(Matthew 25: 31-46)
A reminder that we’re in the middle of our Stewardship Sermon Series, which of course coincides with our Fall Stewardship season, moving to Dedication Sunday in two weeks on October 8th. Grace and I are looking at the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. As a reminder, those five practices are:
Intentional Faith Growth, which Grace looked at the first week,
Radical Hospitality, which I looked at last week,
And today, Risk-Taking Mission and Service
Which brings us to our scripture, Matthew 25: 31-46. The parable, if you will, of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus’ time with his disciples is running short. He knows it; his disciples maybe sorta know it. Jesus wants to make the most of the time he has left with them, which is why I imagine he tells this story. A story about eternal judgment, yes, but more importantly, a story about the importance of living into one’s faith. And contrary to popular belief, it is not what one believes or doesn’t believe, but what one does or doesn’t do. So listen now to God’s word for us today:
This is the Word of the Lord: thanks be to God!
When I was in seminary, every student had to take a unit of what’s called “CPE,” or “Clinical Pastoral Education.” Essentially it’s a chaplaincy program; I did my three month stint at Rex Hospital in Raleigh. CPE by design has a double focus. On one, you’re learning how to be a pastor to and with people in some of the harder times of life, moments of crisis, long illness, death. But there’s also a lot of internal work you do; teamed up with other hospital chaplains as a group, and together you do group process, you dig deep into your own fears and pain, many of which are out of sight below the surface, but are often brought to light in the intense and emotional work of chaplaincy.
At the beginning of the program, all six of us in the group were asked to share two or three things that we were most anxious about having to deal with at the hospital, two or three things that were outside our comfort zone.
There were two obvious ones for me. The first was cancer. Like most people I’d lost family members to cancer, but it was still a mystery to me, and we humans are naturally afraid of what we don’t understand. Cancer can sometimes lead to death, of course, and I was pretty anxious about having to sit with folks in the midst of that.
The second thing I was anxious about was dealing with very sick kids. Particularly if they were young and the illness was life-threatening. You can sort of understand when an older person is ill. But kids should have their whole life ahead of them, right? Call it a defense mechanism or holding onto my last bit of innocence, but I was anxious about dealing with sick kids.
So the two things I told my group I was most anxious about, two things that would take me far outside my comfort zone were cancer and very sick kids.
You see where this is going, right?
Each of us had a particular section of the hospital we provided pastoral care for – mine was the bone and joints surgery wing. But once a week, when everyone else left at 5, one of us stayed on-call at the hospital until 9 the next morning. We had to make some rounds, but as long as no one paged us, we could hole up in the chaplain’s quarters, sleep in the hospital bed and watch TV. And since this was a neighborhood hospital as opposed to a downtown hospital, things were usually pretty calm at night.
It was my first week in the program and my very first on-call. My facilitator handed me the beeper at 5pm. I’ve checked around, she told me, and it doesn’t look like much of anything is going on. Looks like you lucked out. See you in the morning.
Now do you see where this is going?
I went to the coffee shop to grab a soda and chill out for a bit; started thinking about what I would do with my free evening at REX Hospital. There was a Braves game on TV, and the nursery was always a fun place to hang out…..
…..And then the beeper went off. I looked down. It was 5:02! I called the number. Come to the ER, we need you now. And when I walked into the cubicle they pointed me to, I saw a 11-year old kid lying in the bed, with a very anxious mother and father on either side. Tried to get high by OD-ing on Tylenol, I was told. Eleven years old. Turns out this wasn’t an isolated incident; this girl was one of twenty middle-schoolers who pulled this dangerous and stupid stunt during their Field Day on the last day of school. They’d be trickling in all evening. One of my greatest fears was dealing with sick kids, and that evening I’d be dealing with nearly twenty of them. Great.
