This is a transcript from the September 22, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
The choir just sang about where will this road lead me. I want you to think about it, another road. As they're being seated, I want you to see this and if you have seen anything by Bev Doolittle in the past, you may catch this.
On the one hand, it looks like you are tracking a bear but I want you to look into the bushes a little bit closer and when you get it, you'll know. It's called Doubled Back and she's famous for pictures like this. She's famous for pictures of what you think you're looking for only to find out what you're looking for is hiding in plain sight. In fact, in this picture, it's waiting for you.
I thought about that with regards to our passage this morning because it is about looking for something and as we find out and as Jesus' parables often do, where they turn very quickly on us and catch us off guard, take our breath, it is because what we're looking for or what we think we're looking for is in plain sight. You know it as the parable of the sheep and the goats, it's the third of three parables that we've been looking at the last three weeks out of Matthew 25. I want to talk about them as a whole but today, first, let me just start with this story that you already know so well.
When the son of man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. By the way, this is found in Matthew 25 if you'd like to follow along or you just might want to close your eyes and listen or look at our sheep and goats.
All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. 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."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" The King will answer them, "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."
Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels for I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?" Then he will answer them, "Truly, I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." These will go away into the eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.
This is one of those parables that's meant to get our attention. It does. Before we talk about what it means, I want to talk about what it's not meaning. Before we talk about what's being asked, I want to make sure we're really clear about what it's not asking. Because the King did not on the last days gather the nations and separate them into sheep and goats and the sheep and the goats the over underlying. He did not ask them, "How many of you are Presbyterians and everybody else who is not?" Just to be testing he didn't say, "Now spell that for me by the way."
He did not ask, "How many of you have been baptized as infants or how many of you were baptized as adults?" The overunderlying wasn't whether you were sprinkled with water or whether you were fully immersed. It had nothing to do with your views of communion. Is it the real presence or is it transubstantiation? Is it consubstantiation? Nobody got separated out because of the version of the Bible that they prefer. Nobody got separated out because of the number of times they came to church or didn't come to church.
Nobody got separated out because of any particular doctrine on predestination or whether they came because they said a sinner's prayer at a certain time or that they didn't mean it or they really meant it. In this parable, no one even gets separated whether or not they are a Christian. I want to say all of that because before we get into all of the rest of it, how many things for as humorous as all that might be, how many of us and how much of church history has been spent, how much anguish, how much division, how much fighting, how much blood has been shed over just those things?
Jesus' parable it really has nothing to do with anything. It doesn't matter whether you think you know me or not. Everybody in this parable knows him. They all call him Lord. It has nothing to do with devotion. Everybody in here is devoted. Everybody wants to do the right thing. The over underlying is, what did they actually do? The question becomes, what does God want? That's what we've been following this whole month; is what does God want from me?
That question, it seems to me that this story, when I read it again and when I was getting ready for this morning, I was reminded of that story that we've shared before. It's been told many times in different places. Do you remember the time where there was an airline that was going to hire stewards and stewardesses and there was a group interview? As you would expect in this group interview, everybody was asked to get up and tell a little bit about themselves. When it became my time or your turn, people would get up and they would do their best to try to present themselves in a way that they thought somebody wanted, that would convey them well.
Only to find out at the end of the interview, nobody was paying attention. The interviewers were not paying attention to the person who was talking. What they were doing was watching everybody else who was listening because they thought, "We don't need people who are good stewards and stewardesses to be able to sparkle and shine. We need people who can listen even when it's not their turn. We need people who can listen with empathy. We need people who can listen and dial in and not just be thinking about the next thing they're going to say or be detached."
In other words, that people came in thinking that they were going to be interviewed about one thing and they're going to be tested about one thing when in fact they were going to be tested on the other. The fact that they didn't know it didn't matter because it was actually asking, "How are you inclined and what do you do with your life?" I think about this passage because neither the sheep nor the goats actually understood, none of them saw, but it had to do with; how are they inclined? This is a passage like the others that is truly I believe, not only about individuals but it's an indictment on religion.
Jesus is going after the religious leaders of the day. He's going after religion as it is practiced. Religion is that word that in the Latin means ligaments that you connect, that you are deeply connected and it connects you to God and yourself, your truest self and who you're supposed to be or it disconnects you. Jesus' indictment was the religion that people are practicing is disconnecting them from the will and the presence of God and this is to get our attention. It's disconnecting you from what really matters to God.
You can know God, you can call God Lord, you can be devoted, you can do all those things and still miss it because it has disconnected you from the purpose and the purposes of God. It's not old, it's not new. This is an ongoing thing. I'm struck by how many times in the New Testament this very theme comes across. In first John, it is commending and exhorting the people and saying,
Listen, those who say I love God and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. For those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
Doesn't matter how devoted you think you are if it isn't playing out in the way that you are treating the people in front of you. Likewise, James, the brother of Jesus in his congregation as they are living this out just within the first generation after Jesus is saying,
Listen, religion that's pure and undefiled before God the Father is this; care for the orphans, for the widows, the ones who are in distress and keep oneself unstained by this world. It is how do you take care of the least of these.
Because that's somehow what God is really after.
All this other stuff that we do, if it doesn't prepare us and doesn't launch us and doesn't help us do that, "It's getting in the way, it's disconnecting us," Jesus says, "from the very heart and the very purpose." It's within the fourth century, early fourth century, a guy named John Chrysostom, he became Saint John and he was very famous preacher and had these wonderful things including calling emperors in the church to care for the poor and his famous statement was here, "If you can't find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice."
