Reign of Christ A, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-40
A Liturgy is also available
AWAKEN TO WHAT IS ALREADY ‘AMONG’ US
A couple of weeks ago we were told the world population reached 7 billion people.
When I was born I was the 2, 387,577,934th person alive on Earth.
And... I was the 75,133,824,605th person to have lived
since history began.
And while you have been listening to these statistics
another 356 people have been born.
Check out: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-15391515
Today as I speak, and before midnight strikes, statistically
thousands of children will die from
because they have not been immunised with a vaccine that costs $1.
Likewise, thousands of children will die today of respiratory infection
because they can’t afford a dollar’s worth of antibiotics.
And still more thousands of children will die today from
diarrhoea and dehydration because their parents
don’t know how to treat them
with a simple remedy of sugar, salt and water
costing only a few cents.
And I haven't even taken into consideration the Horn of Africa
which is in the middle of the worst drought in 60 years,
affecting more than 12 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia.
When media-cum-casino magnate James Packer was married (the first time),
amid the twinkling of 250,000 fairy lights,
the “party to end all parties” was reported to have cost around $12 million.
And that was only a month or so after father Kerry
had lost millions one weekend in an overseas Casino.
Meanwhile, an Australian bank chief executive,
on completion of his term of appointment,
walked away with a $35 million package.
(His successor was not as fortunate. When he completed his term,
his walking away package was reduced $7.5 million to just $8.6 million
due to "customer dissatisfaction"!)
And the CEO of Qantas Airlines received a 71% salary rise at the recent AGM,
then immediately shut down the airline, locking out workers for a fairer wage,
and stranding passengers all over the world.
The population problem is not that there are too many poor people.
The population problem is there are too many rich people!
Take these contrasts and suddenly you appreciate
how radical today’s gospel story could be.
It’s a gospel story that says a culture that supports
millionaire media and business tycoons but cannot come up with
a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt,
is in for one heck of a shock.
The ‘goat’ population is going to have some high-profile notables among it!
C S Lewis, the conservative British Christian writer, has made this anthropological
but none-the-less interesting comment:
When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises:
First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see.
Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there.
And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there.
The most radical shock of this story is,
the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick,
the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned.
And the storyteller we call Matthew, says:
this presentness in basic human need goes unrecognised.
Unrecognised by both groups of people.
Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this presentness.
Both were looking for the divine in other places and events.
And both were shocked.
Thus, if we are to recognise the presentness of the divine in basic human need,
we need to foster a compassionate consciousness.
It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion.
It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm,
he was saying that God’s realm = compassion.
That the realm of God means the coming of compassion.
Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying,
with a place or rungs on a ladder.
God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun.
It is a verb... ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.
“Amongness, not withinness, is the key to the kingdom”, suggests Matthew Fox. “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here. Compassion is at hand” (Fox 1979: 25-33).
Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong is well-known for his questioning of a conservative, doctrine-based Christianity.
In one of his books he says we need a new God-definition
that resonates with the humanity of Jesus.
“What I see is a new portrait of Jesus... I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered... I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131).
Just prior to the Common Dreams1 Conference in Sydney in 2007, I welcomed to St James, Canberra,
Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.
His sermon was on this story.
So let me offer some comments Joe made during that sermon.
• From a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament.
Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here,
no inquiry about the catechism or right belief.
In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King,
or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable.
• We good church folk get this story wrong every time. He said,
“I frequently hear during the ‘announcements’: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.”
But that’s not what the story says.
The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing.
The king is present in the one in need.
We go to them to be changed not to change them.
• This story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment.
It’s a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again Joe says:
“And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’”
Joe then went on to say (and it’s a bit long so I invite you to listen carefully):
“Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response. That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough. God in the midst of humanity, not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but hidden, as a dream would have it…
“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…
“But, and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance - we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.
“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can ALL get it right - it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.”
I invite you to ponder this story some more.
Matthew's story or dream is about what finally matters.
Christine Fry (I reckon) had the same thing in mind when she wrote this poem back in 2004:
You've asked me to tell
you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.
For hundreds of years we
had turned away as life on earth grew more
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.
We turned away because
that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another's eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.
Always we were told, in
actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.
so we became a lonely people caught
up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.
Until it seemed as if
there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.
Yet on one of those days
someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.
And then another turned.
And as they wept, they took each other's hands.
Until whole groups of
people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colors, all nations, all religions.
not only to the pain and hurt but
to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts...
What are you dreaming about?
Fox, M. 1979. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.