And You Gave Me; Matthew 25:31-46
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; November 22, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Do you remember taking an examination somewhere along the way that had maybe 50 or 100 questions, with the written directions: first read completely through the exam before answering any questions? Some people finished pretty quickly. They smiled, got up and left the room. Others continued to sit, very focused, working their way through each of the answers. There were some complicated mathematical problems that needed a fair amount of figuring out, while others weren’t so hard. Finally, the last students made their way down to the final question that simply stated: put your name at the top of the sheet and turn your exam in at the desk.
What we thought we were being tested on, wasn’t the point of the exam at all.
Jesus, in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, tells three stories. Each story is told to help us understand what the kingdom of heaven is about. Jesus wants his followers to understand that heaven is more than streets of gold and a mansion in the sky in the sweet bye and bye sometime when we die. He wants them to realize that God’s kingdom has already been inaugurated in Christ’s coming, and the invitation is to be a part of the building of the kingdom here and now: using God’s power on the ground while we’re still around.
The first story we talked about two weeks ago has to do with a wedding reception. The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids, Jesus says, who are to light the path for the groom as he makes his way into the wedding banquet. Five of the women thought ahead and brought enough oil for their lamps. But the other five are foolish and unprepared. Be prepared, Jesus tells us. Have your lamps filled.
The second story Jesus tells is the Parable of the Talents that we talked about last week. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man who is leaving on a trip. It’s a story about what we do with what God has given us; what we do with our resources, and ultimately, what we do with our lives.
This third and last story in this section is about the last judgment, and it certainly catches our attention! And that’s the point. Jesus tells us the story so we know what God is looking for, so there’s no surprise when we get to the end. Jesus wants us to know what really matters to God so there’s no need to be puzzled, to have to say, I had no idea. If I had known, I would have lived my life differently. The story’s purpose isn’t to condemn us or to scare us, but to give us kind of a wellness check, that can lead us to new habits and new ways of living.
It’s like that appointment with your doctor when you decided that if you want to live, you’d better lose some weight, quit smoking, cut down on the red meat, and sprinkle less salt and a little more exercise into your life (or whatever it is that your doctor tells you to do.) Worth considering for your physical health.
This story is worth considering for your soul-health.
As we look in Matthew’s gospel, we see that this story is the last one Jesus tells before the last supper and his arrest. I think of people I’ve known who upon learning their illness was terminal, devoted themselves to making every word and moment count in the time they had left. I think of a conversation I had with a pastor who was within a few months of retirement. His messages were all carefully planned out. He wanted every word to count. He wanted to be sure he said those things that most mattered to God.
This is the story Jesus tells his disciples when he knows he’s soon to be arrested. When he knows he’s about to give up his life. He wants them to hear what really matters. He wants every word to count.
And what does he talk about? Sheep and goats!!
I don’t know…maybe if he was talking to us today he’d talk about Bing and Google. Jesus used images people were familiar with, and though I don’t really know why a shepherd would separate sheep and goats at the end of the day, the disciples most likely would know that. (Apparently, sheep like to sleep in the open air, while goats prefer huddling together in a sheltered place, or maybe it’s the other way around.) And they would know that when Jesus talked about a shepherd, or The Human One or the Son of Man that he was talking about himself.
“Do you know the way a shepherd who has been out with the animals in the highlands separates the sheep from the goats at the end of the day? Well, that is what I will be doing. I’ll be separating the sheep—the saved—from the goats. The sheep—those who are going to heaven, I’ll put at my right hand. The goats—who won’t be going to heaven—I’ll put on my left hand.
As Jesus tells the story, I imagine the disciples leaning in closely, listening carefully. “I wonder what criteria God will use in deciding how to divide them?”
“Maybe God will separate the saved from the lost based on their knowledge of scripture,” one of the disciples considers. Those who know the Word and the Law will be saved, and all those who have never darkened the door of a Bible study are out of luck.
Another disciple ponders: “I wonder if God will separate the saved from the lost based on how well they follow the Law. Keeping the Sabbath, honoring God, respecting their parents, not committing adultery or stealing or murdering or lying. That makes sense.”
A third disciple nods his head in anticipation. Surely Jesus will point to faith as the most important ingredient in a life. Those receiving the gift of heaven will be the people who have faith in Jesus as the way. The goats will be those uncertain souls who were never too sure about that. Who never were willing to take the risk of believing. Faith is key. Faith changes us. It makes life better. We know that! Surely they’ll be “out” because of their lack of faith.
So, the disciples are leaning in to hear, as Jesus continues the story:
The king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed/who will receive good things from my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…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.
The righteous are surprised, Jesus tells his disciples. They don’t remember seeing Jesus or doing any of those things for him!
The king answers them: Just as you’ve done for the least of those who are members of my family, you did it for me.
Here’s how Eugene Peterson writes it in The Message: ‘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.’
