Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. This is the final Sunday of the Christian calendar before we put on special outfits and fancy sunglasses to celebrate the new year on the first Sunday of Advent. Our Families, Youth, and Children pastor Alexandra is a huge fan of the Christian new year and her excitement is contagious. Just stand by her and you will feel the joy in her presence for the season. Feel free to wear your fancier clothes to church next Sunday.
As we reflect this Reign of Christ Sunday in light of current events, perhaps you are feeling what I am feeling. There is a concerning cognitive dissidence here. How can we proclaim Christ’s singular authority over all creation when children are frightened and orphaned if they themselves were not killed by falling bombs, when exploitation of people impoverished by economic and political systems continue, when justice for Indigenous, Black and Brown people seems out of reach, and with increased intensity of storms due to rise in global CO2 emission and global temperatures? How can we say Jesus has power and glory when all things appear to be out of God’s control?
Our Minneapolis Institute of Art’s main exhibition this season is called “In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now.” Native photographer and artist, Nadya Kwandbens, begins the introductory video as you first enter into the exhibition. She says, “When I was growing up, I saw images of turmoil, strife, struggle, poverty, just all of that, and I’m like, ‘That’s not who we are. No, what’s not who we are.” She continues, the exhibition seeks “to be able to present our people in the positive light that we see each other in, and the recognition in all the history and up to this point in time.”
The exhibition is a vivid, thoughtful, and engaging depiction of the historical and systemic elimination of the Indigenous people and the subsequent trauma that continues to this day. It also seeks to educate and enliven awareness and participation in the beauty and celebration of Native culture. I highly recommend this exhibition to you.
Hearing the words and seeing the works of the artists who challenge the ongoing injustices, I wonder, how do we respond to a world that is not what our faith tells us supposed to be.
We begin with the book of Ephesians where theologian and pastor Jennifer McBride notes the connection the early church makes with the resurrection of Christ and the power of God to defeat death. Such display of power established the reign of God. With this, the first Council of Churches in Nicaea adopts this formative theological interpretation by emphasizing the connection of resurrection and reign.
We all recall the stanza in the Nicene creed where we profess our faith in Christ.
We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day He arose again. He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
God in Jesus Christ reigns supreme for love, peace, and justice that will completely defeat the forces of death, destruction, and evil. Christ’s power gives him exclusive role as the final judge, and inclusive role to offer hope. With this hope, the author of Ephesians prays for all creation that we will know we are called and destined for the glorious inheritance among the saints. This hope, McBride reminds us, is alive because “Christ’s exclusive reign have an inclusive and humanistic thrust. The hope that ultimately ‘all’ will be well for the world and humanity under the lordship of Christ is a key proclamation for Christians.”
In our reading from the final parable in Mathew 25, it marks the end of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse which begins in Matthew 24. This section has intrigued the church because Jesus the shepherd who supposed to take us to gentle pasture and quiet stream now takes on a fearsome role as the judge for “all nation.”
All the nations? In verse 32, panta ta ethne, all the nations will be gathered before Christ, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Using a common analogy and practice of local shepherds, separating the sheep from the goats is a simple daily routine because the two flocks have different needs and tolerance to the elements and predators.
Mark Douglas, Columbia Theological Seminary ethicist and professor notes the phrase, “all the nations,” has a profound theological implication. On the one hand, the intersection with interfaith communities reveals many complexities – has it not the proclamation of Jesus as the supreme judge a triumphalist interpretation that perpetrated trauma on so many indigenous and people of color, and of different faiths?
On the other hand, for us Christians, it raises the question of salvation. Douglas writes, “We are saved neither by grace nor even by accepting the gospel, but by how we treat other persons. We are justified before God by works that are shaped not only by the pursuit of justice but by a particular understanding of justice focuses on the treatment of ‘the least of these’.”
