Living Well. Loving Well.
Matthew 25: 31-46
31“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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And 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.’ 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.’ 44Then 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?’ 45Then 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.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I’ve told you about my friend Kathy who had a mastectomy and has been undergoing radiation treatments over the past 7 weeks. All of us who adore her are praying without ceasing that the surgery and the radiation have completely destroyed every last cancer cell in her body. Hopefully, she’ll soon be back to her usual feisty, outrageous, lovable self. Even if she’s not up to her usual feistiness for a while, we’ll gladly take her as she is – healthy and healed.
Even Kathy admits it could have been so much worse. Her family has a genetic predisposition for breast cancer, and many of Kathy’s aunts and cousins have died from the disease. So for years, Kathy has been incredibly vigilant, almost militant in getting her mammograms. Her cancer was a slow-growing one and a routine mammogram revealed its presence long before she could have felt a lump. The early detection almost certainly saved her life.
Some of us are not quite so vigilant about our health. We put off regular medical check ups because we think they are a waste of time, or a waste of money. But many people I know put off check ups because they just don’t want to know if something is wrong with them. I’ve been known to do that. One of my favorite sayings is, “If you don’t take a temperature, you can’t find a fever.” But Kathy’s experience has underlined the importance of taking care of myself by getting those bothersome check-ups.
The text from Matthew today offers us something like a spiritual check up, I think. And at first glance, it’s a checkup we’d rather avoid. Jesus is a little scary here. The idea of eternal punishment is enough to give anybody the heebie-jeebies. But I really hope Jesus isn’t trying to frighten us into being good little sheep. However, I don’t think this depiction of a final judgment is meant to completely reassure us either.
What Jesus is doing is taking our temperature. Jesus seems to be offering for God’s people is a very direct invitation to an honest examination of who we are and how we are doing as disciples. Just as a good doctor is honestly concerned about our health, Jesus is concerned about our well-being. Jesus wants us to flourish in this life as well as the next. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is only talking about doing good deeds so we can get to heaven instead of that hot place. I think Jesus is just as concerned about the kind of life we are leading in the here and now.
So do you think we could read this text as if we are opening a gift? Can we receive this text as the best kind of gift? A gift that somebody we love deeply gives to us simply because they love us too? There are very few people in our lives who love us enough to help us know something real and true about ourselves. Can you think of a moment in your life when someone who loved you told you the truth, even if it was a truth you didn’t want to hear? Has someone you love given you a truth that had the power to set you free?
That’s what’s going on in this text from Matthew today. Jesus is not speaking to strangers, or to a large group of people, but in a very intimate way to his very dearest friends. Jesus’ time with the disciples is growing very, very short. Jesus knows that the day is coming in which they will no longer be able to see his physical body. Jesus also knows that following him is going to become much harder. So he makes it very clear to the disciples what it will mean to follow him.
The truth about every disciple boils down to this moment of self-examination: how are we living our lives? How do we spend our time? Are we paying attention to the needs of people around us? Or are we not?
In this text, Matthew shines a bright spotlight, nearly blinding us. The words in this text are like a laser beam cutting through deep fears and shallow faith, forcing us to decide what it is that really rules our hearts. In this metaphoric language of sheep and goats, we understand the way we treat one another reflects our love and commitment to Jesus. We violate other people by not seeing the light of Christ in them. And when we hear Jesus’ challenging words about how we overlook other people, we know that the line between the sheep and the goats runs straight through the middle of us. All of us. On any given day.
What Jesus is asking of his disciples is incredibly difficult to do. Giving up self-centeredness and apathy and cynicism seems more difficult than taking on the cross of Jesus. It is difficult for me on a bad day to see the face of Christ in some of the people I meet. Even on a good day, one smug jerk can knock me right into goat territory. Even though I totally believe Jesus when he says that loving every person who comes into my view is the only response that will save me in this life and the life to come. And I begin each day vowing to be the most awesome sheep Jesus has ever seen, only to end my day beating myself up for being such a stupid goat. I feel guilty when I haven’t successfully completed my checklist of the tasks I think I need to do to be a good sheep.
But the problem with any sort of checklist Christianity is that it becomes all about me. I end up not needing Jesus so much as needing to make sure I’m doing all the right things on Jesus’ behalf. And somehow, doing all the great things on this list — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, visiting the lonely, clothing the naked – is no longer about following Jesus, but about me placing myself above people in need so I can feel like I’m being a good little Jesus for them. The poor, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned – all of them become objects to rescue. There’s all of us – the Christians who do the saving of them – the least of these.
The danger we run into is we forget that not one person on this earth is entirely in one category or another. Nobody is entirely needy and nobody is entirely without the ability to take care of another person’s need. The poor and the hungry and the imprisoned are not some special category of more Christ-like people. And you and me and every other person who seek to meet needs aren’t some special category of Christ-like people either. All of us are sheep and goats. Very often we are both animals on the same day.
