January 28, 2024
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:34-40
This passage is one we’ve visited in other sermons over the last few years and probably is one you’ve heard again and again sitting in the pews as you are today. The one Kathy has read a part of this morning is one of the stories that Jesus used to help the people understand what the “Kingdom” was all about.
Apparently Jesus used the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven” or “The Kingdom of God” quite regularly and people wanted to know what he meant! It was much like when you hear me talking about the Beloved Community and after hearing the words over and over, someone speaks up and says: “We’ve heard this phrase again and again and we’d like for you to tell us what you mean by it!”
So, this chapter begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like this…” And then, because Jesus was the kind of person he was, he made up some stories or parables that he told as a way of answering their question. Three of those stories are recorded for us in this chapter: 1) 10 Bridesmaids 2) Talents and then 3) this one about sheep and goats.
They are all stories where Jesus seems to say: “Here’s how you can tell who belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven and who doesn’t!” Or: People who want to be identified as God’s people, real followers of God, or part of the Beloved Community are like the characters in these stories. Now in Biblical times, shepherds took their flocks up on the hillside overlooking the villages and turned them loose where they wandered and grazed until it came time to go back home. Flocks from different owners mixed together and apparently sheep and goats ate the same grass. No fences. No separation. So, those people Jesus was talking to would have certainly identified with the question: “How are you going to tell your sheep from somebody else’s sheep?” That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at. How can you tell God’s followers from anyone else’s followers?
In the story, there is this king and he has two groups of people in his kingdom. Some who like him and want to do what he recommends and others who don’t! A typical division. So, in the story, the king points to one group (which he called sheep, you know, the ones who follow!) and says: “Here’s how you tell that this group is the ones who follow me and really belong to my kingdom: When I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, sick, and in prison, you tended to me.” That use of “I and Me” on the part of the King (God) surprises us and is the part where this whole story dramatically shifts.
If I were listening to Jesus when he first told that story, I would have let out a little sigh of relief! “I never saw YOU that way (hungry, thirsty, etc)” And then Jesus would look at me with the same eyes he looked at the Samaritan woman by the well and would say: “Whenever you have reached out to the needy or broken anywhere, you have reached out to me. So when you serve or tend to another, it’s ME you serve!”
Now, that answer would be a real shocker to most church members of our time. If you were to ask most contemporary church members just what it is that distinguishes the true followers of Jesus, they would start to describe what true Christians BELIEVE. But, Jesus never said ONE thing about a list of beliefs that REAL Christians subscribe to!
The Catholic Benedictine nuns in the monastery live under a rule – a guide for their life. In this guide, one of the fundamental rules for the monastery is this call to RECKLESS HOSPITALITY. If you put another way, you could state the rule like this:
When you see people responding to strangers with that kind of radical hospitality, it’s a good sign that these people are God’s people! The sheep! Real ones.
Jesus people practice reckless hospitality, a crazy open heartedness. They don’t need any excuse to be generous and hospitable. They don’t need to assemble a committee to decide whether or not to be hospitable, all they need is to remember that the needy one at the door is Jesus himself. So, tell me this: what would you do if it were Jesus sitting next to you feeling loaded down with life’s burdens? If it were Jesus coming through the back door of the church for the first time? If Jesus lived in the neighborhood but didn’t go to St. Johns? If Jesus walked the streets of Troy with dirty clothes? If Jesus had to raise his grandchildren because his children were addicts? If Jesus were being ostracized because he was a Jew – or Muslim – or a person of color – or Mexican – or…?
You see, the answer you give is critical – because that is exactly what’s going on around us! And the King says: “Inasmuch as you did it / did it not to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it / did it not to ME.” Actually those acts of reckless generosity are my brand. It’s how you know the people are MY people!
So, if it’s JESUS we’re aiding, the question becomes: What would you have for dinner if Jesus were the guest? Or…If Jesus were coming to our family dinner downstairs here in a few minutes, would you worry about the fact that he might mar one of the tables?
Do you understand? The question is not a rhetorical one, it is the real question because he IS THE GUEST – THE STRANGER!