Our denominational call and invitation to join the Matthew 25 church movement is to welcome other, bring together people who are divided, doing God’s reconciling work, and contributing to the well-being of the most vulnerable in all societies. From affordable housings to community garden to equitable educational and employment opportunities to healing from addiction and mental illness to enacting policy change.
Recognizing the complex theological knots, we can bind ourselves to, Douglas writes, “Christians are always both the recipient of the gospel and witnesses to it. Each of us is both unbeliever and believer, both commanded to care and in need of care, both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness, both under judgement for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace, both a goat and a sheep.”
Let us pause for a moment and let that sink in.
We need a fluid and dynamic interpretation here. We are not always the one offering help to someone, and we are also the one in need of help from someone else. We may do well to remind ourselves not to assume too much of ourselves, our places in this text, our places in the world, our relationships with our neighbors, or our places in eternity.
Former pastor at the 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago writes, “God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.”
To live is to love, dear friends.
A few weeks ago, our deacons gathered together in the Recreation Room to have our retreat. That Saturday morning was a very active and busy morning. You can feel the electricity in the air the moment you are in the garage with so many vehicles parked and people streaming into the building. For a moment, I thought it was a Sunday morning.
Across from the Deacon Retreat, the Women’s Retreat was taking place. Our Adult Ministries pastor Margaret and her team of lay leaders put together an inspiring retreat. While I was running around frantically looking for name tags for the deacons, our pastor for Justice and Mission Alanna was calm and composed while supporting the Women’s Retreat.
The assignment, led by our co-moderators, Mary Koenke and Priscilla Northenscold, was to capture how our deacons understood their role as Westminster’s deacons. The result is in your hand, the front cover of your bulletin. What do you see as you read the Word Cloud? What jumps out at you? What do you see?
I see care, service, support, listening, connecting, relationship, home communion and more.
Starting this Wednesday, our elders, deacons, and clergy will be taking home communions to our homebound members. Many of them, by one challenge to another, are no longer able to come to our church regularly. In some cases, they do not have access to livestream or television. The only connection to the church is the weekly bulletin and printed sermon sent by our faithful administrative staff. Home communion is when we are called, equipped, and blessed to embody Christ’s love and represent this church to them. Talking about deep calling deep! This act of connection is not limited to the leaders and staff. You too can get in on the action!
Believe me, this is not a pyramid scheme I am trying to sell you.
Our 2023 stewardship theme, “We are the church” is such a profound and timely theme. We can be the church of love, grace, and justice to each other and to our neighbors. I invite you to go back and listen to all the speakers’ heart stirring reflections how “we are the church.” The church has been there for them and continues to be there for all of us.
In the last three weeks since our senior pastor’s, Tim, retirement, I have received and witnessed what it means to be the church. We clergy have received your handwritten notes, your phone calls, or your tender touch on our shoulders and when you said to us, “I am praying for you as we enter this time of transition” or “We are holding you in our hearts” or “We have your back.”
In this time of transition, we can all join together in prayers. If you do not know what to pray. Well, pray for our Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) that our entire church elected two Sunday ago. Our nominating committee led by Elder Andy Peterson and Barbara Brown and supported by our Senior Associate Pastor Meghan have put together a beautiful booklet for our PNC members. I recall this practice of prayer growing up in the southern church. Take the booklet home and commit to pray regularly for each of them and their family as they support them to do the good work for our church.
Alanna has been inviting us to pray. We are also invited to pray every day at 5pm for the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza. Set a timer on your phone so we will not forget. You will find a table in the Westminster Commons and a prepared prayer for you to recite. While we do, we can pray for Cameroon, Sudan, Cuba, Palestine, Ukraine, and other conflicts zones. The opportunities to pray are endless and we all can get into the action.
In a few moments, we will confirm the baptismal promise in a blessing, and affirm how we can be a church to this young person, Sloan, and her to us. We are the church, and to live is to love. This is what Jesus is calling us to do. To hold on the hope of our calling. To pray for each other. To serve all who come to us. To stand in this moment as the community builds wider and deeper connections in this new year.