Who Are We?

Matthew 25:31-46

A few weeks ago, I preached that stories matter. They matter because in sharing them, we connect to one another and build relationships with one another. They matter as part of our faith, because it helps us to connect to the stories of faith, and unite us with something greater than ourselves. As human beings we unite together around common stories, and our communities are built around stories. If anyone ever doubts that, go to a science fiction convention. A testament to the power of stories is that church communities have been gathering together in good times and bad for thousands of years.

Stories not only define who we are as a community, but they also give us a sense of direction, and something to focus on that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.

Matthew’s gospel was written in a time of a crisis of identity for early Christian communities. Early Christians found meaning and purpose in the sharing of the stories of Jesus, and it was set against the dominant Greco-Roman culture of the day. As a population, they were barely a drop in the sea of people that was the Roman Empire. They wondered if they were actually making a difference at all, and hope, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, was hard to come by.

It is into this, that we have Matthew reminding us of this vision of hope. For a moment, in a story, Matthew lifts the veil and reminded the early Christians as to what was important. It is a vision of hope for the future, written for a tiny population who were feeling overwhelmed.

31 “Now when the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

As the story unfolds, those described as sheep are told:

 ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

This causes some confusion, and they answer.

 ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And the reply is simple, but powerful:

 ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

This is a promise of vindication for a population that felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s woes around them. Yet the vindication would come not through mighty deeds, or great, spectacular acts, but rather as a result of humble acts of kindness and mercy.

It is in the small gestures that we experience the Kingdom of God.

It is in the people we encounter and meet that we see the face of Jesus.

It is in the midst of the storms and the darkness that we feel the warmth of God’s love by forging connections through simple acts of kindness.

I really don’t think we give this enough attention. We live in a world where big is better, as church communities we are sorely tempted to measure our success by size. If you’ve ever been to downtown Victoria, you can see this firsthand as from about 1880 through 1925, there was an informal competition as to who would have the biggest building. It left these enormous edifices, that while impressive, became burdens on their respective congregations to maintain. There is a powerful heresy that exists in many churches today called “the Prosperity Gospel” that falsely asserts that if you are faithful, you will get rich.

But Matthew emphatically reminds us that when all is said and done, none of that matters. In the end, what matters, is that we sought to make a meaningful difference in those around us, through the simplest gestures of love and kindness.

It is in the people we encounter and meet that we see the face of Jesus.

It is in the small gestures that we experience the Kingdom of God.

We are St. Matthew’s United Church, I would like to think there’s a reason why this community chose the name when this sanctuary was built, and the echoes of this passage cascade down through our current vision statement of Connecting People, Growing in Faith, Creating Caring Community.

It’s rooted not in some grandiose spectacle, but rather in the simple approach to life that we can see, hear, and encounter the living Christ in our relationships with one another. When we connect to people, authentically, we both allow ourselves the opportunity to grow in faith and create a caring community. It’s not an either or, it is very much enmeshed together.

It is in the people we encounter and meet that we see the face of Jesus.

It is in the small gestures that we experience the Kingdom of God.

‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

This really isn’t difficult, and yet it is. What holds us back? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of what we might see when we look at one another with the intention of seeing the face of Christ in the other. Or are we afraid of what they might see in us?

There is a powerful reflection written by Marianne Williamson in 1992 as part of her book, “A Return to Love.” It gained traction on the internet and was incorrectly quoted as part of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech in 1995. Regardless of who wrote it, it is power, and there are echoes of Matthew’s gospel in it. You may have heard it:

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

We encounter the living Christ in one another. As Matthew writes, “when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

Here, the message from Matthew goes far beyond acts of charity, but rather the powerful revelation that we can and do see and experience God in and through building relationships.  This is who we are. We are children of God. Imagine what is possible when we choose to recognize that in one another.

Amen.

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