The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
You Did It to Me
Here we go. I mean, we actually first started this past Wednesday, but there’s something about a Sunday that makes it feel real. So … here we go. From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter twenty-five, verses thirty-one to forty-six we are reading the entire passage entitled “The Judgement of the Nations.” Listen for the Word of God to us this morning and for this whole season of Lent …
Read Matthew 25:31-46. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, this is it. This is where we will be spending our Lenten season 2020 this year – as sheep and goats before the Son of Man discovering who in the world “the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and estranged, the sick and imprisoned” are and what in the world we are supposed to be doing for them. Seems pretty straight forward from our reading, because it is pretty straight forward: identify “the least of these” and then feed them and give them drink, clothe them and welcome them in, heal them, visit them, and set them free. But, as always, in our deep need to be straight forward, we first identify ourselves and then separate ourselves from the other, when in fact, we’re all these people and both of these livestock. Curiously enough, we also find ourselves in the one that does the gathering, identified here as the Son of Man.
So we’ve got some unpacking to do this Lent. Fortunately, we have forty days not counting Sundays and six full Sundays to do it. So let’s get started.
Pray with me …
“When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus said it: profound, radical words. But the truth is Matthew 25 makes us very uncomfortable when we think about it much. We don’t have the money or the time, let alone the trust that those who are in need really “need” what they’re asking for. But we’re going to spend time in Mathew 25 this Lent. And if time is money, then we’re spending money, too.
My simplest and first “exegetical task” when I read a scriptural passage is to figure out first who God or Christ is in it. Then I try to find out who we, humans, are in it. And then I try to figure out what, given who God and Christ are and who I or we are, what we’re supposed to do. Theology, anthropology, ethic – in that order. The fascinating thing about this passage, this narrative is that we think we know right away who God or Christ is. “They” are the one who gathers the nations before them, right? The “Son of Man” who “comes in glory.” Very specifically, that’s Jesus, right? It couldn’t be clearer, except that it’s not.
As we read on and as we hear more, we realize that God/Christ/Jesus are “the least of these” in this passage. They are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, estranged, sickly prisoners. God is the weak one here. Christ is the vulnerable. Jesus is the ignored and the overlooked one. Theology …
Who are we? Again, seems easy enough. Let’s be honest to begin with. Could any of us every think of ourselves among the “least of these.” Honestly, when we read this passage we do not think of ourselves as the hungry, thirsty, naked, and so on. No, we are either a sheep or a goat, right? We are the nations of the world, or members of them. We are the ones gathered before this “Son of Man” who are then separated one from the other “as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats.”
In Palestine at this time, shepherds had mixed flocks most often. At night they separated the sheep from the goats. Sheep, with their thick coats of wool, enjoyed the open air of the pasture, while goats had to be protected from the cold. Sheep had more commercial value and were preferred over the goats, so “as the shepherd” this Son of Man separates them, separates us, one from the other, we immediately think.
But I suggest to us this season that if, indeed, we are the sheep and goats, we’re not simply one or the other. And even more fun, we’re also not only found in the livestock of this story. We’re also – stick with me here – that “son of man” that the scripture begins with. You’ll have to wait for that one, next week, I think. But we’ve talked about this “character,” this figure, before. It was years ago during Advent. Perhaps you remember, but probably you don’t. That’s okay. I’ll say it again … next week. For now let it be: We are the sheep and the goats and more than a little the mysterious one who sits, gathers, separates and judges. Anthropology …
So what? That’s the final step in my simplified exegetical formula. So what are we supposed to do? This seems the easiest question of all to answer. If it’s not as clear as we first think who God/Christ/Jesus is, and if it’s not as clear as first think who we are in this scripture passage, it at least seems pretty clear what we’re supposed to be doing. Now, I bet you’re thinking right about now that I’m going to make the “ethic” of this passage more complicated than that like I’ve done with the theology and the anthropology. But, just when you think you have me figured out, you don’t. Because I won’t … make it any more complicated than that. The ethic is clear: feed, give drink, clothe, befriend, heal, and visit. We’ll figure out more clearly and more thoroughly who everyone “is” in this passage in the weeks ahead, but we know already what we are supposed to be doing.
In the weeks ahead we are supposed to be looking into the face of humanity, into the faces of every human being we see, and see there the face of Christ – especially in the faces of “the least among us,” but in every face. Why? Because that is what he said to do. Jesus’ words here are the basis for a radical new social structure. It’s not a society we’re unfamiliar with. We just got done talking about the Compassionate Community that find no separation in humanity – no separation of humanity based on race, class, or gender. Our “so what”, our call to action, our “what to do” from Matthew 25 is based on our belief in the God-given dignity and value of every human being in the world.
Jesus said he is there in the hungry and the thirsty, in the naked and in the stranger, in the sick and the imprisoned and “what you did to them, the least of you .. You did it to me.” The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, our God, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the universe, God is here. Do we want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of us. Ethic …
I learned something new this week after twenty years of scripture study and preaching. This is the only description of the “last judgment” in the whole New Testament, this passage, Matthew 25. There are other discussions of “end times” or depictions of destruction, but Matthew 25 provides the only detailed description of how we all will finally be “judged.” This was new to me and here’s what I found even more fun: Did you hear anything at all about theology, or creeds, or orthodoxies being a part of your judgement? Did you hear anything at all about church traditions and ecclesiastical connections? Did you hear anything at all about personal beliefs or confessions of sins? No … no you didn’t.
There is only one criterion here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ, God with us, in the face of another human being and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. The fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth of our entire faith is this: to love is to live … now and for eternity.
That’s what we’re about this year during Lent. Our Lenten devotionals are centered on Mathew 25 as they try to capture the many ways that Jesus’ words are being lived out and creating “beloved (or as we’ve been calling it, compassionate) community.” Our denomination is inviting all of its congregations, of which we are one, to become a “Matthew 25 Church” by building our congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty. Through our Mission Team we are discerning our way forward into those practices. How are we building, dismantling and eradicating now and how might we be more purposeful and more effective in caring for the least of those among us.
Our table is set for us to begin. It’s main course is memory, “Remember,” Jesus said. “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” As we sing our sermon hymn this morning, one so familiar to us, I want you to see and hear “the least of those among us” every time you sing the name “Jesus” and every time you sing “thou or thee:”
Fairest the hungry … fairer still the vulnerable …
O, thou of God to earth come down.
The stranger I’ll cherish … the prisoner I’ll honor …
Thou, my soul’s glory and crown.
Let’s stand and sing as we prepare for all that is ahead. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 1, 2020