Jesus turns then, to those at his left hand and repeats the same conditions in reverse: things they didn’t do. I was hungry and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you ignored me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick, I was in prison, and you didn’t visit me.
This group responds in surprise, too. We don’t remember seeing you! When was it that we failed to do these things for you?
Jesus responds as he did before: In the same way that you didn’t do these things for the least of those who are members of my family, you didn’t do it for me.
Remember the test I told you about a little while ago, where you thought you were being tested on one thing, but really it was something completely different?
Jesus says the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the cursed, the saved and the lost will all be surprised! They have been tested in the small, everyday, ordinary moments of their lives.
The righteous will hardly remember the good they’ve done, because they were just going about living their ordinary everyday lives, doing what seemed right and good at the moment, responding to some need when they saw it. At the time they didn’t realize they were doing anything particularly special or holy. They were just doing what people do.
The goats will have a vacant look on their faces. What? What are you talking about? I would have never passed you by if I had seen you in one of those predicaments. They don’t remember the opportunities they missed. They hadn’t noticed.
Maybe they were moving through life a little too quickly.
Or maybe they saw the need but told themselves it wasn’t their problem. Or that the people in trouble got that way by their own choices. Not my problem: they got themselves into that pickle and they can get themselves out of it.
This year there was a new reason offered of why not to respond. Not to give. I read an article that came out of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette this week. It was a signed opinion piece written by a social worker, the program director of the Allen County Salvation Army, who said that for the first time in the 13 years that she has been working in that capacity, “donors” were stipulating that they didn’t want their contributions to go to families where the adults may have voted for the opposing presidential candidate.
You can’t make these things up, you know?
Kathleen Norris wrote in a commentary about this text saying, “We are to act as if Christ is in other people, even the stranger whom we believe we have reason to fear, the prisoner whose acts we find reprehensible, the sick we’d rather condemn because we’re convinced that their lifestyle contributed to their illness, the hungry who should have been able to find for themselves. If we cannot recognize Christ in these others, what we have, to paraphrase the prison guard in “Cool Hand Luke,” is “a failure to imaginate.” The exercise of our imaginations is vital if we are to find Christ in others.
Kathleen quotes the preacher Fred Craddock who says the sin of sloth is the ability “to look at a starving child…with a swollen belly and say, “Well, it’s not my kid.” To look at a recent widow and say, “It’s not my mom.” Or to see an old man sitting alone in the park and say, “Well…that’s not my dad.” (The sin of sloth) is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”
Do you know what God is looking for, according to the story about the judgment? Do you know what God is looking for, according to this story about the sheep and the goats?
God is looking for people who respond generously to human need. God is looking for people who are willing to be bothered…to be stretched out of their comfort zone because someone—usually a stranger—was hungry, or lonely, or sick or in prison, or trying to find their way around in a new community, a new office, a new school, or a new way of living.
God is looking for people who do the kind thing…the compassionate thing.
And you know what? Every example in the story of the sheep and the goats is a simple thing. Sometimes, we church folks like to makes things complicated. We United Methodists are institutionally good at that. If you don’t believe me, I’ll loan you a Book of Discipline!
But feeding someone who’s hungry is a pretty simple thing.
Visiting someone who’s sick or in prison is a little more complicated, particularly right now. Welcoming the stranger is, too, and yet there are ways to reach out to people we don’t know personally, through phone calls, texts, internet messages. Right now we can welcome people into the church who have never walked through the doors of a church building before!
God doesn’t expect us to solve all the problems of the world. We’re only asked to respond to the problem, to the need, to the people experiencing need—who are right in front of us.
On Thursday, while I was still figuring out my sermon and had just a couple of things scribbled out on paper, though nothing actually is written yet, I received a phone call from a gentleman who I know and love who lives in this community and who asked me to be a spokesperson for an issue he’s dealing with. As he went through the situation with me, it’s pretty complicated and impacts a group of people who don’t feel like they have a lot of clout in life…who don’t feel like anyone listens. I could hear what he was feeling from his perspective, and I had an idea of how “the other side” would respond—the ones to whom I would be “speaking.” I think I might understand their perspective, too.
As he goes a little deeper into the story with me, my head is spinning a bit…knowing that I would say yes, while thinking about what I need to get done, along with the when, and how, and what kind of research will I need to do…feeling a little overwhelmed.
And then, with that conversation literally being framed in this scripture, I thought of Jesus’s words about the least, the lost, the oppressed, the lonely…the over-looked and ignored. I heard the call to not only write a sermon but to “be” the sermon.
The little moments in life. When we did the right thing.
When we went out of our way.
When we gave.
When we slipped into the role of servant, almost without thinking.
Somehow, seeing Jesus in the one who is hungry, the one who is thirsty, who needs clothing, who needs to be visited, who needs a spokesperson.
Little moments. That what God is looking for, I think.