Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Theme Verse: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
So much of scripture, especially Paul’s letters, refer to fellow Christians as family – brothers and sisters. We live this out well as church when someone is ill, hurting, or facing a crisis of some kind – we show up in tangible ways. You go to them and pray. You bring a casserole. You take care of some basic errands. The brother or sister you help knows they are not alone in the hard spaces of life because you are there with them. The Bible shares that God is like this. When one of God’s beloved children suffers, God declares, “I am here.” When we see a tragedy on the news and we ask, “Where are you, God?” We already know the answer: “God is here.” God is in the midst of those who are hurting. Jesus lived this out most faithfully and in this foundational passage from Matthew 25, we see that Jesus is asking us to show up where the need is deepest too. This Sunday, we share a special offering with the Week of Compassion, the presence of our denominational response to the deep needs of the world. In the midst of suffering, where is God? God is here. Where are you? When you give to Week of Compassion, you are here too.
reader : Todd Maxwell
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
There was a smell to it. (How many directions can this story go?”) There was a smell. There was a visual. There was a feeling. The Columbia Mall. Was I a big shopper? No. Never have been. But I loved going to the Columbia Mall when I was a kid. It was a trip to the big city, you see. Going shopping in my little, rural farm town meant going to the Orscheln Farm & Home Store or Ben Franklin’s. Making the 56-mile drive to The Columbia Mall was a big adventure that meant I got to eat a Philly Cheesesteak from the café court and maybe even go to a movie. I’m not so enamored anymore when it comes to shopping malls. There’s still a smell to it but it doesn’t do much for me now. When I go to a shopping mall these days, I open the front door and immediately find the Mall Directory – the big map of the place. No need to browse around. Figure out where the store is I’m looking for – get in and get out. I stand in front of that directory and always start by finding that big red sticker on the map that says, “YOU ARE HERE.” Nothing else matters until you know where you are. When you know where you are, you can get your bearings. You can begin to locate the necessary pathways you need to travel to get to your ultimate destination. Sometimes I wish I had one of those big directories in my home, at work, and about anywhere else I move in and out of during the week.
Can you imagine? Every morning you awake, every place you enter, you start by finding that red sticker on the directory that says, “You are here.” Wouldn’t that be helpful? Maybe what I’m really looking for is a red sticker for my soul. And we’ve got this in some ways. I wake up in the morning and my first prayer of the day is, “God, where am I, today?” and God says, “You are here.” “Ah, yes, Lord. Thank you. I am here. Starting with grace, today. Thank you.” Some days it’s love. Some days, justice. I know God is going to be honest with me. If I start my day being honest with God, my soul can find it’s bearings.
Church should be this for us too. When we come for worship, we should be honest enough with God and each other to say, “My soul is here… where are we going from this reality?” So much of scripture is good for this practice too. We crack open the word, we are struck by something old and familiar in a new way and the passage may as well have had a red sticker pointing to the text that says, “YOU ARE HERE.” It is one of the reasons we’ve been living in some of the foundational texts of our scripture this month. When much of what is happening in the world has us disoriented, our foundational texts can ground us, help us reset, remind us where we are and whose we are. Then, the pathway forward becomes more clear. We look for this again this morning as we look at one of the most challenging texts in all of scripture – the sheep and the goats – and the people of God said, “Dun, dun, duuunnnnn.” This passage gets me every time. It’s so convicting. We looked at the 23rd Psalm as a foundational text and it was one of great comfort. This text is not so comforting. It’s foundational because of its fundamental challenge to treat everyone as if he or she is Jesus himself. If four hundred of us in worship today could accomplish that one reality for the rest of the day, the city of Tulsa would be a brand new place. It’s a text that calls into question our motivations and can play to our sense of guilt and fear. I don’t think Jesus preached to the human inclination toward fear. It has been a favorite preaching tactic for some through the years, however. I’ve told you before that 60% of people in the world start every thought, movement, and decision from a point of fear. Many of us are wired that way and then good marketers (and loud preachers) learned how to exploit that reality. It’s why a Thursday evening news story about a faulty part found in many dishwashers that could blow up the neighborhood at any moment results in the biggest weekend of sales for Hahn’s Appliance Warehouse. We fear, we act.
