November 26, When, Lord?

 When, Lord?

Matthew 25:31-46 

The scripture for today describes the final judgement. All the nations are gathered before the King, the Son of Man, and there is a separation of persons that takes place – “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

In this scripture story, we come to find out then, that the sheep are the favored ones, gathered in, and the goats are those who are condemned, sent away. But on what basis? On what basis are people put into one group or the other? On what basis are some judged to be sheep and others judged to be goats?

Is it on the basis of theological beliefs? Is it on the basis of class status? On the basis of ethnicity, or race, or political affiliation, or gender, or sexual orientation, or education, or work background, or age, or income, or marital status, or physical abilities? Is it on the basis of what country or what region of the country or what city or what neighborhood one lives in?

On what basis are the people divided between those who are accepted and those who are rejected? How is it determined who goes to the right and who goes to the left, after standing before the judge? How is it determined who gets grouped with the sheep and who gets grouped with the goats? 

The answer is there in the story, and it is interesting, isn’t it? It’s not anything about identity. It’s not anything about what you look like or what group you belong to. It’s not anything about thoughts or beliefs. It’s only about what you did – or didn’t – do.

And more specifically, it’s about how you treated those who were in need, or who were living at the margins, or who had no one to stand with them, or who had limited power and opportunity, or who the culture or the society rejected. The determination of who the king accepts and who the king rejects rests solely on whether they – the people who are being judged – accepted or rejected those who needed them most. 

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. That’s what the king says.

Of course, the people are startled, surprised. They don’t remember doing all those things for the king!  Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the king answers: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” translates the king’s words this way: I’m telling the solemn truth. Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.

And then there’s no avoiding it. It’s clear then that there are no points for good thoughts. No credit for good intentions. No praise for good theology. No prize for good ideas or good wishes or good words. Nope. If you want to be counted among the sheep, that is, if you want to enter the kingdom of God, you have to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the  stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the ones in prison.  

Is that the whole list? The hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned? Well, it’s a pretty good list to start, but I hardly imagine that it’s the whole list. There are certainly many more kinds of people on the margins. Nevertheless, you get the idea: While Jesus might not judge on the basis of the effectiveness or the impressiveness of our action or our advocacy, he does expect some action, some advocacy. You may not be judged on whether or not you changed the world, but Jesus will judge on the basis of whether or not you stepped out of your space and into the space of need, and did what you could do.

Shane Page, a United Methodist pastor from North Carolina writing for Day One, puts it this way: “Notice what Jesus never said here. Notice he never said to the sheep, "You had the right political opinion about the least of these" or "You studied liberation theology!" Even the goats could have affirmed God's preferential option for the poor.” No, what he said is, "You fed me, you visited me, you welcomed me." The good news here…is that Jesus never said, "I was sick and you healed me or I was in prison and you broke me out." King Jesus will hardly judge us on whether we accomplished extraordinary feats for the most vulnerable. He'll only hold us accountable on the simple, ordinary acts: giving a meal, paying a visit, offering welcome.”   

Page continues: “To do these things, however, does involve what has become a greater challenge for so many of us. It involves a certain proximity to them, a closeness, a friendship, and where I live, that level of closeness has become harder and harder to come by.”

In other words, if I live a life removed from those who are different from me, from those who are at a disadvantage compared to me, from those who are pushed to the side by me – if not directly, then at least indirectly because of the way I occupy a place of privilege or advantage, then I need to do something different. I need to find a way to stretch and reach and touch, because entering the kingdom of heaven isn’t about having the right position; it’s about being in the right proximity – and then reaching out.

Here’s Shane Page again: “For our part," said Mother Teresa, "what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich." Or as John Wesley, the Methodist pioneer, observed, "It is always better to carry aid than it is to send it." The saints know the poor hardly need our pity. (says Page) They need our friendship and, for heaven's sake, we need theirs.”

There are lots of divisions these days. And there are lots of edges – places where those with privilege and those without find themselves not only at a distance, but often times in disagreement. Who is to blame for advantage and disadvantage? Who is at fault when the fault lines appear?

