“SERVING THE POOR COMPASSIONATELY”

MATTHEW 25: 31-40

OCT 28, 2012

 

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             As the worshipers arrived on a late November morning at the Lutheran Church in White Lake, North Dakota, they were met by a rather disturbing sight.  A homeless beggar sat on the front steps of the church, wearing tattered clothing, a wool cap pulled down over his eyes, and clutching a bottle in fingerless gloves.  They had never seen anything quite like this in White Lake, North Dakota.    

            Most worshipers simply walked around the man.  Some muttered words of disapproval, and others suggested that the man move to another doorway more out of the way.  One member told the man, in no uncertain terms, that the Salvation Army in Minot was a more appropriate place to sleep it off.  At one point, a kind woman brought the man a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee, but not one person asked the man to come in out of the cold, and certainly nobody invited him in to join them in worship.

            Imagine, then, the peoples surprise during the entrance hymn, when the homeless man made his way into the pulpit, took off his cap, and the people recognized that it was their pastor!  The pastor began his remarks that morning in this way:  I didnt do this to embarrass you or to poke you in the eye.  I did it to remind us that this is a person that Jesus loves, and he has called us to love him, too.

            Let's turn to our passage for today.  Kindly follow along as I begin reading starting in verse 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.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right and the goats at the left.

 

            By the way, in this word picture of Judgment Day Jesus uses a readily understood scene in the Middle East as shepherds tended sheep and goats together.  They still do today.  Twenty years ago, during my first trip to Israel with Columbia Seminary, we walked the road to Jericho from Jerusalem.  It was all downhill, with windy dirt roads.  It took about four hours to get to Jericho and twice along the way we saw a shepherd with his sheep and goats. 

            Back to the story. 

 

            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."

 

            Another interlude.  We are in the middle of a sermon series titled, "Striking it Rich," where we are pondering the immeasurable riches we have in Jesus Christ, and when it comes to riches this is the big one.  We inherit the Kingdom of God.  Any of you receive an inheritance?  We've received some over the years.  One from my dad, and one from Trudy's mom, and one from my aunt Gladys, and recently a small inheritance from Trudy's half-sister, Patty.  But they will all pale in comparison to the inheritance we have in Jesus Christ.

            Let's continue reading and I promise not to butt in again.

 

            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?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"  And the kink 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 are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

 

            Most everyone knows Halloween arrives on Wednesday.  Most of us have purchased treats so we don't receive any tricks from the little ghosts and goblins parading down our street.  But the next day, not everyone knows.  The next day is All Saints' Day.  We, Presbyterians, really don't observe that day.  Other segments of Christianity do.  All Saints' Day is celebrated in many areas of the United States, especially where there are large Roman Catholic populations, and it's a day when they celebrate lesser saints who don't have a individual day set aside for them, like Saint Patrick's Day.  In the United Methodist Church, All Saints' Day is often observed by remembering deceased members of the local church congregation who passed away in the last year.  A candle is lit as each person's name is called out, followed by a prayer offered for each soul.  Many Latin American communities hold celebrations on All Saints' Day on November 1 and link that with All Souls' Day on November 2.  These celebrations are part of the Day of the Dead, their way of keeping the memories of the departed alive.

            So, with All Saints' Day on the horizon, I want to pose a question.  What is a saint?   First, let me offer the generic answer.  Here it is.  What is a saint?  It all depends.  In Christianity, the word "saint" has a wide variety of meanings, depending on the denomination. In some denominations, "saint" refers to any believer who is "in Christ", and in whom Christ dwells, whether in heaven or in earth.  That's the definition for most Protestants.  In Orthodox and Catholic teachings, all Christians in heaven are considered to be saints, but some are considered to be worthy of higher honor, emulation, or veneration, with official church recognition given to some saints through canonization or glorification, like St Patrick or St Jude or St Agnes or St Martin.        

            So that's the generic answer.  Jesus then adds something else to that answer.  Jesus, in our passage for today, reminds us that a saint, a true follower of his, a sheep not a goat, behaves in a particular way.   

            First of all, saints see the needy.

            Every time I read Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment, I am struck by the word "saw."   In verse 37 the righteous, that is the saints, ask, "When was it we saw that you were hungry?"  Verse 38, "When was it we saw you a stranger?"  Verse 39, "When was it we saw you sick?"  The goats, ask the same question.  Verse 44, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?"

