Friday, November 21, 2008

The Last, the Least and the Lost

Matthew 25:31-46: The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. For Sunday November 23rd (the Feast of Christ the King)

Here's a video I made of this reading some time ago. Some of the images in it - especially scenes of The Judgment - will help understanding of the sermon!

If I was Dr Who, and if I had a Tardis, I could take you back in time ...about 700 years...into the darkness of the Middle Ages.

In most churches of that time was something which would have made you gasp...if you were not used to such things. There, suspended above your head - usually painted on the wall - was often found a depiction of the Day of Judgment. Such pictures usually followed the same pattern. They showed Jesus, sitting on a throne, - the King of Kings - with all of humanity divided on either side of him.

On his right were the righteous...pictures of saints and good people who would be welcomed into heaven...the sheep of today's gospel reading. But on his left would be the 'goats' - those evil-doers who would be condemned to eternal punishment.

These pictures of the Last Judgment were a pretty unsubtle message to the great mass of churchgoers. Many of them, of course, could not read - and grand murals of the Last Judgment were designed to get a clear message across: watch out, or you might find yourself on the wrong side of the throne!

Some of the artists who painted these last judgments, all over the world, were a pretty cheeky lot. There are still some famous ones which, for example, portray well known politicians of the time as being among the goats. And there are even some which showed bishops and priests as being among those who were condemned to hell! Cheeky so-and-so's! Thankfully, especially for us priests, the majority of these Last Judgment paintings were covered over during the Reformation!

But there are still enough of them around, in medieval churches across the land, to remind us that when the Scriptures refer to Jesus as our King - the King of Kings, in fact - they mean business.

Let's just think, for a moment, about what it means to live under the reign of the King of Kings. Perhaps it might help if we were to shift our language a little. Very few people in this modern world know what it is like to live under the real power and authority of an actual Monarch. Perhaps it might help us to say that we live under the 'government' of God. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus choose to place ourselves under his rule. We choose to follow his government...his laws and ways of doing things. That's what it means to be a citizen of heaven.

But Scripture has a way of challenging us - even we who have signed up to the 'God-party'...to living under the Government of Jesus. Passages like today's gospel - and those medieval church paintings which were drawn from it - they give us cause to wonder whether we've truly grasped the full implications of what we have signed up for. This passages drives us to ask how fully we have grasped the reality of living under the Government of God. It asks us to think about how we have behaved towards the weakest members of our society - the sick, the hungry, the stranger and those in prison. Or what we might call the 'last, the least, and the lost of our society'.

I generated a little controversy last week, when I publicly questioned the City Council's attitude towards Travellers (or Gypsies as we sometimes call them). I got really angry to see a quote in the local newspaper from our City Council Leader, in which he was reported as saying "We don't want Travellers here". And that was after the Government has asked local authorities to look for sites where Traveller communities can put down roots, and become members of local communities.

You see, I think that a society is judged by how it treats the weakest of its members. And Travellers are treated, by us, like Samaritans were treated by the Jews. And how the Jews were ultimately treated by the Nazis. They are the scapegoats...the ones we blame for litter and crime...as though if we got rid of Gypsies from our City, then all the crime and litter would disappear as well! So I wrote a letter to the newspaper...in the vain hope that I might persuade our politicians to think again.(To see what I wrote, click here)

You see, according to the Gospel, Jesus is to be found precisely among those people who are the last, the least and the lost of our society. When we shun those who are not like us...those whose way of life we disapprove of...are we not in danger of shunning Jesus himself?

It can be a little overwhelming to read the story of the Sheep and the Goats. It can make us wonder whether we are ever doing enough to help the last, the least and the lost. Especially when we see poverty, sickness, loneliness all around us in our own City...and on our TVs.

It is right, of course, that we should each ask ourselves the question, all the time. Am I doing enough? Could I do more to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger? But we must not go overboard with worry. Jesus himself, in the story, says "just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me". One of the least of these...

We are members of the body of Christ. As we work together, each one of us doing what we can to touch the lives of even one of the last, the least and the lost - then we are doing what we have been commanded to do. Working together, each of us making our own contribution, however small, we CAN change the world. We can, by God's grace, establish the Government of God in our own city streets.

This is our vocation. This is what we are called to do - we who are the citizens of heaven. The word 'vocation' has the same root as the word 'vocalise'... it means a call... a cry from our King of Kings that we are invited to respond to. It is for each of us to pray and to explore with God and with one another what it is he is calling us to do - as part of his Holy Government Policy of bringing peace and justice to the least, the last and the lost.

Every one of us has a vocation...a calling. For most of us, that calling will be one that is lived out through our daily lives, in our workplaces, schools, and families. But for some there is a different calling... a vocation to become a priest, or a deacon, or a reader; someone who is set apart for a particular task within the church... the task of leading, encouraging and where necessary challenging the church and its people.

The Church of England is currently experiencing a shortage of such people. There is a need to set apart more people who can take on that role of preaching, teaching and leading. So I'm going to finish with one last challenge for you to contemplate...

Could it be that God might be calling you...yes you...to be set apart for the task of being a priest or a deacon or a reader in the Church? Is that something that you have been wondering... something that perhaps God has been prompting you to think about? If it is, then let me encourage you to get in touch. Let's think and pray together about how God might be calling you - whether he is calling you towards the priest-hood, the diaconate, or towards any other form of vocation. All of us have a vocation...a calling. But sometimes we need the help of others to crystallise that calling into something definite... something we can act upon.

But something we can all be certain of is that all of us - all of us who live as citizens of the Government of God - are called, all the time, to keep on loving and reaching out, to the last, the least and the lost.

Amen

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