Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Matthew 25:31-46
Proper 30 Year A
When I was in undergrad…some 100 or so years ago, I took a class in Journalistic writing where I learned the standard rule of thumb for putting together a news story. That is to say every article must clearly state the who, what, where, when, and how; and if possible the why. Once you get that, cram it all into the first paragraph because that is how far the typical reader will go to get the news.
This technique helped me throughout my copywriting days in advertising. And so as I prepared for this morning’s message, I pulled out these old tools and began to investigate the story within the story. And to do that we have to read a little deeper. The “who” of course is Jesus, the “what” is his pronouncement on our final judgment, and “where” the judgment will take place is upon his throne of glory. He tells us “how” we will be judged, and “when” that judgment will take place. We even know the “why” the sheep will be separated to the right while the goats go to the left.
I imagine if this statement was pronounced today by some up and coming political figure, it might make headline news. Or at least the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s the kind of story that literally puts us on one side of the argument or the other. With its divisive nature, we can pit good against bad, right against left, friend against friend. And to make matters more complicated, there’s even a bit of advanced theology thrown in. Jesus tells a parable that has all the right stuff to spike news ratings and gets the pundits wagging fingers across the table at one another. His words are both radical and profound, even by today’s over-hyped standards.
Since all the readings focused on farm animals, I am sure many of you, for example Mr. Putnam, were hoping for a message on sheep and goats and shepherds; not judgment. But to be honest with you the only thing I know about sheep and goats is one makes a nice sweater and the other a great cheese. Actually, I do know what you get when you cross a sheep with a porcupine…a sweater that knits itself. And I know what a sleepy baby lamb is called…a shhhhhhhhhheeeep. Yes, that one was baaaaaaaaad. Like I said, Jesus’ words were radical and profound, not my bad jokes.
While this parable is about God’s judgment of us, it also speaks volumes on how we judge others. Jesus has made it very clear that God’s judgment is tightly connected to how we actively participate in God’s kingdom, that is how we reach out to those in need, specifically to “the least of these.” We might think of ourselves as people who seek to do the right thing, but how many times do we judge someone without realizing we are doing it? In our thoughts as well as in our words and deeds. For example, we often label “the least of these” as homeless and vagrants, illegals and felons. We separate them by their ethnic identity and sexual orientation or their financial status.
Because of these labels, the least of these are kept at the bottom of the ladder, marginalized to the fringes and pushed away from the inner circle. This makes it harder for them to find work, support a family, be a part of a thriving community. They might seem like nothing more than descriptive words, but violence against human beings comes in many forms. Like the goat who bullies the lamb, Our words and actions and deeds can push someone further away from the herd, Somewhere further away from the church, to a place where it is hard to protect them from the dangers that lurk. Jesus understood our violent tendencies. So he does something radical. He goes against the grain, and reminds us “the least of these brothers and sisters” - those who are the most helpless and who have no other champions to care for them - are members of God’s family. They are the ones God sees in a special way. And so Jesus purposely calls these people out by name.
As the Son of Man he clearly sees a humanity made in God’s image. But as the Son of God, we get a clear glimpse of his theology. “When you did it to one of the lease of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.” Our actions are not simply tied to the person we are judging, but they are also tied directly to the judge.
Living in a big city like Los Angeles, there wasn’t a day that I didn’t come in direct contact with someone like “the lease of these.” Many of these people had real life problems and needs, while others just needed a drug fix. I doubt Greenville is any different. The stories I hear in my office are the same ones I heard on Hollywood Blvd. What I have come to discover is when I sit with them and have to separate those who really need help and those who just need another drink, Jesus’ words always punch me hard in the gut. “When you did it to someone who is sick, hungry, homeless, oppressed, imprisoned…you did it to me.”
What Christ is asking us to do is hard, radically hard. Jesus is calling us to something higher than being a good, church going Christian. His radical and profound words push our comfort zones because Jesus pushes against what society often accepts as “okay.” But okay doesn’t make the headlines, does it? Okay doesn’t get people talking. And it certainly doesn’t create change in the world. But there is more to this story than mere judgment.
First we see a radical statement about God. The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible is not a remote, Supreme Being who floats around on a throne casting down judgment from some billowy cloud. Jesus says God is here in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, in our neighbor who needs our help. God is here, in the midst of our human story and drama. If you want to see what God looks like, then look at the face of “the least of one of these.” But let’s face it, “the least of these” rarely look or act or smell the way we imagine Jesus should. Frequently, they aren’t very nice, and worse yet, they seldom seem to appreciate whatever good we do try to do for them. They have a way of making our goodness seem bad. As a result we get burned out doing good.
