23 November 2020

No sheep. No goats.

Bible Passage: Matthew 25:31-46

This morning’s parable from Matthew is quintessential Matthew. We’ve heard a series of what we call “judgment parables” about people making the wrong choices and suffering the consequences. Sometimes the consequences are horrible, like feeling thrown into the outer darkness. This morning’s parable includes another quality that is also quintessential Matthew: sorting. Sheep and goats; people who care for the naked and imprisoned, and people who don’t.

This parable is often used to instruct us to be good, or else. It is easy to imagine Christ seated on his throne sort of like Santa in his chair, knowing who’s been naughty or nice. If you are nice, you get what you want for Christmas. If you’re not, you get a lump of coal or nothing at all. If you re good to those in need, you go to heaven. If you aren’t, you don’t. This is what I would call a transactional approach to God and God’s grace. And yet, in this transactional approach there is no room for grace. And in the kingdom of grace, there is no room for a transactional approach to God.

I think many of us can remember—and maybe it was yesterday—a time when you approached God in this transactional way.

For a long time, I had a transactional approach to giving to the church, and that was all caught up to my transactional relationship with God.

  • When I first joined the church, I checked the box about “weekly offering envelopes” not knowing that this didn’t mean that someone would mail me an envelope that would show up in my otherwise mostly-empty mailbox each week.
  • When I was a little older, a new Christian in my early 20s, I pledged because I wanted to belong. I wanted to be like everyone else.
  • Then I pledged because I wanted people to like me. I wanted to impress the priest at my church, and the senior warden.
  • Then I started pledging because I knew the bills needed to be paid, and I loved my church and I wanted to help. But it was still a transaction. It became a transaction between me and the church budget, or between me and the church’s heating company.
  • Through all of these stages, I was looking at my monthly or weekly pledge in the context of all my other bills. My pledge was like onemore monthly bill. And it was culled from whatever I had left over after paying my rent and going out for dinner.

Then something shifted. I started tithing. The traditional standard for a tithe is ten percent, and I’ll get back to that in a minute. What I found was the most important aspect of tithing for me was that I gave to God, through my church, first. It was not what was left over.

And the other thing that was different—and crucial—was that my offering was one of gratitude. I found that my giving was thanks-giving, an offering of joy and gratitude for what I saw God doing in me, in people I loved, and in my church.

This is what I believe Jesus asks for in today’s parable. Don’t be kind in order to get the good stuff. Be kind because the good stuff of grace and love is already in you and spilling over.

I do not tell this story to say that I am such a wonderful and spiritually evolved person (I’m not). But sometimes if we adapt a practice, for its own sake, something does shift in our experience of God and God’s kingdom. So I’m going to tell you my practice. I commend it to you not because of what it could do for our church but because it has done so much for me.

  • My gift to the church is the first check I write when I get paid, not the last. I confess that it took me a long time to give up writing checks and switch to telling my bank to do it for me. And this year I’ve used our new web-based electronic giving to set up automatic pledging. I’ll see how that goes.
  • I give ten percent of my net pay. I say “net” because people always wonder about that. I am planning to tithe in retirement, so I don’t tithe on what I am setting aside for retirement.

We live in a transactional world and we think we must earn God’s love and grace. Think instead of God’s love as your inheritance. Most of us don’t have a whole bunch of family heirlooms lying around our houses, but think about something you may have gotten from a family member that has a story to it. Recently my mother gave me a necklace that was given to her by my grandmother, her mother-in-law. There’s a story to it.

It’s not something I would ever go out and buy from a jeweler, and it’s not something my mother would ever sell or I would ever sell. It came from her mother-in-law to her and came from her to me because of our shared story, because that’s what it means to be part of our family. I didn’t earn it, I didn’t have to do anything to get it, I didn’t have to trade anything for it.

Think about something like this in your own family, your own story.

The things we have from Jesus are like this. Love and grace and the love of our neighbors are handed down to us, not because of something we did. Like family mementos that are part of our identity, we pass these things on in love and gratitude and would never sell them.

My invitation to you—God’s invitation as Jesus sits at the table of the great feast on this Christ the King Sunday is to give of yourself from a place of love, gratitude and awareness of God’s gracious invitation, God’s generous proclamation of the kingdom.

Our guiding “verse” for this fall’s financial commitment campaign comes from the beginning of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” This is Mary’s expression of gratitude and hope, Mary, who had nothing, Mary who did not become the Mother of God because of anything she did, Mary who understood that God’s presence in the world as Jesus was going to be revolutionary, filled with transformation and hope. We’re going to spend some time with the Song of Mary throughout this Advent. As you continue to pray about how you will express your gratitude and hope through a pledge to our church, think about Mary, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord and rejoicing. And you might also hold in your heart the words to today’s closing hymn, one of my very favorites:

Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee;
take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.