This sermon is based on Matthew 25:31-46.
Maybe you’ve seen one of these signs in a store – a gift shop perhaps,
some small mom and pop type of establishment,
a place where they want to warn you not to shoplift,
but they also want to issue the warning in the most polite way possible.
SO instead of posting something like “All shoplifters will be prosecuted,”
they have a small sign near the cash register or at the front door so you can see it as you leave.
A sign that says something like:
“We may not have seen you seen you take it,
but God did.”
Ah, the image of the all-seeing God.
Now while this idea may not scare off many potential thieves,
it is an idea that has haunted me since the days of my early childhood.
Now mind you, I was about as close to angel when it came to good behavior as any child ever has been.
My brother was the bad apple and the black sheep.
I was nigh near perfect.
But on those few occasions when I did do something wrong,
my dad was always quick to remind me that though he nor anyone else may have seen me commit the crime,
it was most certainly the fact that God had.
“God sees every thing you do, boy,” he would say.
“You might be able to pool the wool over my eyes.
You might be able to get away with that stuff with me,
but God’s no fool.
He sees everything you do,
and he writes it all down in that great big book of his.
And one day, you’re gonna have to face up to all you’ve ever done,
so don’t you forget it.”
My dad had a knack of scaring the Hell out of me,
both figuratively and literally.
And his teachings and sayings had a way of keeping me on the straight and narrow.
They didn’t have the same effect on my brother, mind you,
but for me, they were the gospel truth,
a truth that was reinforced most every time I went to church with my dad.
You see, in the church I grew up in, our pastor, Sister Ruby Richardson, would often preach and teach about the Great White Throne Judgment and the end of time.
You can read about it in Revelation
And between what she said and my dad told me,
I came to imagine what this great judgment day would look like.
I imagined all the people of the world standing in line waiting to be judged,
And each person, in turn, would be brought before God,
and every deed of his or her life would be projected upon a giant movie screen for all to see,
the good and the bad.
Everyone would see everything you ever did,
and then, at the end of the movie of your life,
God would decide whether you were worthy of heaven or should be consigned to the fires of hell.
Now I don’t have to tell you that the idea of the whole world seeing your sins and faults and misdeeds was another scary thing for any healthy teenage boy to contemplate,
and for reasons I won’t go into this morning.
But every time I heard my dad or Sister Ruby talk about judgment,
I would see that long line of people waiting to be judged,
I would picture that giant movie screen up in the sky,
and I would start worrying that when it came time for me to be judged,
I would be found wanting.
[Work in this quote someone left on Twitter:
"One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its worth watching"]
Scary stuff, my friend.
And today’s reading from Matthew did and does nothing to alleviate my fears.
Here in this last parable of Jesus’ earthly ministry we find judgment being levied on all the nations of the world.
My worst nightmare come true, in other words.
And in this parable, Jesus tells his disciples that on the Judgment day
the goats and the sheep will be separated.
On the one hand, the good sheep, we are told, will receive their just reward:
Jesus the judge will look at them and say,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
But on the other hand, the bad goats will get what’s coming to them,
and suffice it to say,
it’s not very pretty:
“You that are accursed,” Jesus will exclaim,
“depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The story then ends with these words,
“And these will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life."
It’s my dad and Sister Ruby all over again.
I just can’t seem to get away from judgment,
and though you may not realize it,
neither can you.
All the nations, Jesus says.
It’s just his way of saying “all the people . . . every man, woman and child who has ever lived, who is living now, and who will ever live. . .
All of them, you and me included, will be judged by Jesus.
And what is the basis for this separation of sheep and goats?
On what basis will we be judged?
The basis is found in our reactions to those in need in the world around us.
It is as simple as that.
What do we do in the face of human need and suffering?
Jesus couldn’t be more plain,
he couldn’t have made it any easier for us to understand.
"For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
and I was sick and in prison and you visited me."
And while this is easy to understand,
it has at times proven very hard for Christians and the Church to act upon.
Too often, we, as followers of Christ, reflect the attitude of this poem by William Duckworth (adapted by me):
For I was hungry, and you over ate
Thirsty and you watered your lawn
A stranger and you called the police
and were glad to see me taken away
Naked and you were saying
“I don’t have a thing to wear —
I must get some new clothes tomorrow
Sick and you asked, “Is it contagious?”