Notice those who have been gathered up at the right hand of the Lord – those who are called blessed by the father, the sheep we want to be – they have only one thing to say to Jesus. “Lord, When?” On one hand, they made it to the finish line but on the other they have no idea how they got there. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or when did we see you thirsty and gave you something to drink?” While they unwittingly did what Jesus asked them to do, these sheep who did all of the correct things, they missed seeing God right there in front of them. They overlooked the hidden presence of God in the faces of those they served. This parable reminds us that God is always paying attention because God is always in our midst.
As we dig deeper into the story, we notice Jesus makes radical statements about the practice of religion. But Jesus’ words do not talk about theology or creeds. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw God in the face of the needy and gave yourself away in love in God’s name. As the church, God calls us to serve him, in our neighbors, in our brothers and sisters, and in those closest to us. That call is real; there are no excuses. The goats did not see God in their midst, perhaps because God would never be needy. But “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.” One side doesn’t get the joy on earth because they did not see God in those they helped. The other side does not get the joy in heaven because they did not see God and help. What does that say about us? Are we sheep or are we goats?
And Lastly, the further we dig into Jesus’ parable, we notice something that is not social; it’s not political, nor religious. It is personal. God wants not only a new world molded on the values of Jesus. God wants us, each of us. Jesus’ God is a God of love who wants to save us, and redeem us and give us the gift of life and the gift of eternal life. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. And God wants us to pay that love forward by seeing and caring for other human beings who are in need. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and look after others. God is with us, here in the messiness of our lives, to teach us the fundamental lesson of life itself, the secret, the truth, which is that “to love is to live.” To love as Christ loved, and gave his life for that love, is to live forever.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are always good reminders of what it means to give. We give of our time, we give presents, and we give the Christmas spirit. We have our Angel Tree where you can take a tag or two and by some gifts for kids with needs.This is good stuff. But by January, February, March, April and May…our old habits kick back in. Their story is no longer relevant, The pundits have moved on to some other topic, religious wars continue as does hunger and oppression. But in this parable Jesus is reminding us to be vigilant. To never lose sight of God in our midst.
Just this last week someone asked me how do I remember everyone's names. I confessed that I am horrible with that task, and then I joked..."All you people look alike." While I was kidding of course, there is real truth to what I said. My wish is not to see Ron, or Dixie, or Linda, or Larry...But to see God in each and everyone of you.
In order to see the Lord, we have to look. We have to look at the people around us. Deliberately. All of the time. We need to see the face of God in every human being. We need to see the nail holes of Jesus Christ in the hands of the beggar. We need constantly to see "who" we are looking at as we remember "what" we are doing, "why" we are doing it, and "what" we hope to come from it. We need to look with purpose.
Because God doesn’t want to hear us say “Lord, When,” God wants to us to also ask, “Lord, who and where, and how, and yes, even why.” Amen.
A Different Direction
Life is always changing. Some of these changes are good and then some are not. There are those for whom moving into something new can be difficult, while other’s find it invigorating. My family has experienced both sides of this coin as we made the transition into this new community. What I love about change is that I never know which direction the Spirit is leading me. It forces me to embrace change faithfully, by relying on God for grace and mercy.
Of course, some changes are easier to embrace. Take the weather for example.
As I write, the sun is shining and the air outside is crisp. Who would have thought that just a few days ago the first snow flurries of the season would arrive? If I have learned anything in my few short weeks here it is to take advantage of these beautiful days because you never know what tomorrow will bring. Now, instead embracing a beautiful day by playing golf with friends, I rush home from work and arm myself with a leaf blower. In spite of using the wind to push the leaves towards the street, the wind eventually changes direction and the leaves scatter around the yard again.
As we gather together to worship, you will notice changes; some barely noticeable and some very obvious. I pray that you will embrace these changes with me. May we all remember the words we spoke together after communion last week when we asked God to, “Deepen in us the vision of what is yet to come, that we may find in every change, not an ending, but a beginning, the sign of a new creation within ourselves and this community of faith.”
Window Poems #20
In the early morning dark
he dreamed of the spring woodsflowers
standing in the ground,
dark yet under the leaves and under the bare cold branches.
But in his dream he knew their way
was prepared, and in their time
they would rise up and be joyful.
And though he had dreamed earlier
of strife, his sleep became peaceful.
He said: If we, who have killed
our brothers and hated ourselves,
are made in the image of God,
then surely the bloodroot,
wild phlox, trillium, and mayapple
are more truly made
in God’s image,
for they have desired to be
no more than they are,
and they have spared each other.
is undiminished by their past.
Let me, he said in his dream,
become always less a soldier
and more a man,
for what is unopened in the ground
is pledged to peace.
When he woke and went out
a flock of wild ducks that had fed
on the river while he slept
flew off in fear of him.
And he walked, manly, into the new day.
He came to his window
where he sat and looked out,
the earth before him, blessed
by his dream of peace,
bad history behind him.
- by Wendell Berry. The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint Press: 1998.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"...how he went about doing good..."