United States, climate change is creating havoc for farmers on the land and fish in the sea. The news is dominated by stories of people who cannot get along for a host of reasons. Grievances and anxiety abound. Is this really the way things have to be?

Sarah Buteux offers the following story for contrast and consideration. She writes: “There were once missionaries in the Philippines who set up a croquet game in their front yard. Several of their Agta Negrito neighbors became interested and wanted to join the fun. The missionaries explained the game and started them out, each with a mallet and a ball. As the game progressed, opportunity came for one of the players to take advantage of another by knocking that person’s ball out of the court. A missionary explained the procedure, but his advice only puzzled his Negrito friend. “Why would I want to knock his ball out of the court?” he asked. “So you will be the one to win!” a missionary said. The short statured man, clad only in a loin cloth, shook his head in bewilderment. His so-called “civilized” neighbor was suggesting something absurdly uncivil. For him, who lived in a hunting gathering society, competition is generally ruled out, because people survive, not by competing with one another, but by working together.

The game continued, but nobody followed the missionaries’ advice. When a player successfully got through all the wickets, the game was not over for him. He went back and gave aid and advice to his fellows. As the final player moved toward the last wicket, the affair was still very much a team effort. And finally, when the last wicket was played, the “team” shouted happily, “We won!” “We won!”

Perhaps the real winners in the world aren’t the most strong, cunning, vicious, wealthy, greedy or powerful. Perhaps the real winners are the ones who can proclaim with assurance—not “I won”, but “we won.” We won, all together.

This morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is considered apocalyptic literature. For many of us, we hear that word and shudder believing it foretells violence and doom. But the actual definition is far simpler—more mysterious and hopeful. The word apocalyptic comes to us from a Greek word meaning—quite literally, to pull the lid off something. Think of it as a lifting of the veil between heaven and earth and the revelation (the revealing) of God and God’s plan for the world. It’s a glimpse of the way things should be. If we apply this to the Gospel lesson for this morning and the people who ultimately find a home in the Kingdom of Heaven, they are the ones who worked to usher in that reality—they are the ones who refused to conform to the tenants of a world which proclaims, in essence, the one who dies with the most toys wins. Think of them as the ones who questioned the prevailing rules of the game. And here, I believe, we can find hope and inspiration.

The truth is, care for the poor is one of the things that the church has done well throughout history. You find it all over the world. There are far too many examples one could give, but consider these.

In 2012, the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, had over 4,500 nuns serving the poorest of the poor in 133 countries. In 1950, the Baptist minister Bob Pierce founded World Vision with the words, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Today World Vision is a billion dollar a year relief agency. Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire by age 29 who renounced his wealth to follow Jesus. He joined an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms and out of that context founded Habitat for Humanity that builds housing for the poor all over the world. There are scores of others including Episcopal Relief and Development which gives aid throughout the world. Here in Dedham there is the St. Vincent De Paul Society, to whom we donate funds from St. Paul’s. There is the Collaborative, of which we are a part, working to help refugees transition to life in the United States and the Dedham Food Pantry, for which your Thanksgiving Offering has been designated this year.

Though it may seem a bit early to be making resolutions for the coming year—I believe today is the perfect opportunity for an enterprise such as this. After all, next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, marks for us the beginning of a new year. Perhaps we may resolve to question some of the commonly held tenants of the world—to challenge the prevailing order dominated by competition, greed, power, snarkiness and spite—offering ourselves, our resources and (not least) our prayers to help craft this world into a place of peace, health and hope—not just for some, but for all people—a legacy for all those who will one day come after us. If we do it well, with the help of God, perhaps we will find the Kingdom of Heaven not so very different than the Kingdom of God here on earth; both realms where Christ reigns as King. In Jesus’ name. Amen.