A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
April 7, 2019
I’ve got this great image of ALL THE NATIONS gathered together in a gym as Jesus begins dividing them into 2 teams. “I need Libya and France over here on my right, please. And Great Britain and Iran on my left. Thanks”.
People start rearranging themselves. Italy and Sweden get out of the way as the US and Mexico get called to one side and Canada and the Cayman Islands go to the other side.
My least favorite moments of school were often in PE or on the playground, when it was time for people to be divided into teams. Will I get picked for a good team? Will other people on my team roll their eyes when they see they have to play basketball with me? Will that boy who bugs me on the playground also get picked for my team, or can I keep that from happening somehow?
In this parable, nobody wants to be the nation picked last for this cosmic game of dodgeball.
At the same time, I bet the nations were flummoxed a bit by the way the teams were being divided. I suspect some were wondering which team they were hoping he’d call them to.
Why did he call Rome and Egypt to the same team? Everyone knows they don’t get along after the Cleopatra incident.
I want to be on the same team as that cute new boy in class, Denmark, but the class bully Saudi Arabia is also on that team. hmmm.
I wonder if both teams were sort of excited at first, wondering if there was a competition they were going to compete in to earn their spot in God’s glory. I wonder if they looked at the other nations in their team and wondered how they all belonged together, what it was they had in common.
And then Matthew records: “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”.
I don’t know what Matthew has against left handed people, but just once I want a parable where the good guys are sent to the left side and the bad ones get sent to the right side. Is that so much to ask?
Okay, okay, that’s not the point. Maybe.
But at this point, the text tells us the people who are being welcomed into God’s kindom ask, “us? Why? What did we do to deserve this?”
I suspect they were looking at their friends who had been picked for the left handed team and wondered, “were we really a better nation than my friends over there were?” Or “and is this nation on our team really that deserving? They go to a totally different church than we do.”
As the teams are being sorted to sheep and goats, the sheep and goats are clueless about either what they have done well or what they have done wrong. They do not know why they have been selected either for eternal inheritance or for the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
In the King’s explanation about how the sheep and goats were sorted, however, it becomes clear that the King cares about people who are hungry and thirsty. God wants the naked clothed and the homeless housed. God wants the stranger to be welcomed and the prisoners visited.
There’s nothing in the sorting about whether or not the strangers God wants us to welcome have the right papers or documentation. There’s nothing in the sorting about adding work requirements to the food assistance for the hungry people or work requirements for health care for the sick people. There’s no stipulation on which crimes prisoners could commit and still deserve to be visited or which naked people deserve clothes.
We tend to make these things very complicated.
It’s not that complicated.
We all, each of us, come up with lots of reasons why we don’t need to do those things God has said matter to God.
I donated to a charity already.
I don’t know how to get involved.
I welcome strangers who look like me or speak my language, but I’m afraid about some of the other strangers, so it’s simpler to welcome none of them.
This text feels personal. It feels like we, individually, will be on the right side or the wrong side. But this text is about how the nations will be judged. It’s about how we create systems together that help or harm people.
Individual acts of compassion and mercy are good. Keep doing those. But if we repair the whole system, we can help more people than any one individual can do.
Also, there is nothing we can do to change our identity as either sheep or goats. This is not a ‘how to’ parable on how to become something you weren’t already created to be. Goats don’t become sheep by one day deciding they want to be chosen for a different team. Sheep don’t choose to be sheep either. Sheep live out their identity as sheep by following their shepherd.
And the shepherd calls us to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, offer food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, visit the people in prison.
This parable is calling us to be who we already are—sheep of the shepherd who creates us, loves us, guides us.
Last week I was at the Board meeting of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and we heard about a new initiative being launched this month, at the direction of our General Assembly, to make the Presbyterian Church a Matthew 25 church. Nationally, our denomination is going to address caring for the least of these in 3 different directions:
• Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
• Dismantling systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.
• Eradicating structural racism by advocating and acting to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.
The session will be talking about which of those 3 ways we want to embrace the challenge of being a Matthew 25 congregation to do some new intentional ministry here in our community, being a Matthew 25 congregation who follows our shepherd.
In light of this parable, our call is to follow our shepherd as best we can. As we prepare to enter Holy Week with our Palm Saturday service Saturday night, I invite you to consider anew where our shepherd is calling us to go.
He’s about to enter Jerusalem, turn over some tables, and head to the cross. Will we follow him as he leads us?
My friend Michael Kirby this week pointed out that the Good Friday story is the goat side of this passage.
When the world was hungry, Jesus had to offer his own life. Take, eat, this is my body.
When he was thirsty, the guards gave him bitter vinegar instead of water.
Jesus was a stranger when Peter denied him 3 times, “I do not know that man”.
He was naked, because the guards stripped him.
Jesus was imprisoned as the story tells us ‘they bound him’.
He was sick, and rather than getting care, he was abandoned, crying out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Let us prepare for Holy Week, with our eyes on the Shepherd. May we follow where he leads.