March 22, 2015
First Evangelical Lutheran Church
When my son Lucas was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, his school had a festival. It was a hot afternoon, probably in the 90s, and the kids were dancing on the blacktop. I went over to the food booth and bought a couple of ice cold drinks. As I was crossing the blacktop, a little boy came up to me and asked if he could have a drink. I looked down at him and asked him if his mother had given him any money to buy one. He said no. And I said something to the effect that it was too bad, and kept walking. I don’t know why I did that. I am still haunted by the face of that child, so hot and thirsty, innocently asking me for a cool drink, and I gave him nothing. It is so easy to harden our hearts against people in need, even children who want something to drink. How easy and kind it would have been to let him drink from my cup, but instead I walked away.
Jesus knew this about human nature, how easy it is to turn our backs on needy people. We judge them as lazy, unworthy, or just not important enough to waste our time and resources on. And so, as he wraps up his teaching in the Temple, he ends with this parable of the judgment of the nations.
This passage turns on the matter of surprises. Notice that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by what Jesus says. Lord, when did we…, or Lord, when didn’t we…. Both capture the shock each group expresses when Jesus commends or condemns their behavior. But what exactly are they surprised by? That they acted either in a righteous way by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned or, on the other hand, in an unrighteous way by neglecting to do the same? It is interesting that the answer to that question is no. Neither group denies their behavior. Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man. Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out.
No one expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in real need. When we think of God, we typically think in terms of power and might and glory, sitting on his throne surrounded by choirs of angels. And, indeed, the parable begins by describing the coming of the Son of Man in those very terms, reinforcing our preconceptions. Might this be a deliberate set-up? The rest of the parable, after all, depicts this same royal figure as identifying with the least of these and thereby seems to undermine our tendency to look for God in places of power. If so, then this parable might not only call into question where we typically look for God, but actually reorient us to discover and experience God’s presence in our lives more fully than ever before.
In this parable, Jesus promises to be always with and for those who are in greatest need. Which means that if we want to experience God’s presence fully, we will look for God in the need of those around us and in our own need as well. God always meets the people where they are, and in this case, Jesus invites us to meet him in suffering. This is God’s ultimate act of surprise for us, who prefer believing that we meet God here, in the beauty of this sanctuary, which of course, we do, but none of us lives here. God meets the people where they are, in the particulars of everyday human life. And that surprises us, because God comes where we least expect God to be, in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy and in the company of the imprisoned.
And that is not all. If we are willing to suspend our expectations and live into the surprising reality of the God we know in Christ, then we are invited to meet God not in some distant eternal life but here and now, in the concrete and real need of our neighbors, just as they are invited to meet and be blessed by God as they tend to our needs. The God we know in Jesus is revealed, not only in power but in vulnerability, not only in might but brokenness and not only in judgment but in mercy.
In mercy? After all, the whole parable reaches its climax when the Son of Man who comes in glory and dismisses the unrighteous to eternal fire. But Jesus shares this parable on the way to the cross. Indeed, these are his last words before the beginning of his passion, an account that begins in the very next verse with these words, When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’
Which may mean that the Son of Man’s coming in glory does not anticipate some final judgment at the end of time but rather describes the unexpected revelation that the Son of Man and Son of God is revealed, as the centurion who crucified him confesses, most clearly in the cross. Perhaps Jesus is reinforcing what he has been saying all along through his teaching and actions and what he will soon say in and through his very body. God loves us and all the world so much that God chooses to identify with us fully and completely. And so we see God most easily in the face of our neighbor, meet God in the acts of mercy and service we offer and are offered to us, and live in the blessing of God as we seek to serve as Christ served.
And this seems to me like surprisingly good news, that God is with us, here and now, revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church, made manifest in the ordinary elements of bread and wine and available to us in the small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need God to be.
I have had the privilege over the last 3 months to get to know the people of a wonderful, faithful and blessed church. It is a congregation that is blessed by its long history and tradition, a church blessed by people who honor that tradition in the beauty of its building and in the beauty of its worship. It is a congregation that is blessed with a strong endowment. And it is a congregation that was incredibly blessed by God after the devastations of Hurricane Ike. God gave that church the resources to rebuild and restore, and even to throw a party for the storm weary residents of the island on which they reside.
So I was disturbed when I heard that this incredibly wonderful, faithful and blessed congregation chose to harden its heart against the needs of people in its surrounding neighborhood. Apparently, homeless people would come by and drink from the outdoor water facets, a drink of cool water on a hot and weary day.
The congregation responded by removing the cranks that open the spigots, and building a fence around its property to keep the riffraff out. That congregation treated those people as I treated a little child asking me for a drink of cool water on a hot and weary day. My friends it is so easy to harden our hearts against the needs of others. It would have cost me perhaps 50 cents to buy that child a drink, or nothing to let him drink from my cup. I wonder what it would cost this wonderful, faithful and blessed congregation to build an outside water fountain to give Jesus and the least of these a drink of cool water on a hot and weary day? Lord, when did we, or when didn’t we? You didn’t on the day you denied a drink to a person in need.
To God be the glory.