“You wanna be a sheep or a goat?” Where are you? Look at your soul directory and find the little red sticker. I don’t think Jesus was preaching to fear but he was firm in his point. Some of this is timing, too. The intensity of this story Jesus tells about the sheep and goats is maybe most felt in the first verse that follows the end of this story, the beginning of the 26th Chapter. After he tells this story, he turns to his disciples (as he often did) and he says, “You know that Passover comes in two days…” Why does that line matter? Because that is when Jesus will be betrayed and handed over to be crucified. When things are coming to an end, you tend to spend your breath on the most important matters. When someone is coming to the close of their life on earth, they start giving directives about what should happen next, how they want things to go, who they want to have what. Often they’ll even get real serious, demand you look them in the eye and say, “Now listen to me…”. Jesus says, “You know that Passover comes in two days…”. It was of critical importance to Jesus to say, “Now listen to me. This is how you are to live. This is how you are to honor me. This is how you are to love each other.” In this most vivid account, Jesus says without any ambiguity, this is how God will judge our reaction to human need.
Jesus has done this before. The Good Samaritan story gets at a similar angle. The Rich Young Ruler’s motivations are tested in the very same way: “Give all you have to the poor,” Jesus says, and the man walks away sad. Why? “Because he had many possessions.” It’s about motivation. Are we motivated by self-interest or by God’s interests? That’s such a frustrating question, isn’t it? It’s tough not to choose ourselves – especially as we are challenged to do that very thing so often in our culture. We want it for our kids – be independent, be responsible, “Worry about yourself.” If your kid came to you and said, “Hey pops – just sold all of my possessions and gave it to the poor,” how would you respond? Do we say, “I’m so proud of you, son!” or do we say, “YOU CAN’T MOVE BACK HOME.” Now I know every situation is nuanced by many factors but when are faced with a chance to choose ‘sheep’ or choose ‘goat’ we often choose goat. When we ask, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” we often walk away sad because we have many possessions or competing agendas.
There’s a story about a guy who dies and awakes to find himself in a busy office – picture any urgent care facility in Tulsa over the last couple of weeks. Busy, busy, busy. The man approaches the receptionist and says, “Well, hi. I died and I guess I’m here to figure out where I go next.” The receptionist is busy fielding calls and dealing with people and responds, “Welcome to eternity. Sorry, we are swamped right now. You see the two doors behind me?” “Sure,” the man says. “One says, ‘heaven’ and the other says, ‘hell.’” The receptionist says, “Yes – that’s right. And we are so busy – why don’t you just pick one and go on in.” “Well,” the man says, “I’ve kind of been anticipating this moment for a while and would like to receive my full assessment.” Receptionist says, “That’s awesome and all, but really, we’re so busy, just please go ahead and choose either door – whichever door you want.” The man persisted, “Hey – I want to see the angel or God or whomever is supposed to judge what I’ve done with my life.” “Sir, aren’t you just adorable? We’re just totally swamped. The choice is truly yours – just choose.” And resigned to this reality, the man steps on over and opens the door to enter eternity. Which door did he choose? The door to hell.
Why do we so often choose the door to hell? I don’t know. And what is hell if not a life lived in greed and selfishness. We know the selfish choice is often not the best for our sense of peace in the long run. We cognitively understand that our sense of material wealth is not what ultimately makes us happy – but we know we’d like to give it a try. Every day we stand before two doors. We stand on a little red sticker that says, “You are here,” and then we step through one of those doors – into the kingdom of heaven or into the goat pen – and there’s a bit of a smell to it.
Pope Francis has offered a “When-did-I-see-you?” model to living that may help us to think about some of our own choices. Is the Pope Catholic? The answer to that rhetorical question is always, “Yes.” We may not agree on everything but when did we fall into the trap that says, “We have to agree on everything in order to learn something from someone else?” This is not healthy folks. It’s like the thought that “Her idea sounds really reasonable but she’s a Democrat.” or “but he’s a Republican.” You can flip the labels and it’s all the same. We all lose when we limit ourselves to one news station or someone who has only our preferred labels.
Anyway – Pope Francis is choosing the kingdom of God door more days than not. You may remember during Lent last year, this powerful image of the Pope washing the feet of eleven refugees – four Nigerian Catholics, three Christians from Eritrea, three Muslims from Syria, Pakistan and Mali, and one Indian Hindu — at a housing facility on the outskirts of Rome. A number of the migrants whose feet were washed by the pope had tears streaming down their faces. There were many empty seats at the mass Pope Francis led that day for those in the area. 892 asylum-seekers were living in that very shelter but only a fraction attended. This foot washing was held in the wake of a terrorist attack in Brussels. Tensions were high… much as they remain today. And Pope Francis condemned the attacks as we all do, saying, “There are [always] those who want blood, not peace; war, not fraternity and we have to balance needs for security and assisting those in need. But,” he said, “Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources which are meant to be equitably shared by all.” He went on: “Today, [as I wash your feet like Jesus washed the feet of his disciples], let us all make a gesture of brotherhood. Let us all say: ‘We are different, we have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.'”