It’s not all about us. It’s what Jesus is up to in us and in other people, and through the connections we make with one another.
I think it works like this: when someone is in need and someone meets that need, Christ is revealed. Christ comes to us in the needs of the world, including the needs of our own lives. All of us are the needy and all of us can meet needs. And when the connection between two human beings happens, Christ is proclaimed and the redemption of God is known.
My friend Jannie Swart told the story about his church – Second Presbyterian — who began a ministry called “The Open Door Café” in downtown Oil City. Open three days a week, The Open Door Café serves two homemade soups each day, as well as coffee, tea and other beverages. It’s a lot like your neighborhood Starbucks or Panera, but there is no set price for the food and drink at The Open Door Cafe. People are free to pay what they would like to pay for the soup and the coffee. They are also free to pay nothing at all.
The point of this café, according to Jannie, is not to be a soup kitchen for poor people or a place where church volunteers evangelize to the customers. It’s all about relationships. As Jannie said often, the Open Door Café isn’t about taking Christ to people outside the walls of the church. It’s about helping the people in the church see and hear where Christ is at work in their community. From Jannie’s perspective, the church people are the people in need – to know their neighbors, to build relationships with them, and to learn to see Christ proclaimed in the ordinary, everyday stuff of soup and bread and conversation between all sorts of people who have in common what all human beings have in common. They need one another desperately, whether they know it or not. Nobody goes into The Open Door Café with an agenda. Christ is revealed in the connection made between the needy people who are gathered.
As I write this sermon, my 13 year old is with his church youth group friends, serving folks at The Table at Hot Metal Bridge. He went to the church after school to help cook the beefy macaroni, make the salad, and pack it all up along with pudding and cookies. The youth group kids and their leaders drove the food over to Hot Metal Bridge and served it to the motley crew of folks who show up there on Tuesday and Thursday nights. David has stubbornly avoided church life since I began my work here with you, but since this past September he has been a regular fixture at Sixth Presbyterian. Mostly because he decided he was interested in doing exactly what he did at Hot Metal. He wanted to serve food to hungry people.
You want to know what I think? I think that my dear son, whose lack of social skills makes him feel disconnected from people he is around every day, was finally overwhelmed with a feeling down deep inside. Like every human being, David needs to be needed. Although he probably couldn’t put the experience into words, David ran smack into the living Christ while serving the beefy macaroni.
Beloved church, if I may be so bold to say this – I suspect this is a deep need among you in this community. You need to be needed. You have a deep longing to be a church that loves and serves its neighbors. You want to be a church that matters deeply to people and connects with them in meaningful, personal ways. You may even feel a little sheepish that we may have missed out on opportunities to serve and be served as we’ve been distracted by all the issues that distract so many churches.
The good news is that our terrible tendency to either romanticize or judge or avoid people in great need who need us isn’t the final word on who we are. Jesus keeps looking for us. Jesus dwells among us whether or not we invite him. Jesus is powerfully present in places where you hurt and others hurt. Jesus is proclaimed when you get close enough to someone else to be with pain, in pain and to hold it all with humility and love.
Here’s the crazy thing. The sheep have no idea they are serving Jesus when they serve their neighbor. And the goats are just as clueless when they walk right by him. We will never have complete reassurance that we are doing discipleship right. We only have the assurance that our lives are held by God, in this life and in the next. That is grace, the final word. God wantsus. God wants us.
You know what the most annoying outcome from a routine medical check-up is? The check-up where the doctor says – sorry you have to make some changes in your life. Healthier eating habits. More exercise. Get more sleep. Reduce stress. And it’s never a surprise, is it? We know where we’re falling short. We know we eat too much junk. We know that we should spend more time walking and less time in front of the television. We know we should relax and get more sleep. Sometimes we do make the changes our doctor tells us to make and sometimes we don’t. What does it matter, right? An extra piece of pie here and there. We are experts in denial and imagining that so much of what we do to our bodies doesn’t make much difference.
But Jesus is a little more forceful in telling us that what we do makes a difference. A big difference. How we treat other people matters. In a world that seems too big to be changed and too sick to be healed, our lives have more meaning and value than what we imagine.
At the end of this church year, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, at the end of Jesus’ life – Jesus is making this personal. Jesus is getting nebby. Jesus is getting real neeby about how you choose to live you life not because Jesus wants to frighten you into faith. Jesus wants to save you – not just your soul, but your whole life.
God wants to save us by giving us the gift of true, deep, authentic human life.
God wants to save us by persuading us to see ourselves and every other human being as worthy of our tender care.
God’s favorite project is to teach you and me the fundamental lesson that to love is to live. And the crucial test of our faith is not how fervently we believe, but how deeply we love. Now and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Paraphrased from John Buchanan’s commentary in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4, Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), 336.