I’d barely crawled into my chaplain bed later that evening when the beeper went off again; this time calling me to the 5th floor. Wanna take a guess what’s on the 5th floor? You got it! It was a man in his late 60’s; terminal lung cancer. I was so nervous, the nurse had to prompt me as she came in and out of the room: Maybe you should read him a Psalm or something. Maybe you could say a prayer? Bless that nurse. I asked the man, would you like for me to say a prayer with you? And with perhaps every last ounce of energy in his cancer-ravaged body, and maybe some frustration too, he shot out, “YEESSSSSSS!” We said a prayer together, we talked some more, we read a psalm and I left a little before dawn. He died later that morning.
It goes without saying that I will never forget my first on-call. It was almost as if God went: so you say cancer and sick kids are what you’re most afraid of, huh? Alright, then! I’m glad for it, though. It pushed me to stretch myself in uncertain and uncomfortable places. And it helped me realize this truth about our faith: that taking risks and stepping outside our comfort zone is not what sometimes happens when we follow Jesus. It’s what always happens when we follow Jesus. Or it should be.
It is Jesus we’re trying to follow in the five practices of fruitful congregations that author Robert Schnase talks about in his book and that we’re talking about in our Stewardship sermon series, Seeds To Branches. Today we are looking at mission and service. But not just mission and service. You may have noticed that our author offers these wonderful qualifying words for each of the practices he presents. It’s not just “faith growth” but intentional faith growth. Not “hospitality” but radical hospitality.
And it’s not just mission and service – it’s risk-taking mission and service.
In other words, this isn’t “comfortable” mission and service. This isn’t doing mission and service in a way that’s familiar, that requires little time and effort. This may not even be mission and service that makes us always feel good. This is mission and service that is bold, that calls us out of our comfort zone, that breaks the mold, that unsettles us. As if it were Jesus himself we were serving.
Which is precisely the scenario we find in our scripture today, a story told by none other than Jesus himself. The Sheep and the Goats passage, as it’s commonly known, is familiar to most of us. It tends to evoke conversations about heaven and hell, the Rapture, when it all happens and who is going where.
And that’s a problem for us. Because as long as we think this story is about heaven and hell, as long as we think it’s about the afterlife, we are missing the whole reason Jesus told it. Jesus is not asking that we focus on the life hereafter here. He wants us to focus long and hard on the life we’re living right now.
We know the storyline: there are sheep and goats; the sheep tend to the least of these and the goats do not. The sheep are rewarded; the goats are punished. And it’s notable, I think, that neither of them knew it was Jesus they were helping or not helping. They just did what came naturally.
Now we could wonder all day long why the goats failed to feed the hungry or give water to the thirsty; why they didn’t welcome the stranger or clothe the naked; why they didn’t visit the imprisoned or care for the sick. It’s possible they’re just bad, uncaring people who never would’ve done those things anyway.
But I’m not sure we can – or should – explain it away that easily. I mean, we assume these folks would’ve rolled out the red carpet had they known it was Jesus, right? Served him the best food; made him a welcome guest in their homes, invited all their friends over, taken pictures, posted them on Instagram. The local newspaper would’ve done a feature story. And when Jesus said goodbye, they would’ve never stopped talking about the day that they got to help Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t come to them like Jesus, does he? And that’s the crux of it all. Jesus comes in a totally unexpected way – and not to trick or fool people, but so people can see him for who he really is:
I was thirsty, says Jesus, as he rings the church doorbell in the middle of a sweltering July and asks for a drink of water.
I was a stranger, says Jesus, as the new kid in school, eating lunch all by himself at the end of the cafeteria table.
I was naked, says Jesus, wandering the streets as one experiencing homelessness, decked out in old coats that do little to hold back the winter chill.
I was in prison, says Jesus, as he grips the cold metal bars that keep him inside his 8 x 8 cell, serving out his debt to society.
Jesus comes, consistently and intentionally, as the “least of these” – as inconspicuously as possible. And that’s a little unsettling, don’t you think?
It’s unsettling first because it literally means that anyone we meet during the course of our day could be – is, really – Jesus himself. The lady we cut off in traffic driving to work. The salesperson on the other end of the line getting on our last nerve. The random person behind us at the grocery store checkout. How do we interact with these folks – do we interact with them at all? Are we treating these people as if they are Jesus himself among us?