Now I know that’s the Pope – and he’s supposed to do this sort of stuff – but isn’t that how we always convince ourselves that it’s not you and me who are to be the Good Samaritan, or to give what we have to the poor, or do something every day for the one’s we’ve labeled as “the least of these”? Jesus is saying, through the sheep and the goats, that this mentality is what trips us up day in and day out. It’s easy for us to respond as goats and say, “If we had known it was you, Jesus, we would have gladly helped, but we thought it was only some person who was not worth helping.” The reality is – the needs are so many, so great, so constantly present that we can become numb to them. Or, we can become so completely overwhelmed by the world that needs saving that we just shut down and say, “To hell with it.” The irony is, hell is the reality we create in the world when we shut down and don’t choose the door to life. Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church out on the West Coast has a helpful response to this, our daily quandary. He says, “Instead of asking, ‘How can I change the world?’ ask, ‘What does it look like for me to embody faithfulness?’” You wake up, you ask God in prayer, “Where am I?” God says, “You are here.” And then you ask, “How can I embody faithfulness today?” 
Sometimes it is giving the shirt off our backs to someone in need. Sometimes it is giving a drink of water to somebody who is thirsty. Sometimes it is a collective effort to get smart and pool our efforts to make a larger impact. We partner with Week of Compassion today, and throughout the year, to be there – wherever ‘there’ equals human need. Week of Compassion is a sheep ministry – all over the world representing us where the needs are greatest. Week of Compassion is on the ground all over the globe helping refugees wherever they are to re-stabilize the lives of families, of children and youth who are put on boats by their parents to flee their homes where war is a daily terror. Just like you’d like for compassionate hands to receive your own child if they were ever hurting and in desperate need, Week of Compassion are those very hands.
Our Executive Director, Vy Nguyen, was a refugee himself some thirty years ago. The flooding in California? Can’t get there with a bucket to help? Week of Compassion is already there because of our support to be the presence of Christ to the human need for food, water and shelter. Week of Compassion has even cut checks to members in our very congregation when their own homes were damaged by storm. And Week of Compassion not only shows up when disaster or crisis hits, Week of Compassion stays through the transition to get people on their feet again. Through our support, Week of Compassion provides sustainability grants to partners all over the world who are teaching new agricultural methods, who are providing new ways to create income to help individuals and entire communities support themselves.
I have walked, myself, through a nursery of trees in rural China that Week of Compassion helped foster among that community as a revenue source that blew away their previous source of income. Giving to Week of Compassion is a smart way to open the door to life every day. It’s smart and effective and necessary work. And we don’t give blindly. Please go to the Week of Compassion website and track where we are and what we are doing. See their site as a Mall Directory that says, “You are here. You are here. You are there.” You will never have to ask, “When did I see you, Jesus, and not provide for your need?” Tracking these places that we are as partners with Week of Compassion, is also a measure of our own accountability to our very own spirits – we forget what we see when we aren’t intentional about seeing the world as Christ sees.
A pastor friend of mine out in Portland posted this picture at Christmas-time and I return to it often. I can’t always explain why I do but it overlays something important to me that is still working on my spirit. The picture itself may be a bit hard for you to make out what you’re seeing but listen to the caption my friend wrote and if you can’t see what he is describing on the screens, you can make out the image in your mind. He wrote this: “Syrians worshiping together in a bombed out church on Christmas Eve. No gimmicks. No giveaways. No flashing lights. No one begging them to carve out time in their busy holiday schedules. Just Jesus and his precious gathered community, the church. Simple. Valuable. Beautiful. Enough.”
Now. If your life has ever been rocked, shocked, devastated, wiped out in some way – physically, emotionally, spiritually, whatever – you know what it means to get intentional about what is most important in life. “You know that Passover comes in just two days…” We know what that feels like, just like Jesus. Today’s foundational text offers that very opportunity for us. Soul check! Close your eyes and see before you a Mall Directory of your soul. Scan it until you find that little soul sticker that says, “You are here.” Don’t judge yourself or anything, just find the sticker that says “You are here,” ‘My spirit is here,” and then consider your next steps. There’s a couple of doors in front of you. One says “Life” on the front. The other says, “Death.” Don’t see them as destinations of judgment. See them as opportunities for the way of life you are called to live. One opens to a life that feeds your soul and the souls of others in need. The other one leads to a way of fear and greed and emptiness, and well, frankly it has a bit of a smell to it. Choose life, friends. Choose life.
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 I’m not sure of the origin of this story though I’ve heard it told in a variety of ways by other speakers. Author and pastor, Bruce Larson, is often credited.