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|Author:||Rev. Jeff Spencer|
|Scripture:||Matthew 25: 31-46 ;Matthew 22:34-40
|Copyright:||© 2011 by Rev. Jeff Spencer|
Please see the sermon manuscript for citations of sources quoted or used.
So there I was, running late for the final exam, and when I finally got into the room and sat down, I realized that I hadn’t attended class all semester. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!
How many of you are familiar with that dream? I’ve been told it’s a pretty classic anxiety dream. I actually don’t have that dream any more. Now it’s a dream where I’m late for worship and I can’t find my sermon notes and the pulpit is way far away and I’m maybe in the next building and I don’t know how to slip in without disturbing things and I’ll have to fake the sermon and … ahhhhhhhhhhhh!
That’s the feeling I get when I think about the passage we heard from Matthew 25. The nations are gathered together for the final judgment and the king is separating the people like a shepherd separates sheep and goats and I didn’t know that feeding and clothing and visiting and caring for the king was going to be on the final exam, and besides, I never saw the king, and … ahhhhhhhhhhhh!
Yet, when I finally wake up from this anxiety dream and do a little analysis, I find a few things to actually be comforting in it. We all remember that in this scene, the unrighteous failed to recognize the king when they were in his presence, hidden in the distressing disguise of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. But do you remember that the righteous also failed to recognize the king when they were in his presence in the same disguises? I don’t know about you, but I actually find it comforting that missing the presence of Jesus is common, that being unaware that I am in the presence of Jesus is the typical response.
I’m also comforted by the implication in this passage that we are free agents. The righteous and the unrighteous were both free to choose how they were going to respond to the needs around them. God allows them and God allows us to go wherever we are going, to do whatever we are doing. We are not forced to love. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose.
But those reassurances are peripheral to the main thrust of this story of the final judgment.
Here in this story, the nations are judged based on how they have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and treated those in prison. These are very real issues. These are very concrete questions. How well have we – as a nation, as a church, even as individuals (though I think this story is more about communities than it is about individuals) – fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and treated those in prison?
I hear echoes of this question in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that are sweeping the country. Under the banner or chat of “we’re the 99%” – an allusion to the fact that 1% of the U.S. population receives 25% of the annual income and controls 40% of the wealth [i] – the protesters are suggesting that this top 1% has an obligation to the other 99%. They are pointing out that we, as a nation, are not doing a good job at feeding the hungry and housing the homeless – that, in fact, the number of people in these groups is rising, not falling. They haven’t (at least in significant numbers) gotten to the question of how we’re welcoming the stranger (the immigration issue) or treating those imprisoned (the issue of the prison industrial complex). But they’re talking about some of the question Jesus asks in this scene of the final judgment.
This past week, in part of my ongoing dialog on Facebook about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I posted a picture [ii] (which I’d show you if we could do projections in this worship space; I’ll attempt to describe it). The picture is in two parts. The top part is a photo of the street protests in New York, labeled, “In America, you are the 99%.” The bottom part is a photo of some starving children, their ribs showing as their hands are outstretched, perhaps for some food from an aid worker. It is labeled, “But to the rest of the world you are still the 1%.”
When I saw the picture, I found it chilling and so I reposted it with the comment, “While I support the general aim of the Occupy Wall Street movement, this is worth remembering.” I’m pleased to report that I’m not speaking in a Facebook echo chamber. Two of the ten friends who commented, posted arguments against the sentiments of the picture. Nonetheless, I stand by the sentiments and I think they’re important for us to remember when we ask ourselves, perhaps even judge ourselves on how we’re doing on the final judgment question.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to get overwhelmed by the needs that this final judgment question brings to my consciousness. I may be part of the 99% in the United States, but I’m probably in the upper part of the middle of that 99%. And that means that there are a whole bunch of people who are hungry right here in my country (let alone the rest of the world). In fact, there are a whole bunch of people who are hungry right here in my county (let along the rest of the country). And when I think about all the people right here, right now, I get a little overwhelmed. Expand that need to the rest of the country and the rest of the world, and I get paralyzed. What can I do? What can we do?
The answer, of course, is “something.” As Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.”
For instance, we can participate in Mission: 1. Mission: 1 is a nation-wide effort of the United Church of Christ to address food justice issues that will take place from November 1 to November 11. There was an article about it in the October newsletter and there will be another in the November newsletter. But it boils down to this during those 11 days: Our congregation has a goal of raising 1,111 food items for our local food bank as part of the nation-wide effort to raise a million food items. Our congregation has a goal of getting 100 people to give at least to food justice programs sponsored by the United Church of Christ, part of the UCC’s goal of raising 1,111 for national food programs and the same amount for East African hunger relief. And our congregation will participate in the nation-wide goal of raising 11,111 letters to Congress about food justice issues.