But that’s not what matters, is it – clarifying or bolstering our self-justifications, our rationalizations? It is clear that there are large and ever-growing gaps between the advantaged and the vulnerable. So, the pressing questions are these: How do we lean in? How do we build bridges? How do we give care to the hurting? Have we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the imprisoned? Have we? Have we just talked about our principles or have we actually touched someone who needs a touch of grace, mercy, compassion, or help? 

Many years ago, when I was pastoring in Florida, I was part of the ministerial association in the community where I lived. I eventually ended up as president of the group. It sounds like it might be an office to which a young minister would aspire, but it my case I think I got the nod by default – more like one of those situations where the person in charge asks for a volunteer to step forward and while you are standing there, everyone else takes a step back. Anyway, I became president of the group and so I tried to step up and lead. 

At the time, there was a movement afoot to oppose a local restaurant that wanted a liquor license – an establishment just down the block from a church with a pre-school in one direction and the Salvation Army in the other. I can’t remember now whether there was a law in place about the proximity of bars to schools and churches, or whether some of the pastors wanted such a law put into place, but the situation got all tangled up, especially after it hit the local paper. I didn’t have strong feelings, but as president of the group I got dragged into the middle of it, so I tried to work at sorting things out.

One of the members of the ministerial association, however, wasn’t (in my estimation anyway) very helpful as we tried to work our way through the issue. Mike had his own agenda and none of it had anything to do with zoning. He was the head of the local ministry to the “down and out” – the Mission, as it was known in the community. It seemed sometimes that when it came to ministerial association matters, he really wasn’t a very good team player, and then of course, (it seemed to me) he always had his hand out, asking for donations from the group for his ministry.

I can’t remember now exactly what I wanted to say to Mike in the midst of all of that, but I decided I needed to go and visit him one day. When I got there, he greeted me and then politely asked me to wait. He had something he needed to do first. He brought a stool out into the yard in front of his ramshackle building. He got a piece of sheet from just inside the door. He brought it out and wrapped it around the shoulders of the man who came shuffling over to sit on the stool.

I was standing a few feet away, but the stench was almost unbelievable. Mike seemed not to notice. Instead he started to do the task set before him – to give a haircut to the homeless man sitting there on the stool. I mean, it was actually a haircut. Not a shaving of a head – a haircut, with a comb and scissors. He put his hands on that man’s head and cut his hair.

I actually thought about that the other day when I was reading a novel I checked out from the library. In the story I was reading, the main character, Eddie, spends his boyhood in a turn of the century Roman Catholic protectory – something like an orphanage -- in New York after his mother dies of typhus and his father takes him and leaves him there at the age of four. The author describes Eddie’s experience of childhood this way: Lying in the vast dormitory, hearing his breath melt into the collective sigh of so many boys asleep, Eddie was shamed by his own meagerness: narrow hips; a sharp, unremarkable face; hair like dirty straw. Even more than the orphans’ annual excursion to the circus, he thirsted for the moment each month when the protectory barber’s hands would touch his scalp briefly, indifferently, yet capable of soothing him almost to sleep.  (“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan)

I think back to my experience in Florida that day, and I don’t even remember if Mike and I ever did talk about the ministerial association business or not. All I remember is him giving the haircut to a man I could imagine no one else would want to touch.

When Lord? When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? When was it that you were so filthy and the stench of you so strong that people turned away, but we set you on a stool in the yard, and took scissors and comb, and laid our hands on your head, and cut your hair, and you felt for a moment, perhaps, such soothing peace that you could have very nearly fallen fast asleep as we touched your scalp, rubbed your head, brushing away the loose hairs and smoothing down the unruly ones.   

Look: You don’t have to change the world, but you have to touch it. And you have to touch it with grace and kindness. You have to touch it in a way that recognizes vulnerability and affirms humanity. You have to do it, or else you will miss putting your hands on Jesus – feeding and clothing and welcoming him. You have to touch the world with grace and kindness or else you will never know what the kingdom of God feels like at the tips of your fingers.

And that means you have to go outside your own circle, to find someone who needs you as an advocate; to find someone who needs you as a friend; to find someone who is tender from the difficulties of life – to find such a one, and to put out your hand. You don’t have to change the world, but you have to touch it.  

And then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

May it be so.

Amen.

 

Benediction:

Jesus trust you – expects you even – to be his hands and feet in the world. Go out into this week and touch the world with compassion, kindness and peace. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 26, 2017