            In the childrens movie Whistle Down the Wind, Haley Mills and her friends stumble across a vagrant sleeping in the straw, while they are playing in a country barn. The frightened children shout, Who are you?   The shocked vagrant replied, Jesus Christ.   The man, of course, meant it as an expletive, the children took as a fact.  They thought the man was Jesus Christ.  So, they treated him with awe, respect and love. They brought him food and blankets; they talked with him, and listened to his story. Their tenderness transformed this ex-convicts life and opened his eyes to the Lord.

            The past couple of decades has been sprinkled with stories about the appearance of the face of Jesus in odd places.  For example, Fred Whan, of Kingston Ontario, with the help of his son, found the face of Jesus on a fish stick.   Diana Duyser of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, declared she had found an image of Jesus on her burnt grilled cheese sandwich.  She auctioned it off on Ebay for $28,000.  Some people believed they saw the image of Jesus shining on a glass building in Tampa, Florida.  Searching the Internet, one can find photos and stories of the face of Jesus in bathroom tiles, on potato chips, and even ultra sounds.

            So, where can we find the face of Jesus?  The passage for this morning explains where we can find it, or, at least, where we ought to be looking for his face.  We will see the face of Jesus, not in toast or tiles or doughnut holes but in the faces of each other, including the down and out among us.  Saints are those who have eyes to see the needy.

            Second, saints put love into action.

            In the context of our passage for today, love is not a concept, it is not a feeling, it is an action verb.  Note Jesus' words.   Note the love in action.  Verse 35.

 

            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.

 

            Love does practical things for those in need.  Last Sunday I looked out at Trudy only to see a little first-grade girl sitting next to her.  On the way out of church I asked Trudy, why was Caeli sitting with her, and not her parents or grandparents.  Trudy said, "She told me I looked lonely sitting by myself and she did not want me to be lonely so she came over to sit with me during worship."      

            Saints put love into action.  Listen to the words of Mother Teresa, "I never look at the masses as my responsibility, I look at the individual.  I can love only one person at a time.  I can feed only one person at a time. So you begin with one.  If I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up 42,000.  My whole work is only a drop in the ocean.  But if I didn't put the drop in, the ocean would be one drop less."

            We may not hold the solution to the health care crisis in America, but we can help someone in need get to the doctor.  We may not be able to stop domestic abuse, but we find a place for the person to stay.  We may not be able to end hunger but we can volunteer to help serve lunch every other month to those at Neighborhood United.

            That's what a follower of Jesus Christ does.  They love in tangible ways.  That's the difference between a sheep and a goat.  Seeing and loving do not make us saints.  Seeing and loving proves that we are saints.  Generosity and kindness and compassion are part of the DNA of a Christian.  And once we recognize that God has claimed us as sons and daughters of the King, and once we realize that we will inherit everything the King has promised, those riches of ours overflow to others.

            Let me close with a story.  Once there was a little boy who wanted to meet God.  He knew it would be a long trip to where God lived, so he filled his backpack with Twinkies and cans of root beer, his two favorite foods, and set off on his journey.  He had only gone a few blocks when he passed an older woman, sitting on a park bench staring at some pigeons. She looked sad and lonely, so the boy, like Caeli did with Trudy, went over and sat next to her.  He opened his backpack, took out a package of the Twinkies and offered it to her.

            She gratefully took it and smiled at him.  Her smile was so warm and wonderful that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered her a can of his root beer.  Once again, she took it and smiled at him.  The boy was delighted.  They sat there all afternoon, eating the Twinkies, drinking the root beers and watching the pigeons, without saying a word to each other.

            After awhile, the boy realized that he had better get started home and got up to leave.  After a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the older woman and gave her a big hug.  She gave him the biggest smile of all.

            When the boy got home, his mother noticed how happy he seemed.  So she asked him what he had done all day.  He told her: "I had lunch with God.  And you know what?  She has the most beautiful smile that I've ever seen."

            Meanwhile, the older woman had returned to her home.  Her son also noticed how happy she seemed so he asked her what she had done that had made her so happy.  She said to him: "I sat in the park and ate Twinkies with God.  You know, he's much younger than I expected."[1]        

            Not on a grilled cheese sandwich.  Not on a potato chip.  Not on a bathroom tile.  We see the face of Jesus on other people and we love them as best we can.  Amen.

           



[1] A Third Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, pp. 67-68. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL.