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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Character of Christ: Priority for the Poor (Matthew 25:31-46)


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31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’
45Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

We continue in our “Character of Christ” series as we look at Jesus’ priority for the poor.  In a world where many overlook and ignore the poorest of the poor, Jesus is once again showing his character is counter-cultural – that what we do to the least in our society, we do to him.

For some reason, when you start talking about issues like wealth and poverty, income inequality and systems of economic injustice, everyone seems to have an opinion.  Maybe because it’s such a hot topic in our current political climate that to even bring up the topic is to start a heated debate, but that’s not what we’re here to do.  We’re not here to advance any particular party platform; but we are going to let Jesus have his say on the issue.  If that makes you uncomfortable, you have two options – you can either take it up with Jesus, or, you can think about why it makes you uncomfortable, and see if that discomfort isn’t an opportunity to grow.

All of us can relate to Mark Twain, who said, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  Money was one of Jesus’ favorite topics.  Jesus had much to say about wealth, poverty, and in particular, how the relationship of those who “have” with those who “have not” is less an economic issue than a spiritual one. 

Personally, I wish Jesus had said a little bit less about money than he did.  My life would certainly be easier and more comfortable if Jesus knew or cared that it’s not polite to talk about money.  Who does Jesus think he is, anyway, to tell me what to do with my money?

Of course, if we believe what we say all the time that every gift comes from God, that what we have, what we’ve earned, including the ability to earn it, belongs to God and that we are stewards over it, entrusted to use our resources in a way that loves God and our neighbor, well, if all of that really is true, then maybe Jesus is entitled to his opinion, after all.

Money is so personal to many of us – it was then and it is now – and because it’s so personal, it’s like a direct link into the deepest recesses of our hearts.  Jesus teaches us to give freely of what we have, to share it with those who have less, because when we do, we are sharing with Jesus himself.

Jesus said, 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them,‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

Friends, if you’re looking for Jesus, start giving and serving.  You’re more likely to find Jesus there than in anything I or anyone else tells you here in church.  Sunday morning is NOT the main event!  Living lives that reflect the generous love of Jesus – that’s the point, folks!  Our worship on Sunday morning is the launching point, the foundation of a whole host of things we do throughout the rest of the week to give our lives in service for others as Jesus gave his life for us, and then we come back the following week to celebrate what God has been up to, before we are equipped to go out, yet again, and look for the face of Jesus reflected in the faces of those we serve.

Worship is supposed to change us – our behaviors, attitudes, and priorities, and it’s my aim every time we gather to give you something that equips you, or teaches you, or inspires you to somehow live your life differently; if we walk out of church pretty much the same people we were when we walked in, well, then all of this was apparently for nothing!

Finding and following Jesus isn’t simply a matter of going to church, but being the church – the living, breathing, moving, growing, risk-taking, mistake-making, relationship-seeking, serving, sharing, giving, hands and feet of Christ in the world.  Like the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about!

Over and over again, the Gospel, the very life and teaching of Jesus, shows a priority for the poor.  Jesus himself was poor, Jesus identifies himself among the poor, he is in constant solidarity with the poor, and he put the question to each of us, “Hey, if you really mean it when you say you want to follow me, how about you join me down here – among the poorest, the lowliest, the least, and the last.  If anyone needs me, I’ll be with the poor.”

That’s why we engage in missions.  Serving the least of these is not about “seeing how other people live so we can be grateful for what we have.”  No.  And serving the least of these is not simply about “doing good and making the world a better place,” though that is a pleasant byproduct.  Plain and simple, serving the least of these is about seeing Jesus face-to-face.

Sometimes people ask me, “Should we be doing missions locally or globally, and my answer is “Yes.”  It’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a both/and.  Maybe serving right here in the community lights your fire; maybe going halfway around the world is your thing, and honestly, there’s enough need out there that as long as you’re serving somewhere, you really can’t go wrong, and I guarantee you will see Jesus.  See, here’s the thing, it’s about seeing Jesus reflected in those we serve and in those who serve us.  It’s about them hopefully seeing Jesus reflected in us, and together, finding ourselves a bit closer to the kingdom of God.

Alternately, a failure to honor the least of these is a slap in the face of Jesus himself: ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment.

Friends, the stakes are high.  Jesus doesn’t present serving the least of these as a good idea or something to do if we feel like it or have the time.  Jesus tells us to serve and to share and to give as if our eternal standing with God depends on it – because it does.

Someone will ask, “What if I give to someone, and they spend it on drugs or lotto tickets or junk food or fancy clothes – wouldn’t it be better for me to give them nothing at all?”

No, and you know why?  What we give someone is between us and God.  Just think, “I’m giving this to Jesus.”  What they do with it is between them and God.  And you know what else?  Jesus has given me a lot of gifts that I probably didn’t use very wisely either.  My guess is that’s true for each of us.  We call that grace.  Thank God that grace didn’t stop in our lives even when we were irresponsible and wasteful and ungrateful – thank God that despite us, God’s grace keeps flowing.  Likewise, the followers of Jesus are called to give as Jesus gave – freely, without condition or bias.

The thing about giving, is that once we give it, it’s no longer ours.  We give up the right to comment on or control how it’s used.  If you’re still trying to control it even after it’s left your hands, then guess what – you didn’t really give it.  You can’t give with a tightly-closed fist; giving requires an open hand – releasing and letting go of the gift itself and our desire to control it.

For me, I’d rather err on the side of grace and be found giving too generously, than to err on the side of judgment and be found stingy.  One day I’ll have to give an account for my life and how I did or did not bless others with what I was blessed with.  One day Jesus will say to me, “I was empty, I was parched, I was friendless and alone, I was vulnerable and exposed, I was trapped and confined – I was all of those things” and I would rather hear Jesus say, “Thank you for helping me,” than have to explain when he says, “Why didn’t you help me?”

So, that’s where the sermon was supposed to end – neat and tidy package.  But you know, God has a really good sense of humor, and often that includes giving me an opportunity to practice what I preach.

I was working on this very sermon on Friday afternoon, when my phone rang.  Somebody looking for money – they had called the church office, gotten my cell phone from the recording, and called me – at home – to ask for help.

You probably know this, but we get calls like this a lot.  We don’t help folks directly with financial help; we support several agencies in town that do, and we always refer folks to them and often get hung up on when we do.  On Friday afternoon, I found myself talking with a 20-year-old man who moved here from out of state a month ago.  He was trying to scrape together enough bus fare to get back home to see his father who had just had a heart attack.  He had $86, and needed $123 total for the bus ticket.  Did I mention I was working on this sermon and contemplating this very concluding question?  I heard myself say, “Tell me where you are, I can help.”

I told Ashley what was up as I put on my shoes, still shaking my head and saying, “Are you kidding me?” – actually, those aren’t the exact words I said, but you get the idea!

As I drove down to High Point, a voice in the back of my head said, “Give him $100.  And I said, “Jesus, he only needs $40.”  “Give him that $100 bill you have in your wallet.”  I don’t carry that kind of cash, usually.  But I received it as a gift a few weeks ago and was saving it to take my wife out to a really nice dinner.  And so I argued, “That money is not for him, and again, he only needs $40.  I’m going to stop at the ATM and get $40 out and this is the end of it.”

It was not the end of it.  I met him in the parking lot of the extended stay hotel he’s been staying in, and we talked for a minute, and I reached for my wallet, handed him one of my business cards, with that $100 bill tucked behind it.  And this young man who had talked a mile a minute looked at what I had handed him was speechless, and I said, “You need to get something to eat on that trip, and who knows what you might need to pick up once you get home, so just take it before I change my mind.”  He started to cry, gave me a hug, and said, “You don’t even know me!” and I said, “No, but I do know Jesus, and I know this is what he wants me to do for you.”

What does it mean?  It may mean that I’m a big sucker and got taken in by a sad story.  And if I did, so be it.  But I think it’s something different.  I think God looked out and saw a need, and God thought, “Well, A.J.’s paying attention to this sort of thing right now, so it looks like this one is his.”

I don’t tell you this so you think more of me or pat me on the back – that’s not the point at all.  I tell you this to let you know that on Friday afternoon, Jesus looked like a scared young man far from home trying to get back to his family.  I wouldn’t be surprised one day to hear Jesus say to me, “I was anxious and far from home and my dad had a heart attack, and you helped me get back home.”

How about you?  Would you like to meet Jesus face-to-face?  You can.  Start paying attention to your opportunities to share and serve and give.  Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Jesus himself.  Go find Jesus, and do everything you can for him.

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