Rev. Caroline Barnett
An Earthy Kingdom
Matthew 25: 31-46
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'
Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It’s fitting that we are reading this Gospel passage today.
Of course that’s not an accident. Whoever designed the lectionary that picks our scripture each week obviously knew today is Christ the King Sunday, where we celebrate the coming Kingdom of God. So they chose a passage that talks about the kingdom of God and thrones and other royal things.
But it’s fitting for another more time-sensitive reason: Today is the last Sunday of our church year, our final chance to hear Christ’s word to us before the “new” year starts.
And the words in this passage, spoken by Jesus, are his final thoughts to the disciples as well.
I know, if you read Matthew’s gospel, there are about four more chapters left, and they are four very important chapters filled with the last supper, Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, death and resurrection. And Christ says a lot of important things in those chapters, but this parable, this story about sheep and goats, it is Jesus’ final word to the disciples before the cross becomes very real and everyone gets a little preoccupied.
So it’s fitting, really, that we read these words at the end of our year.
This parable, it knows about things ending, and so it looks beyond that into the future to help the people who are in the midst of change.
As Jesus is arrested and killed, the disciples will wonder if Christ is truly gone forever, and these words— Jesus’ final thoughts— will give them hope.
They will remind the disciples that Christ will come again, and not only will Christ come again, but Christ will come again in glory, with angels, and a throne. The Kingdom of God just can’t be kept away.
At the end of something, it’s nice to know that this is not “The End.”
There’s still more to come. Christ will return. The Kingdom of God is on its way.
And in our own moments of bleakness, when the world is just a little too heavy, hope in Kingdom of God feels even more necessary.
But what exactly does this kingdom of God look like?
If you look up images related to “the kingdom of God” by and large, you will find many, many pictures of clouds— always the white fluffy ones with the sun shining in blue sky the background. We think of the Kingdom of God as something ethereal, above us, out of this world.
But throughout the Gospels, Jesus logs many hours teaching anyone who would listen what exactly the kingdom of God is and his metaphors are a lot more earthy.
The kingdom of God, he says, is like treasure hidden in a field, a tiny mustard seed that grows into a large tree. It is like a woman who makes bread, a farmer who experiments with soil type.
These are all things that Jesus says are like the Kingdom of God.
If you notice from these images and our story of goats and sheep for today… the kingdom of God doesn’t seem very… well… royal.
The Kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it, it like ordinary objects found in the ancient world, ordinary people who bake bread and grow plants. And there is a shepherd involved which is not a very glamorous job, It’s dirty and lowly and you spend your day in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of four legged creatures.
This a little more… rustic… of a vision of the Kingdom of God than expected.
Because, you would think, in a world where kingdoms were in constant conflict with each other, each trying to assert their dominance over others— you might expect that Jesus’ kingdom would have some more bells and whistles. It might talk about power and gold and armies not bread and soil and sheep.
And its king might be an emperor or undefeated warrior, not a wandering carpenter who was born to to an unwed mother from a town in the middle of nowhere. And he would certainly not be a person who compares himself to a shepherd and will die on a cross like a criminal.
The Kingdom of God, that place and time in which God dwells and reigns, is unexpected. It’s not like what we imagine a kingdom to be.
And even though these words are meant to help the disciples stay hopeful for the future where their teacher will return to them, even if these words help us feel hopeful for the future when this present feels bleak, our scripture also tells us that the Kingdom of God is already here. Not up in the sky. Not waiting for us in some distant future.
Because if the Kingdom of God is a place and time where God dwells, whatever metaphor we use to describe it, then God is already here among us, though maybe we don’t realize it.
The people in this story who Jesus praises, the people who will inherit eternal life, they have been living in God’s presence for some time now. They just don’t know it.
Jesus praises them for the ways they have welcomed for the divine in their midst, but they stop him:
Wait a minute, Jesus, when did we feed you? When did we offer you clothing or a place to stay? I think I would remember if the messiah showed up at my dinner table.
And Christ, full of surprises, tells them these important words: “just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Christ is with us now— not just in some future someday promise— but now, through our connection to others.
German theologian Martin Buber once said that when “two people interact authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges among them.”
But he writes that this is not always the case for human interaction. Instead, at times, we have a tendency to view other people as objects, as things we might relate to, but not truly connect with. We reduce people who have full and rich lives into flattened objects, minor characters in our own more important story.
But when we do so, we fail Jesus in the people we interact with, and we miss out on the ways the Kingdom of God is already here.
And it’s made even starker by the examples Jesus gives. It’s not just about connecting with people we already know and care about. That’s easy enough.
But the people who are most marginalized, the people who are hungry, who are in need of shelter and care, who are alone and imprisoned: These are the sort of connections that Jesus lifts up as divine.
It is in those relationships that we find ourselves already in the presence of God, living into a kingdom that offers eternal life even here. Even now.
And so it stands to reason, that if the Kingdom of God is not some resort in the clouds, but captured here in our everyday experiences on earth, the same can be said of Christ’s indictment of the people who ignore God among humanity.
Perhaps, the eternal punishment Jesus talks about is not something out there, not something with flames below our feet, but a recognition that a life where we use each other as objects, a life without authentic connection, a life where we don’t honor the divine that dwells in all people— especially the vulnerable— well, that is a life where we have cut ourselves off from the fullness of God.
It’s a sort of life that sounds incredibly lonely, and it’s not something I would wish on anyone. Maybe that’s punishment enough.
This final teaching from Jesus might have sustained the disciples as they learn to live without their teacher. They are hopeful that the return of Christ will happen soon.
But even with that hope, Jesus challenges them to see that the Kingdom of God isn’t put on hold just because Jesus is no longer with them. They are already experiencing it, in bread and soil and even livestock. But most importantly, the Kingdom of God is with us through the connections we make with other people.
We are not waiting for a kingdom made of clouds and gold and armies.
No, we are already living in an earthy kingdom made up of ordinary objects and ordinary people.
But in these ordinary, everyday connections, we find an extraordinary God dwelling among us.
The Kingdom of God is here right now, in all its earthy glory. Thanks be to God. Amen.