Homily: Taken By Surprise

A160ChKing_2_cf03_4cIn these last weeks of Year A in the lectionary cycle, we’ve been reading the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and listening to Jesus give his disciples some farewell instructions before he faces his death. He’s been telling them to be prepared for his return, something they never will know when to expect, an event that may come suddenly, or may be delayed. In either case, he says, be wise, be watchful, be ready. And during that “meantime,” don’t just sit around waiting: use the gifts God has given you, like bold and enterprising stewards, so that they multiply for the sake of the reign of God. Don’t just sit on what God has given you.

Our passage this week, a familiar one to many of us, gets down to the bottom line, to a word that makes some of us uncomfortable today, in the church and in the world: judgment. Jesus has a lot to say about our judging one another, our excluding some people because they are sinners, or at least a certain kind of sinner.

We modern Christians don’t like to talk about ‘judgment’; we prefer to speak of ‘freedom’. But we can wrestle with this text because we have a deep trust in the goodness of God and we can listen for how the Still speaking God calls us to participate in the unfolding of the reign of God. And the ‘freedom’ part says that we can choose to participate in that community of faith and to do so in freedom, or we can choose to do nothing.

And that gets to the heart of what the goats in this story did: nothing. They weren’t sinners in the conventional sense of doing bad things, like sexual offenses or stealing or even murder. They just didn’t do anything when they saw their sisters and brothers suffering. As Jesus creates this apocalyptic scene, a huge, dramatic event with all the nations, and all the angels, and the Son of Man coming in glory and sitting on a throne, we might say that he draws our focus not up, at all this glory, but down, on the very thing, the down-to-earth thing, that he did throughout his teaching ministry: he noticed people in their need, and he responded.

This text sees all of God’s children as deserving of our compassion and generosity. It says there is a difference between ‘loving kindness’, extended to family and friends (and presumably easier), and the more difficult ‘hospitality’, which was extended to strangers. Hospitality is still at the heart of how we practice our faith here in the Catholic Church; no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Extravagant hospitality: a core value.

However, we can broaden our understanding of this hospitality and of this judgment if we hear the word ‘nations’ and think of our own collective life as a nation, and how we – and our systems, our institutions – respond to the suffering of ‘the little ones’ in our midst. Many claim that the United States is a ‘Christian nation’,

And so, remembering that this imperative to respond to the need of others is at the core of all true religion. It’s not a stretch to put ourselves as a nation in this scene, with all the other nations, and all the angels, and the Son of Man returned now to judge whether we cared for those in need, or even noticed them in our midst.

That is why Catholic congregations, through ministries of justice and prophetic witness, strive to imagine, and then build, ‘another world’ that embodies God’s own vision of healing, mercy and justice.

We’re reminded of the Beatitudes that tell us where Christians ought to be found; not among the power elite or the moral majority, forcing their will on the nations. They are identified with the weak of the earth and are more likely to be found in hospitals and prisons than in palaces.

This text challenges us, not to define ourselves as religious or spiritual because we go to church and pray and occasionally make a contribution to a worthy cause or volunteer some of our time to help others. The words of Jesus illustrate true religion that transforms our lives, opening our eyes to encounter the sacred in our everyday lives, including the sacred within our brothers and sisters. Isn’t it sometimes easier to build beautiful houses of worship, to venerate Christ in the Eucharist, or even to appreciate the beauty of nature, than it is to see the image of God in one another?

Notice that neither the sheep nor the goats saw Jesus in the suffering and needy; it’s just that the sheep responded as Jesus would. The king implies that the goats should not have needed neon signs directing them to the right thing to do. The followers of Jesus continue today to respond to the needs of others because we know no other way to respond to God’s amazing love.

A world as spiritually hungry as ours longs to experience that amazing Love. Moments of random encounter with people in need are moments illuminated by eternity. It all seems to suggest that God’s judgment will take us all by surprise, sheep and goats alike. We can study the exam file all we want, but God only knows what will be on the final.

Jesus never asks either group what they think about him. On this Judgment Day, salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith. Still, as much as Judgment Day strikes a measure of fear in our hearts, God does not see the story of our lives as we see the story of our lives. God sees as God sees. This becomes our saving grace. Are we truly, faithfully living in the present as disciples of Jesus?

What matters is how we behaved when we thought God was not around. Not just in church, but in everyday encounters with others, all children of God. “We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad. We are called to look at each other and see Christ. It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

In this hour of harvest and abundance, how are we extending this hospitality, even to those who seem least deserving of it? How is our church imagining another world in which the needs of the least are met? Who are people to whom you might reach out and, in turn, be surprised at what you might learn, and what you might receive?

We have come to the end of another liturgical year, and prepare now for Advent. What could be more surprising than a God who comes to dwell with us in the form of a poor, helpless child born in obscurity to peasant parents? Indeed, God came to us as ‘one of the least of these’ – and still does”  (Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey)

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