Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46; given on Nov 20, 2011

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 25:31-46
“The Story Everyone Should Know Pt II”
Nov 20, 2011

If you’ve worshipped with us the last few weeks, you may have picked up on the fact that there’s been a theme of sorts running throughout the morning messages; a theme that can be called “The Body Politic.”

First, we looked at Joshua 3 and talked about the feet of our ancestors. Then we explored Psalm 90 which asked God to prosper the works of our hands.

Last week we studied Ephesians 1 which talked about the eyes of our hearts and the Body of Christ.

It all culminates today in a reading from Matthew which is explicitly about taking care of the bodily needs of others.

My sermon title makes the bold claim that this is a story everyone should know; because quite frankly, it is; and it’s an important part of our U.C.C. heritage.

But first, a story of another sort:

Last week, my friend in Missouri told me that he attended a church in which the minister was giving a passionate speech against the evils of alcohol.

As he came to the end of the sermon he was on a role. With powerful emphasis he said “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the Mighty Mississippi River.”

“If I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.”

And finally, shaking a fist into the heavens, he said “And if I had all the whiskey in the world I’d take it and pour it into the river!”

With a rousing “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, the pastor proudly sat down, knowing he had made a point no one, not one, could argue against…

…ever so cautiously, the Minister of Music stood up, and with a nervous smile, she announced, “For our closing song, let us turn to hymn 365, ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’”

Have you noticed that when it comes to organized religion, there seem to be two ways to use Christianity?

Some, like the preacher in the story above, uses it to judge and condemn others, to tell them what they should not do; placing emphasis on what they perceive to be evil.

For them, Christianity becomes a check list of things “tho shall not do.”

Then, there is the other side of Christianity which is not so much about condemnation, but about showing compassion and care.

It’s less about monitoring the moral lives of grown folk and more about how to be caregivers to a world that is often feeling lost and lonely, broken and sick.

Today’s reading does have perceived images of judgment, but as I read it (and perhaps you do too), I feel it to be more about what we can do and what Christ expects to be done.

So why is this a story that everyone should know? First off, this has played a major role in shaping our denomination.

If you recall, the United Church of Christ is composed of at least four denominations that came together in 1957. The four branches were the congregational, the evangelical, the reformed and the Christian.

While the congregational side was primarily the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled along the east coast, the evangelical side was German and Swiss, settling in places like PA and Missouri.

They had experienced severe persecution in their homeland. When they came to America they embraced an irenic, peaceful nature.

They also embraced Matthew 25, allowing it to guide their faith. And guide it did.

Caring more about the pastoral then preaching side of ministry, they set to work creating social institutions that benefited all peoples. They explored new ways that Christ’s love could be made manifest.

Travel through Missouri and you’ll see the compassionate legacy they left behind: residential homes for people living with developmental disabilities that treated them as people, not things.

Retirement communities that empowered its residents to live fully and surrounded them with the things that make life good.

Instead of focusing only on building churches, they built hospitals, community centers, and schools, such as the seminary I attended.

They did all of these things based on their understanding of Matthew 25.

I wonder how much of their faith stemmed from the fact that they knew what it was like to be judged and persecuted.

Matthew’s church also new a bit about being judged. After all, they were doing something entirely new. What we call “church” basically began with them.

Most of them were born in the Jewish faith; chances are they had been kicked out of the synagogues for what they believed. With no real road map, they were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.

So it’s very telling that Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is placed where it’s placed. As one author stated, it’s as if everything in Matthew’s Gospel has been leading up to this.

For 25 1/2 chapters we have followed Jesus, seeing how his ministry begins, witnessing his teaching, his healing, and his miracles.

And then right before he is betrayed, Jesus teaches this one last story, a story that tells us that when we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and comfort to the ill and imprisoned, we are actually doing it to Jesus himself.

And as the story goes, in doing so we are the inheritors of the Kingdom even if we are not fully aware of what we were doing.

What is so interesting is that right after Jesus teaches this story, the exact opposite happens to him.

He is betrayed by one of his own flock. He is falsely arrested, mistreated, abused and mocked, stripped naked, and hung between two criminals where he hungers and thirsts, asking why God would have forsaken him…

…but the story doesn’t end there, does it?


Because 2,000 years later we are here, giving thanks that Jesus was not forsaken at all, but was raised by the God Most High, in which nothing is impossible…

So why do I make the bold claim that this is the story that everyone should know?

Because it impacted Matthew’s church.

Because it shaped our denomination.

Because it’s a story about how we are to treat one another.

Not because we must, but because we may.

Not because we’re seeking heaven’s reward but because no one alive should experience hell on earth.

Not because we’re seeking to earn points with Christ, but because by caring for the least of these we are actually caring for Christ.

Not because we want the world to know us by what we say, but because God wants to recognize us by what we do.

Not because we desperately want to be part of the Heavenly Family but because we already are; created by God, restored in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, let me end with another story:

The other day I was on the Circle, enjoying lunch outside. There was this driver who stopped for a man at the crosswalk even though he could have blazed on through.

Well, this infuriated the woman behind him. She was tailgating, honking her horn, screaming out her window in frustration, and flipping him a few choice signs.

Next thing I knew, while she was in mid-rant, a very serious looking police officer was tapping on her window.

The officer asked her to exit the car with her hands up. She began to beg and plead and wonder what was wrong, but he placed her in handcuffs and had her sit in the back of his squad car.

A few minutes later, after a rather lengthy conversation on his cell phone, the officer released her with an apology.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said in that wonderful southern manner, “When I pulled up behind your car I saw you blowing your horn, yelling out the window and flipping off the guy in front of you.”

“And when I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, ‘Choose Life’ license plate, and ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ decal with the Christian fish on it, well, I just figured you must have stolen the car!”

Members and friends of Emmanuel UCC, we don’t need bumper stickers or decals or license plate holders to declare our faith if our actions, our hands, our feet, are already doing it.

So let us continue to move forward in faith and in action, displaying the eyes of our hearts and allowing the Lord to prosper the compassionate works of our hands.

For that, let me hear a mighty “Hallelujah!” and a grateful “Amen.”

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