Matthew 25: 31-46
October 3, 2010
Everyday, it seems, people are helping Jesus in all kinds of ways. He certainly helped Jesus, even though he didn’t realize it, as he was cruising home from work up Highway 52 one Friday afternoon. It had been a brutal week in the office, and it was pouring rain – two reasons why he wanted more than ever to get home as soon as possible. He could almost smell the casserole in the oven, feel the arms of his two daughters wrapped around his neck, see the smile on the face of his lovely wife. And it was all just a few miles away.
That’s when he noticed in the distance an older gentleman on the side of the road trying in vain to put a spare tire on his car. It was obvious he was struggling, and the rain wasn’t helping matters. He could have continued on, let the next person stop, but he didn’t. In no time the two were able to get the spare tire in place. The guy thanked him profusely, saying he had just gotten word that his first grandchild had been born and was eagerly making his way to the hospital. And as the businessman got back in his car and headed home, he had no idea that he had just helped Jesus put a spare tire on his car.
She saw Jesus, too, the day she rode the subway to work rather than taking her usual cab. Hidden behind the morning paper she could barely notice at first the sniffles and sobs of the person next to her. Trying not to be too obvious, she peeked around the corner of the sports section to see a young woman, her puffy red eyes indicating she had been crying for some time.
It was not her nature to intrude on other people’s business, but for some reason she inquired as to what was wrong. The young woman told her story – her fiancé had broken off the engagement, and she had no idea what she was going to do. Together the two of them talked, even though it took both of them past their planned stops. Finally, through eyes that were now less red and showing signs of hope, the young woman got off the subway with a smile. And as folks watched her depart, who would’ve ever thought that they had just seen Jesus riding the subway that day?
Every day, she gives Jesus a hand. All the time. He walks into her office at the local food bank. Maybe he’s been laid off, or perhaps he’s exhausted the good will of family and friends one too many times. Whatever the case, he comes there seeking some food for his stomach and some calm amidst the chaos in his life. Whenever she can, she fills up a bag for him. And when he leaves, he leaves with something he did not have when he first walked through those doors – hope. Indeed, there are a lot of Jesus sightings there at the food bank.
Someone once asked the famous doctor Albert Schweitzer to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment. He thought for a minute, and then said this: "The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who, at this hour, has gone in love to be with another person in need." (http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=913, visited on 9.29.2010).
I've shared that quote from this pulpit before – I feel it bears repeating. And it seems to me that this is very much along the lines of what Jesus is getting at in our scripture reading today. In this story at the end of the 25th chapter, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the future and the second coming – what many call the final judgment. There is this “roll call” of the most cosmic caliber; Jesus separating the good sheep from the bad goats. And the only difference between the two, the only litmus test by which this separation takes place, is between those who helped Jesus in his time of need and those who did not.
Now both the sheep and goats are quite puzzled by this – when in the world did they help, or not help, Jesus? And Jesus makes it quite clear. To the sheep he says: 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. And to the goats: Just as you did NOT do it to one of the least of these, you did NOT do it to me. The story concludes with their respective destinations: And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
There has always been a part of me that has had a strange fascination with this story. And I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it’s because it presents a very clear-cut picture of what happens when all is said and done – perhaps I feel better knowing that one day there will be justice; that the “good people” will receive their blessing and the bad ones will get what they deserve. In a world that too often seems mired in gray with not enough black and white, stories like this have a certain appeal to them. It reminds us that justice will come.
But over the years I’ve begun to question if that is all the story is about – if there may be more here than meets the eye. Because there is a strong segment of the Christian world today that tends to obsess with the “life to come” over and above the one we’re living right now. And what tends to drive that kind of faith is people doing anything and everything to assure that their final destination – and everyone else’s – is the right one: even if they have to scare people to death to do it.
I think about a certain kind of haunted house a few Halloweens ago that made the rounds. It was called “Hell House.” The brain child of a Pentecostal church out of Dallas, this haunted house is designed to depict a tour trip through hell and geared toward youth. Visitors are confronted with graphic images of murder, a teen who dies in an underage drinking car accident, a kid smoking pot, and even a young woman having an abortion – and those are the ones I can share with you from the pulpit. In each scene the guilty teen is endlessly tormented by eternal fire and horrific demons. Upon exiting, participants are asked to make a profession of faith in Jesus – the implied message being that failing to do so would result in a future return to Hell House for a more permanent stay. Similar haunted houses seem to crop up every Halloween all over the country.
Now, questionable reasons to go to hell aside, I can’t help but be concerned when well-meaning Christians see it as their responsibility to literally “scare folks into heaven.” And while evil is most certainly a reality in our world, is that really the sole reason that you and I should choose God? When the focus of our faith is always on the “end days,” on the final judgment – as the way the sheep and goats passage is typically read – we neglect to recognize the importance of our life of faith that comes before it. And I can’t help but wonder if that really is a faith at all.
That’s why I’m not convinced that the sole reason Jesus shared this story was to persuade folks to be on the right side of the throne come judgment day. Because there are so many other ways Jesus could have gotten that point across without bringing up the theme that runs constantly throughout this passage: just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.
Now let's just think about that for a second. Think about not just how wonderful that sounds, but what it actually means. When we come to the aid of someone, when we tend to the needs of another, we are not just being a “good Christian.” We are doing so much more than that – we are actually helping Jesus! That’s why he assured the crowds that:
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.
And here’s the thing – this is much more than simply an attempt on our part to repay Jesus for all the good he’s done us. Because there’s no way – no way – we could do that, even if we tried. No, it goes a lot deeper – and it's getting to the heart of the relationship between God’s son and God’s people, where Jesus himself steps down from that throne and enters into a unique and special relationship with each one of us.
And that, my friends, has powerful implications. I mean, what would it mean if you and I made a concentrated effort to follow Jesus' lead and look for Jesus in everyone else – everyone? The person sitting next to you in the pew right now. That guy who cut you off in traffic yesterday. The fella who wanders the streets in ragged clothes pushing a grocery cart full of junk. The people sitting on the other side of the political aisle from where you are. What does it mean to see Jesus in them, and even more importantly, to serve them as if they really were Jesus?
Putting the gospel of Jesus Christ into action in our lives is not a choice for us – it is our calling as Christians. It's what we do. And it involves not only what goes on here in this sacred place, but everything out there – outside our church doors. You will certainly meet Jesus here in this wonderful place – you already know that. But if you really want to meet Jesus, you'll need to go out there.
You'll find him at the four agencies that are represented here this morning – Children's Center of Surry, Yokefellow Ministries, Blue Ridge CareNet Counseling Center and Habitat for Humanity – among many other ministries our church supports. Through these ministries you, the church, do all kinds of wonderful things for Jesus. You build Jesus a home. You counsel Jesus through difficult times. You fill Jesus's grocery bag with some food. You give a teenage Jesus a place to live and to grow. As our annual Faith In Action Sunday reminds us, we come into contact with Jesus every time the church reaches outside its four walls and steps into the community and world of which it is part.
And when you come back here, you'll find Jesus in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper; all welcome to the table. You'll come into contact with Jesus in the most intimate of ways, as we celebrate the greatest gift he ever gave us – himself. And as we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are called to share the gift of Jesus with others.
Friends, I am convinced that a true sign of a vibrant church is not just the “bottom line,” important as that line is, but in the spirit of service that its members possess; the willingness of God’s people to put their faith into action. For it is through our gifts of mission and service that we not only come to the aid of people in need, but it is there where we meet Jesus, face to face. And for that, most definitely for that, thanks be to God. AMEN.