In prison and you said,
“That’s where people like you belong.”
And what is true for us individually is more often than not true of us as communities of faith,
for after all, the Church may be greater than the sum of its parts,
and I pray to God that it is,
but it is still composed primarily of people,
people like us . . . people with faults and failings
people who are selfish and self-serving,
people who so often pay only lip service to the teachings of Jesus.
Like most of the world,
we tend to take care of ourselves first,
and only later think about those around us.
There’s an old southern preacher and prophet named Will Campbell.
He must be close to or over 90 years old by now,
and he has lived his life tweaking the nose of the Church that he loves.
When he had been invited to preach at one of Nashville’s largest mainline Protestant churches,
Campbell discovered upon his arrival that the parking lot was filled to overflowing and the sanctuary was packed.
Standing room only.
But as he walked through the church’s lobby,
he took notice of all the fine decor:
Persian carpets and potted palms and works of art all along the walls.
Coming into the sanctuary,
he looked up
at a mammoth stained glass window at the front of the room,
he noted the ornate carvings on the altar and pulpit,
and he saw row upon row of beautiful brass and silver pipes for the organ along one wall.
When it came time for his sermon, Campbell ascended into the pulpit,
took one more look around the place,
and then preached a brief but powerful message.:
He said, and I quote,
"Jesus Christ, you could sell all this crap and feed half the people of Nashville,,"
and then he walked out.
At another church, this time in Wisconsin,
Campbell took a slightly more subtle approach.
He had spent some time in his message criticizing the opulent lifestyles of TV preachers and evangelists like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Baker, you remember them, don’t you?
Well, after bemoaning the excesses of church folk like them,
he went on to say, and again I use his exact words here,
‘All that was built off the backs of the poor.
If you chase wealth back far enough,
you get into the mines and the fields.
It’s not the boss man who’s digging the coal out of the ground
and raising the crops.
What’s wrong with all this affluence in the name of gentle Jesus is that it’s built off the exploitation of the poor.’
Everybody listening was in general agreement, nodding their heads.
Campbell paused for a few seconds, and then he asked,
‘All right, what’s the difference between what Swaggert and the Bakers do and the pope’s jewels,
or all those Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist steeples out there casting shadows on whores and pimps and addicts and bums with . . .
seldom a gesture in their direction from any of us proportionate to what we spend on ourselves?
If you push it to its conclusion, the difference is very little at all,
it’s simply a difference of taste.’
Well, I bet those two churches never invited Campbell back to preach.
What do you think?
But as abrupt and as confrontational as he was,
Campbell was also right.
The Church is to be judged and condemned when it cares more for it’s own well-being or it’s own survival than it does for reaching out with love to those living in the shadows of its steeples and walls,.
the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
To care for these . . . to care for the least of these,
is not just a good idea,
it’s not just something we do when we have some leftover time or money or energy.
To care for them is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus,
and we will be judged based as Father Robert Capon says on whether or not we have ministered to the last, the least, and the lost.
There is no other way to read and interpret this simple story of Jesus’.
And I believe that any church wanting to be the church will find a way to offer literally and figuratively the food, the water, the warmth, the love, and the care that this world around us so desperately needs.
And if we don’t,
then we don’t deserve to bear the name Christian,
and our community of faith does not deserve to be called a Church.
But is it any more harsh than the words Jesus utters at the Judgment?
`You that are accursed,
depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
for I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Mother Teresa once asked some visitors to hold up one hand.
“The gospel,” she said, “is written on your fingers.”
Then holding up one finger at a time,
she accented each word,
“YOU DID IT TO ME!”
She then added,
“At the end of your life, your five fingers will either excuse you or accuse you of doing it to the least of these.
You DID It To Me.
More harsh words of judgment,
and the only thing I will add to mitigate them at all is this:
the one who judges us is also the one who died for us.
And as we move from the word to the table,
we remember his great love for us.
We remember that more than anything else,
he would have us follow him and that he offers us the strength to do his work and will in the world.
And one way we can receive his love, his grace and his strength is by taking into ourselves these simple elements of bread and juice.
So in the words of the prayer of Great Thanksgiving,
we all pray this day:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood. Amen.