The least of these

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

To assist you in this worship, you may wish to light a candle, and gather some symbols that might help you to worship, reflect and pray. A green cloth for the current church season, a cross, or some items representing generosity and hospitality (large jug of water, glasses, food, warm blanket) may be useful to help you reflect on today’s theme.

Opening Prayer

(adapted from Spill the Beans Iss.36)

God who reigns over heaven and earth,
may we know your presence among us.
Gathered and sent may we celebrate your reign in our worship here
and our service wherever the week ahead takes us.
You chose to make your dwelling among us.
May we make our dwelling with you.
God forgive us when we forget that our worship
is not confined to a particular space or place
but that you call us to serve you in all things—
not least in creating community and caring for each other.
As we serve and are served,
may we see your face before us in each person we encounter,
those in need and those we need.
Give us the courage to be vulnerable
knowing that you risked vulnerability with us.
May we always be willing to share what we have and to ask for what we need.
Christ our King,
reign in us and transform us in our daily living,
empower us to serve you by serving one another,
knowing ourselves to be citizens
of the commonwealth of heaven,
forever.
Amen.

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV) The Parable of the Sheep and goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Reflecting on the Word

This is the last Sunday of the church year, often known as the Reign of Christ Sunday. This passage then is a lesson about the kind of reign that we are celebrating, the reign of Christ as illustrated in this passage.

In this parable, Jesus, the King on the throne, utters this decree: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. The instructions are simple but the crunch point comes when we reflect on what we are required to do, to become a part of the chosen people to enter the kingdom of God. What does God require of us?  How does the King assess the array of people standing before him? What is the Gospel-in-action, according to these biblical passages?

In our world today, prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, but many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where oppression is rife. It is clear that our world is broken in many ways, with millions in need of assistance, security, a home, an assured future.

Indeed, Jesus, the one who will be our judge, and the one who will have the last word at the end the age, was in his life just like the people that we are called to minister to. A dispossessed refugee as a child, his family were forced to flee to Egypt for safety. Like many condemned prisoners, he experienced hatred and physical abuse at the hands of his accusers. We can reasonably assume that Jesus knew what it was to be hungry, naked and thirsty – indeed, these are the very things he experienced when he was left to die on the cross. He was a stranger in the midst of God’s people on earth.

Once an innocent victim, Jesus is now to be given the authority to judge the earth. Once humble and lonely, probably unknown and unnoticed on the Golgotha hillside, Jesus will in the end be the universal king. And the criteria by which Jesus shall judge all people are the very things that he both gave to others in his ministry and experienced himself before his death.

But the story doesn’t end just with Jesus, it is about us too.  In a story from a book written about Mother Theresa, A Simple Path (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995 pp150-151), we hear how hard it is to recognise Jesus in the stranger and welcome them. Penny, one of the volunteers with Mother Theresa, tells this story from her first day as a volunteer with the sisters of Mercy in Calcutta, in a home for the dying:

She says, “It was terribly traumatic for me – being a beauty therapist I was used to everything being all spick and span, and smelling nice, so it was quite a shock. When one of the sisters asked me to wash this woman I just thought, There’s no way. I just couldn’t. I just stood there. She called me over and said, ‘Penny, please. Take her.’ I just cried and said I couldn’t. So she said, ‘All right, come with me,’ and she picked up this little bundle of bones, because that’s what this lady was, and took her into the bathroom. Even now it makes me cry – there wasn’t a lot of light in the room and I was still absolutely catatonic. Then all of a sudden the whole room just lit up! One minute I was saying I can’t and the next I realised, of course I could. It suddenly struck me, seeing one of those religious pictures they have on the wall – it was the body of Christ – that anybody can be Christ. It wasn’t just that little old lady covered in scabies, it was the whole world that was the body of Christ. I realised that what I was doing for one I could do for anybody.”

May those of us who live in more fortunate communities also find the courage and the grace to accept the least in our midst and offer them care and hospitality, for in doing so, we offer this service to Jesus himself.

Reflecting on the passage

What do you think the mission of the church is: to save people for eternal life or to feed the hungry and help the poor and oppressed? Clearly Jesus sees part of the work of the church to care for others, to change the relationships we have with the least in the world and create something that is fairer and more just.

Indeed, Jesus identifies with the least far more than any other group of people. Though a lot of other agencies do feed and clothe people, the church still has a unique place as an institution, through Jesus, to focus on the good news of the gospel.

• What do you think the church can offer as ‘good news’ for today?

• What influences you when you consider the merits and mission of the church?

Think about how you would complete the following sentences:

1. I go to church because…

2. What Jesus means to me is…

3. How I respond to Jesus is…

4. Where I see Jesus in the world is…

5. For me, Jesus’ most important words are…

Using these reflections, think about what you would re-imagine the church’s mission to be today.

Prayer for ourselves and others

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.36)

Lord we see you, kneeling at our feet, showing us how to serve and be served.
Lord we see you, touching the unclean, showing us how to heal and be healed.
Lord we see you, hanging out with outcasts, showing us how to be in community.
So may we follow your example, seeing the need in our world
and being first in line to step up and make a difference.
May we also recognise our own limitations
and make room for those who are differently abled and differently gifted,
knowing that in the economy of your kingdom, no gift is wasted, no talent rejected.
Lord, when we despair at the state of our world,
may our despair compel us to join you in the work
of peace and justice for all, beginning wherever we are, following your lead.
Lord may we know your healing,
in our lives, in the life of our community, in the life of the world.
May we live so conscious of your presence in all
that we cannot turn our back or withhold your love from another
but know fulfilment only when we have given our all
to serve you by serving our neighbour.
So God,
one radical act of kindness at a time,
may your kingdom come,
on earth as in heaven. Amen.

Blessing

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.36)

When, Lord, did we see you hungry,
naked and thirsty, sick and imprisoned?
When Lord, did we care for the stranger
with food and water, care and love?
At the turn of the Christian year
let us commit ourselves
to being Christ in the world.
As we step into Advent,
and once more prepare to welcome the infant Jesus
may we go purposefully, loved by God,
guided by Jesus and inspired by the Spirit. Amen.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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