A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California.
October 25, 2020
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”.
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 dodge ball.
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 Russia 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”.
At this point, the text tells us the people who are being welcomed into God’s realm 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.
It is clear the Sheep Team hadn’t been doing their acts of compassion in order to win a space on the right team.
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.
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.
Calvary became a Matthew 25 church this fall. And that initiative for our denomination, born from this parable, lifts up 3 tasks for the church
Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
Eradicating systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.
Dismantling 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.
Being a Matthew 25 church involves following our shepherd into the sacred and the hard work of repairing the system and building a society that helps people instead of harming them.
Nothing in this parable suggests we can 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 created us, loves us, guides us.
As I’ve been thinking about this parable this week, it occurred to me that while we should live our lives as sheep following the shepherd, there are still other characters we might identify with in this story.
We can also be the naked, the hungry, the people in prison, the thirsty, the sick. You’ll hear a story from a church member a little later in the service about how the community of Calvary was Team Sheep, following the shepherd in your care for him. (Thank you, Wayne, for your testimony!)
Here’s my story of when a church cared for me. I was a sophomore in college, a good church kid who thought she had it all figured out. To make a long story short enough for a sermon, I got pregnant the first time I had sex.
Dear reader, I did not have it all figured out.
I didn’t know what I was going to do, at first. And I’m thankful that my choices were my own to make. I decided to place my child for adoption. It felt like the right decision for me, but it was never an easy one.
I was about to join a church right about the time I realized I was pregnant. I went to the pastor and said that it wasn’t the right time for me to join. He asked me why. I broke down and told him the whole sad tale. I figured they wouldn’t want a pregnant college student as a member and so it wasn’t the right time for me to join.
He said to me, “when could you possibly need a church family more than you do right now?”
So I joined the church.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
They took me to lunch after church to make sure I was eating enough.
I was hungry and you fed me.
They loaned me maternity clothes because I didn’t have a lot of money to go buy them.
I was naked and you clothed me.
They visited me in the hospital.
I was sick and you cared for me.
They had me stand up in worship on Mother’s Day, even after I’d placed my son for adoption.
I was in a prison of shame and you freed me.
The people of that congregation were sheep who followed their shepherd, and their care got me through a very difficult season in my life. It is the reason I became a pastor.
It is the reason I prioritize my giving to the church. Because at the time of my life when I most felt like the least of these, the church took care of me.
I know about the love of God because I experienced it from the church. I know first hand what it is to receive grace when I had expected judgment, to have gotten compassion when I expected scorn.
My son is now 31 years old, and I’ve been able to be a part of his life all the way through. I’m forever grateful for the ways God, through the love of God’s people, redeemed and restored me, turning challenge into blessing.
Perhaps it is a rare occurrence for us to identify as the least, the lost the hungry, the imprisoned. But I hope I will always remember when I identified as the lost and the least, because it was in that time of challenge that I experienced grace in profound ways that changed my life.
Thank you for your faithfulness in your support of Calvary.
For all pledges received by December 15, you will receive either an email with photos of Calvary you can use as Zoom backgrounds for our gatherings, or if you aren’t a zoom user, we’ll print a set of the images for you as postcards you can send to your friends.
There’s an old adage that all churches have the money they need for ministry. But most of it is still sitting in the pockets of their members. We are thankful for the way you prioritize your giving to Calvary in support of the least of these. Our ministries of visitation and fellowship, music and worship, accompaniment, service and outreach, and Christian formation are made possible by your generosity. Thank you.
As we dedicate our pledges today toward 2021’s budget, let us remember how our gifts of time, talent, and treasure make God’s grace visible in the lives of people we meet, and people we may never meet.
Most days, maybe we’re sheep just trying to follow the lead of our shepherd. But when we face those moments in life when we feel least and lost, and where our own resources won’t get us through, I pray we all find community the way I did. Please join us in our work to build a world that offers life saving help to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.