This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Festival of Christ the King. The gospel reading was Matthew 25:31-46.
Jodie was upset. “Why did I come here today?” she wondered. “I thought this would help. Now I feel worse than when I started.” Jodie was sitting in church, and the service was just ending. The people around her started to put their hymnals back in the pew racks, and began to chat with one another. Jodie didn’t know any of them. She thought about what she’d heard, and what she’d experienced. She shook her head sadly, preparing to go home.
From behind her, Jodie felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned, and a woman with a broad smile stood there. “Good morning,” she said. “My name’s Carla. Would you like to join me for coffee in the Social Hall today?”
Jodie thought for a second. I suppose I might as well, she thought. It can’t get any worse, can it? She smiled and nodded. Carla said, “Great! Follow me.” Carla led her out of the nave, and down the steps into the social hall. Jodie poured herself a cup of black coffee, and picked up a small piece of cake. She sat down at a table with Carla.
“I’m so glad you joined us for worship today,” Carla said. “And I’m glad you stayed afterward to chat. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“I’ve been to church here, but it was many, many years ago,” Jodie said. “I haven’t been to church at all in probably ten years. But over the past few months, I have felt like something’s missing in my life, and I thought maybe I should come back.”
Carla nodded. “I thought maybe it was something like that. From where I was sitting, I could see your face, and I noticed that you seemed very focused. Did you find what you were looking for?”
Jodie laughed a little. “Well, I don’t know. I was looking for some direction, maybe. But honestly, all I got today was some fear.”
“Oh no!” Carla said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Tell me more.”
Jodie said, “It was the gospel reading today, that story about the sheep and the goats. I don’t think I’m one of the sheep. I haven’t given enough food to hungry people. I certainly haven’t visited anybody in prison. Now I’m scared that I’m one of those goats. I certainly don’t want to end up –” she paused. There was a tear welling up in her left eye. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” She looked down and held her coffee cup with both hands.
“Of course,” Carla said kindly. “I can understand how you heard the gospel reading that way. May I tell you how I heard it?” Jodie nodded as she sipped her coffee. Carla continued, “A few years ago, I was always so worried about messing up, about not being good enough. I came to church every week, still do, but readings like this always upset me. That’s it – I’m going to hell! Pardon my language. But then I started really listening to the story I heard week after week. I mean the whole story. And I noticed that even though there were individual stories like this that were scary, the bigger story of the Bible is a story of love and hope. Have you ever heard of God’s grace, Jodie?”
“I think so,” Jodie said. “But maybe you could tell me more.”
“Grace means that God’s love is freely given to us, no matter what we do, no matter what we’ve done, no matter who we are. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. In fact, we can’t. Jesus has already done it!”
“I’m confused,” Jodie said. “That sounds nice, but that doesn’t sound like today’s reading at all! I don’t see how that fits!”
“I know!” Carla was smiling. “I know! It’s so weird! Some parts of the Bible just don’t seem like they belong in the Bible! But I think of it like baking soda in chocolate chip cookies. Would you eat baking soda by itself?”
Jodie laughed. “Eww! I tried that once when I was eight. It was nasty!”
“Right! But you need to mix it in the dough to make the cookies good. It’s important, it’s necessary, but it’s not what the flavor of the whole cookie is.” She took a sip of her coffee, which Jodie noticed had lots of creamer mixed in. Carla continued, “That’s what stories like this are like. They don’t tell us the overall picture of God’s grace. But they tell us some really important things that are mixed in.”
Jodie nodded. “Okay. I think I follow you. So what does this one mean?”
Carla said, “Well, here’s how I hear it. Jesus isn’t telling us that we’re going to go to hell if we’re bad, first of all. I know that because I know that God is a God of forgiveness and grace. So it must mean something else. And I think the key is in how surprised everybody was. Did you notice that both the sheep and the goats were surprised that they were there? Neither of them had any idea that the way they treated people was connected to Jesus at all. They just did it. The sheep just treated people well because…well, I guess because they thought it was the right thing to do! And the goats, well, they treated people poorly, I guess because they were selfish and self-centered, and couldn’t see beyond themselves.”
Jodie tilted her head. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
Carla continued: “And I think the message Jesus wanted to give us in this story is that other people are important. The way we treat them is important. And it’s important that we treat everyone this way. That’s why he said, ‘the least of these.’ I think of the least of these as people who are beaten up and underprivileged. You know, like poor people and people with disabilities. People who are confused about their sexual identity, people of color, Muslims, and all these women who have recently had the courage to claim that they’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed.”
Jodie frowned. “I’m not sure I agree with you on all of those groups.”
Carla smiled. “That’s okay. Maybe you and I have some political differences. But the point here is that the way we treat others, whoever they are, matters to God. The way we treat others is the way we treat God. We don’t have to agree on who is downtrodden and who isn’t; we just have to treat everybody right. Care for everybody.”
Jodie paused, to let this sink in. “But what if we don’t? What if we’re sometimes cruel and thoughtless?”
Carla said, “Well, then we ask God for forgiveness, and he forgives us. Every single time. But this story helps remind me that being a disciple of Jesus isn’t just about me. In fact, Jesus forgiving me is just the beginning. This story reminds me that once I’ve received that forgiveness, it frees me up from worrying about myself so I can help others. And that’s the whole point. A wise woman once told me, ‘What are we here for if not to make life easier for one another?’ I think she was right.”
Jodie said, “Well, I feel better about what happens after I die. Thanks for that! But now I’m worried about whether I can do this. Am I supposed to quit my job so I can spend all my time feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?”
Carla shook her head, mouth full of coffee cake. “Nmmph. Oh, excuse me. No, I don’t think so. Tell you what. Would you be willing to try something this week?”
“Okay. Tell every person you see this week, every single person, this: ‘You are God’s child. Jesus died for you.’ And it’s okay if you forget sometimes. But do it as often as you remember. And you don’t have to say it out loud. Just say it silently, but say it to them: ‘You are God’s child. Jesus died for you.’ I think you’ll be surprised at what it does to you.”
“Hmm. Thanks, Carla. I’ll give it a shot.” She got up, and gathered her cup and plate together.
“You’re quite welcome. Will I see you next week in worship?”
“I think you probably will. Goodbye.” As she walked out the door, she turned back and said, “Oh, Carla? You are God’s child. Jesus died for you.” She smiled and walked out to her car. Hmm. Maybe this is just what I needed after all.