Monday, November 20, 2017

One Sunday, Two Voices

This Sunday, whether we are Track 1 or Track 2, we will hear two very different voices on sheep and goats. First, Ezekiel speaks words of comfort to the lost sheep of Israel: "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice." If you've been wandering in the wilderness, this is good news for you. God will find you and bring you home. Unless you're one of the fat sheep who has preserved a luxurious life on the backs of God's people, these are words of hope.

The second voice belongs to Jesus, who speaks haunting words to his disciples: "Then [the Son of Man] 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...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.” And those of us who consider ourselves among the already-rescued flock of God's sheep begin to wonder, "Should I have been nicer to that homeless guy who asked me for money last week?"

I don't like to preach multiple sermons at once. I'm not good at it. I've had several mentors advise me to stick to one message and one only when delivering a sermon. Others, like Tom Long, have said that we should always be prepared to preach multiple messages at once. Augustine did it all the time. Some of the people in the congregation haven't discovered the saving love of Jesus yet. Others know it well. Some have fallen away, and others need gentle encouragement. Why wouldn't we identify the different ways that the multifaceted biblical text speaks to a spiritually (not to mention socio-economically) diverse congregation?

This week, as I prepare to write a sermon in what is effectively a short week, I feel pulled toward the intersection of two seemingly disparate texts. (Trouble, I know.) How does Ezekiel's message to those who have forgotten that God is seeking them out relate to Jesus' message to those who have begun to take their found-ness for granted?

Yesterday, I began a sermon on the parable of the talents by reminding the congregation (and myself, too) that Jesus was speaking to his disciples. These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus' opponents but to Jesus' closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God's beloved children. He's not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He's inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom. Sunday's gospel lesson is Jesus words of sheep and goats to those who think they have already experienced the transformation that Jesus enables. It isn't a challenge to those who haven't discovered the kingdom. You can't get to heaven by giving cups of water to thirsty people. But, if you don't see Jesus in those who are in need, maybe you never knew him in the first place. Go back to step A--what it means to be rescued.

There's a flow-chart in the works here, and I'm thankful for that. Otherwise I have a tendency to lose the grace behind both texts. We're saved because God loves us. That salvation changes us. If not, we don't know what it means to be saved--what it means to be loved by God. Maybe our lifetime is spent in that cycle of grace, salvation, service, repeat. I'm not giving up on once-saved-always-saved (I'm a TULIPer, after all), but I do know that from time to time I need to be reminded what God's love has done for me.

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