The things that we think God cares about, the things that we think God really worries about, the things that we fight about and are anxious about turns out it has nothing to do with what God is really after. The question is, as we are thinking about seeking God, the question is not how do I find God, which we think is what religion is about. I think the question before us this morning in this parable, at least, is this, what's keeping me from seeing God who's right here? I think that's a great question. What is keeping you and what is keeping me from seeing the God we say we are seeking the one who seems to be hiding in plain sight right here, what's keeping us from seeing that God this day?
The problem is we don't see clearly, what does it look like when we do? You have seen perhaps versions of this, it's a short clip, it's about 40 seconds. It's when a child starts to see clearly for the first time, born with a defect that keeps everything fuzzy and then they put special glasses on her and watch the transformation when she starts to see clearly.
At first there was this startled-sense and then there is this recognition for the first seeing and connecting the face with your mother. Then the question becomes who was more joyful in that, the child or the parent? Which leads me into our parable, when it comes to seeing clearly who is more joyful when we finally begin to see clearly? What keeps me from seeing the God who was right there? I think it's the wrong image of God. I think it's the wrong image of what God is expecting. I think it's the wrong image of what my religion is supposed to do and who it's supposed to connect me to.
I think there's a couple of questions that are very key and I hate to just say it's either this or that, but there tend to be two various versions of what religion is supposed to do and who God is. The first one, and maybe this was yours growing up, I know it was part of mine growing up, somewhere where it says, how do I get God to let me into heaven after I die? When I die, what do I need to do so that when I come to that place, I get to be over here with the sheep? What do I need to say? What do I need to do? What do I need to make sure I don't do?
But there is another question. There's another question and it's how can I participate with God in bringing heaven to earth and be part of a life that has no end? In other words, how do I fulfill that prayer that we just prayed called the Lord's Prayer? You know that prayer we pray every time we are together that thy will be done on earth as it's done in heaven. How do I make that my prayer? Because you know what, if you're asking the first question, if that drives your faith, if that drives your perception of God, what it will drive, it will drive behavior that has to do with fear and appeasement.
What do I need to do? What do I make sure I don't do so I don't get God mad at me? How can I make sure that I'm doing the right thing saying the right things? Maybe that's why I go to church in the first place. I keep my head down so as to not tick God off. I may even be disturbed by this parable because it feels like, Oh my gosh, one more thing I'm not doing. You mean I have to feel guilty about all the people who I don't see and I don't care for and that person that was on the highway and I didn't give them a dollar, oh no. If the question is the second one, then the answer has to do with compassion and reconciliation. It has to do with the one thing that God is involved in.
When that becomes the question, it changes not only how we see who God is, it changes how we see one another, but it also changes the way I view my world. Because it means it is not a matter of here's one more test that I have to pass so that God will let me into heaven. These parables, as all three of them have been in Matthew 25, we get to see them for what they are. These are rabbinic stories that get told in Jesus' time.
There's a style of story that takes people to times of judgment and at the end of your life or the end of the day, what really matters and it's meant to get our attention and it's meant to get our attention, not about, "Oh my gosh, what do I need to do to pass the test?" It's meant to get my attention and say, "Wake up and see what's right in front of you." Because what you are thinking about is missing; it's that story, it's that saying that we have said around here, and I think it applies beautifully. You've heard it before too, I'm sure, it's where I saw the starving child and I screamed at God until I realized the child was God screaming at me.
Boy, is that a different way. That's what this parable is. This parable is God screaming at us. It's God trying to wake us up. It's Jesus saying, "Listen, you the religious leaders and all the people who think they're doing what God wants, you're missing it. This is not what God wants." There is a deep connection that God is after and this will change the way that you see yourself. This will change the way that you see God. More to the point, this will change the world.
You want to know what the world needs more than anything else right now?
I'll bet it's not much different than in Jesus' time; is we need to find a different way to see one another different than us and them, the people who are good and the people who are bad, the people we want to be with and the people we wish would just disappear. Somehow, we need something that's going to help me see who this other person is in a different way, see myself in a different way and see it connected with God. That's why a person like Mother Teresa is right in line with John Chrysostom with John, with James, with Jesus.
If we have no peace, it's because we've forgotten that we belong to each other. What can remind us of that? Because when we remember then this parable as a part of three begins to make sense in a whole new way. Then it means that I need to be able to see differently and if I'm going to do that, I can't dare bury my gift just out of fear that I might do something wrong. Before I do that, then I'd better make sure I am taking care of the fuel that's in my lamp so I don't run out in the long haul. The assignment this month has been, and it will continue to be this week as well; what nurtures your soul, do it.
I'm challenging you, five times this week, do something that nurtures your soul and be more specific this week look for the things that help you see better, see differently. It can be reading the Bible, it can be going to prayer, it can be hearing worship, hopefully, that works. Hopefully, the other things, maybe you're running, maybe you are listening to music, maybe you're gardening, maybe you're doing yoga. It doesn't really matter what works for you, because when that part begins to be filled up, then we have more courage and we begin to understand that we are coming from a place, not of loss but a place of abundance.
Then we are able perhaps to see afresh what God is after and we begin to be able to live and to hope. How's your vision this morning? What are you seeing? The good news is that the best instincts of our soul, the best instincts when we help somebody and that feels right and good, and when we see someone caring for someone who's hurting and someone who's on the margins gets nurtured and cared for, that best part of who we are is also the best clue as to who God is and we get to follow that. How's our vision? What will we see? This week, how will we live?