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Living with the least on the way to redemption (sermon)

November 19, 2011

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

A month or so ago I remember a news item about a farmer on the Taieri who thought he had found a geep on his farm. A geep is a cross between a sheep and a goat. They’re very rare. As it turned out he was wrong.

But it was a nice idea don’t you think? Something in between sheep and goat, some grey area to soften the black and white of Jesus’ story. No such luck in today’s story.  It’s judgment time, the time when all is revealed and Jesus wants us to know in black and white what is at stake in the kingdom of God

The camera zooms out and we see a great panorama of all the nations of the earth. The Greek word is ethne (as in ethnic) same as the Hebrew word for gentiles. All those outside the community of faith and of Israel are gathered before ‘The Man’ usually translated Son of Man (we might say the God-Man).

It is time for discrimination. Discrimination is a term that has had a bit of bad press. But in this judgment scene the God-Man discriminates, not on the basis of race, or gender or sexual orientation. In the end what defines the discrimination of God is reasonably straightforward. It is how they have responded to him.

I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick or in prison and you visited me.

But Lord we didn’t see you! they say. It reminds me of the “Where’s Wally?” book. Where is Jesus in the world? Where is the God-man? … It looks as if he’s in a very similar place as he was during the 30 or so years of his life. He is desperately needy – among the hungry and thirsty. He is a stranger… (i.e. outside the social networks), he is naked and vulnerable (like a man hanging on a cross), he is among the sick (who, in a world prior to the scientific understanding of disease were the untouchables), he is among the criminals in prison (the enemies of society).

And it is a bit like “Where’s Wally?” because the nations have no idea they have met Jesus? They haven’t seen him and yet they have responded to him, one way or another.

This is a deeply disturbing parable… I wonder where you put yourself in this parable? Do you imagine yourself among the sheep, or among the goats, or among the hungry and naked, the strangers and prisoners? Who do you find yourself identifying with?

I go away from this parable definitely feeling like, when all’s said and done I’m numbered among the goats. I don’t think I’ve known anyone or visited anyone in prison. I am polite to strangers and occasionally open up my life to them, but mostly it’s not really a welcome which costs me anything, it’s just a greeting. I visit hospitals but mostly cause it’s my job. I’m paid to do it. It costs me nothing. As for feeding the hungry and thirsty… I do my bit for charity but it’s hardly a real love which costs me anything significant. It mainly just makes me feel better and less guilty. As for naked people…

I don’t like this story.

But wait, maybe I can get off the hook here. Scholars tell us that Jesus probably had a very particular group in mind when he said, “what you have done to the least of these who are members of my family, you did unto me.” To put it simply, this way of reading the story notes that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus calls his followers and disciples the ‘little ones’ and so it is argued ‘the least who are members of my family’ is Jesus way of talking about Christians sent out in mission. So you’ve got the nations, gentiles being judged on how they have treated the little ones, the disciples. To put it another way; the world is being judged on how it treats the church.

So, if we read it like that…we can forget about the poor. Right?

But there’s something wrong with that reading isn’t there? The followers of Jesus are not just church members who believe in Jesus… the ones Jesus calls the ‘little ones’ in Matthew’s gospel, are followers sent out without a purse or a change of clothes as strangers to a way of vulnerability. The followers of Jesus live like and look like Jesus. This story doesn’t just tell you that Jesus is present in the church, it tells you where the real church is. Do you see the point… if the disciples of Jesus are ‘the least of these who are members of my family’ then the story identifies for us the location of these disciples. The same ‘where’s wally problem’ exists for the church as it does for Jesus. The church and Jesus are equally hard to spot. They are as invisible and as visible as each other. The real church is not defined by who turns up on a Sunday morning or has their name on the Presbyterian role. It is to be found among the hungry and thirsty, among the strangers and outsiders, among the naked and desperate, the sick and imprisoned.

Just when we think we are off the hook, we discover that Jesus exists with his disciples (the little ones) and they exist as and among the poor and vulnerable.

I am told I should preach practical sermons. Let me say a little about two issues that this story addresses… and then finish with a brief comment on our other reading.

At our recent Forums we have been talking about where we should have our main worship centre… what are the strategic places of mission for us, where it might be important to have a worship centre which is accessible to us and to others? How do we decide between the options… of course we need to be practical, we don’t have much money and are quite constrained and it would be wrong to put enormous resources into a building… and yet we still face choices. The question might be as simple as the question arising from today’s parable. Where is the true church to be found? Perhaps it will give us a clue as to where our centre of worship ought to be in the future. The parable asks us, if we are not living among the most vulnerable, are we following Jesus at all?

Second practical implication: we are in the middle of elections in New Zealand. And today we read about the judgment of ‘nations’. In a way we are called to make a judgment call on what kind of a nation we want to become. Will our nation be among the sheep or the goats? I know there are enormous complexities which parables don’t pretend to address, but what do you think? Does hospitality to the stranger have implications for immigration policy? Does feeding and clothing the poor have implications for New Zealand’s tiny contribution to international aid (now being administered under the category of trade)? Does prison visiting having anything to do with restorative approaches to justice?

It’s interesting that we should be reading of the judgement of nations so close before an election.

To finish I want to go back to that sense of hopelessness that I felt and perhaps some of you feel as you read this story of judgment and think about your own life.

The reading from the letter to the Ephesians has something in common with the parable of the sheep and the goats. Just as the nations of the world are judged by how they treat the least who are the family of Jesus, so Ephesians reminds us of how central the community of the followers of Jesus is to God.

Ephesians 1:11-23

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

There’s hope for us yet, says the writer… ‘that we might live for the praise of his glory’

13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

The writer goes on to say that the one who raised Jesus from death, the one who raised Jesus the naked, imprisoned, thirsty stranger, who was cast out of the world, he will accomplish all things… in particular the God of Jesus will make sure that, though it seems impossible, we will indeed live to the praise of his glory.

God wants the little ones to be like Jesus… so that the nations of the world will see. The writer says this is our inheritance, if we have been marked by the Spirit and caught up into this Jesus-faith. God will not abandon us, but will free us to be the followers of Jesus.

The writer says that God raised Jesus to the centre of all things and of all history “for the church, which is his body”. Not for some wealthy institution which cosies up with kings and rules the world though, but for the most vulnerable… among whom will be found the followers of Jesus.

Thanks be to God… amen

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