It’s also unsettling because it means, as Robert Schase suggests, that when it comes to mission and service, we in the church cannot afford to play it safe or simply dial it in. We have to take it to a different level. Author Shane Claiborne tells the story about the time he and some of his college friends were working at a local homeless shelter:
One day we received a box of donations from one of the wealthy congregations near our college. Written in marker on the cardboard box were the words, “For the Homeless.” Excited, I opened it up, only to find the entire box filled with microwave popcorn. My first instinct was to laugh. We barely had electricity, much less a microwave, and popcorn wasn’t on the top of the needs list. My second instinct was to cry because of how far the church had become removed from the poor.
Claiborne goes on to say that the following week, a group brought bicycles for the kids, cooked turkeys for the families, and donated thousands of dollars so they could update the facility with things like electricity and microwaves. Wanna know who that group was? It was the local chapter of the mafia! Claiborne mused, I guess God can use the mafia, but I sure would prefer that God use the church.
Risk-Taking mission and service is about more than feeding, clothing, visiting. It’s about recognizing our comfort zones and then intentionally pushing beyond those to get to where Jesus really is. That’s exactly the kind of thing we’ve been working on here at Trinity as of late. Grace and I were talking this past week about a recent Missions Ministry Team meeting where the group talked about how far our church has come in the past few years, We’re not simply writing checks and collecting food donations anymore; we’re now going to the Urban Ministry Center and serving food, going to the Galilee Center and serving the people there. We recognized our comfort zone as a church and intentionally pushed beyond it.
The question for us now becomes: what is our new comfort zone that needs to be pushed beyond? Where’s the next risky place our church can go to find and serve Jesus? I think it’s important to recognize that when Jesus says, “I was naked and you clothed me,” he didn’t mean to stop there. For while it’s one thing to clothe people, it’s another thing to tackle the complex issues of economic disparity. While it’s one thing to put food in a food pantry, it’s another thing to address the root causes of food insecurity. While it’s one thing to visit someone in prison, it’s another thing to take a hard look at the epidemic of overcrowded prisons and high incarceration rates.
You all know we have another Day of Discipleship this coming Saturday. There’s a sign-up link in your bulletin, and I hope you and your family will take part in this wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus. But when you sign up, don’t go just for the thing you’ve done before or already know about. Let me invite you to sign up for something that makes you nervous. Something that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Something that’ll help you engage the practice of risk-taking mission and service.
But don’t stop there. Keep an eye out for some of the other wonderful things Grace and our Missions Ministry Team will be calling us to be part of this year. Keep an eye out, and when you see them, especially the ones that make you go, “Hmm, I don’t know about that,” make it a point to take part in it. If you’ve never spent a winter Wednesday night in our Fellowship Hall with a dozen of our guests, do it. If you’ve never served lunch at the Urban Ministry Center, take a longer lunch break one day and do it.
Even within the four walls of this church: if teaching a Sunday school class never appealed much to you, give it a shot. If ushering or greeting doesn’t seem like your thing, try it out. If serving on a sessional ministry team has always felt like too much of a commitment to you, make time for it.
Stretch yourself, people of God. Stretch yourself so your reach extends far beyond your comfort zone, because it is there where you will not only find yourself, but you will also find Jesus. Trust me, I had no idea that night all those years ago when she handed me the on-call chaplain buzzer that I would meet nearly twenty 11-year old Jesuses in ER cubicle after ER cubicle; I had no idea that I’d fumble through a Psalm reading and prayer with Jesus on the 5th floor.
I love the way noted writer and speaker Tony Campolo puts it. Jesus never says to the poor, “Go find the church.” No, he says to the church, “Go into the world and find the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned” – Jesus in his many disguises.
I love that – Jesus in his many disguises! Let’s go looking for Jesus, shall we? Not in spite of the risks, but precisely because of them.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.