Is that going to solve the hunger problem? No. Will it feed hungry people, at least for a little while? Yes. Will it transform us from goats into sheep? I’ll leave that judgment to Jesus.
It’s been said that there are two types of people in the world: people who divide people into two groups and people who don’t. It seems that Jesus is part of the group that divides people into two groups. In this story of the final judgment the king separates the nations into two groups, sheep and goats. But the story actually mentions three groups: sheep, goats, and the “least of these.”
And as I thought about these three groups, I started wondering which group do I fall into and which group do you fall into. And as I was praying about this on BART this week, I realized that all three groups are right here in our church.
There are people in our congregation who are champions at seeing needs and addressing them. And there are people in our congregation who, at least some of the time, block those needs out (I know this because I’m one of time – at least some of the time). And there are people in our congregation, perhaps in the next pew, who are dealing with depression and people dealing with feelings of inadequacy and people struggling with financial crises. Are we being sheep or goats for these people? And if you are the person dealing with one of these issues, how are you treating the person in the next pew? Are you allowing her to hear your pain, your fear, your vulnerability so that she knows that today you’re one of the least of these rather than someone to be judged as a sheep or a goat? We can get pretty good at hiding our own needs – even from ourselves.
And the more I think about it the more I realize that there aren’t three groups of people; there is one group of people: people. We are all sometimes the sheep who care for the least of these, and we are all sometimes the goats who don’t care for the least of these, and we are all sometimes the least of these hoping that some sheep will come our way.
The most important thing about this story is not only the question it asks, about how we have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and treated those in prison, but also about what it doesn’t ask. There is nothing about belief or doctrine. There is no mention of whether one has had a personal, emotional conversion experience. There is no question about understanding the socio-political setting of the scriptures to assure an accurate historical critical interpretation. There is no reference to sexuality, sexual behavior, alcohol, swearing, or forms of worship.
It’s really quite simple and straightforward. How have you behaved toward your neighbor?
The lawyer asked Jesus, “What’s the most important commandment?” and Jesus answered, “Love God with your hole being. But don’t forget the second most important commandment, because it’s just like the first. Love your neighbor as yourself.” The question and answer is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in one form or another. According to Luke, Jesus goes on to tell a story that suggests that “our neighbor” is anyone who might need our help.
“Nowhere in these important passages do we find Jesus suggesting that before we extend ourselves on behalf of another or before we love our neighbor, that we should first expound a theology, or a belief system. Nor does it appear that there was ever a ‘litmus test’ that Jesus used before he befriended someone or helped him or her.” [iii] That’s why progressive Christians believe that our actions of love are more important than the expression of our beliefs.
The gospels record several instances when someone asked Jesus, in one form or another, “How do I enter the Kingdom of God?” Jesus almost always suggested that they take some action and he never suggested that the questioner must first acquire some “right” or correct belief. Thus the “rich man” who was sure he was following the law, the Torah, was told he needed to take bolder action by giving up his wealth. The lawyer was instructed to love his neighbor as he loved himself. The priests were told to give up their hypocrisy.
The reality is that it is much easier to debate theology, Christology, creeds or to memorize scripture than it is to follow the teachings of Jesus, to actually do what Jesus asks us to do. And Jesus is only asking us to follow his example.
The Jesus we meet in the gospels is a man of action: he heals; he forgives; he demonstrates compassion; he takes a stand against injustices; he shares; he weeps; he loves unconditionally. He then tells his disciples and interested followers to go and do likewise. That’s why, for progressive Christians, the fullest expression of what we believe is what we do. The fullest expression of what we believe is found in how we live out our faith, not in what we say.
“By putting behavior ahead of belief in a hierarchy of values, progressive Christians are insisting that followers of Jesus are bound to treat their fellow human beings with kindness and respect.” [iv]
Whether you’re feeling sheepish, goatish, or the least-of-these-ish, the greatest expression of what we believe is found the way we behave toward one another and toward other people.
[i] Joseph E. Stiglitz, “O the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” Vanity Fair, http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105 (15 October 2011).
[ii] The picture (but not the stream of comments for my posting of it) is available at http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=167121646708391&set=o.184749301592842&type=1&ref=nf (16 October 2011).
Additional Sources used:
Laurel Dykstra, “When Did We See You?” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_081149_AProper29&week=A_Proper_29 (13 October 2011).
Julie Polter, “Tagged by Mercy,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_931149_AProper29&week=A_Proper_29 (13 October 2011).
Peter Price, “Do Not Be Deceived,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_961149_AProper28&week=A_Proper_29 (13 October 2011).