Throughout my ministry, I have preached on many passages that have led to a wide selection of interpretations and reflections. There have been passages where I have not known where to begin. There have been scriptures where I was never quite sure which angle to take, and sermons where it was as much for me as it was the congregation that I preached the message to.
Those sermons come after much prayer and reflection, with hope for a sermon that speaks to both myself and the congregation. A professor of mine once told me that if the sermon does not speak to you, then it will never speak to the person in the pew.
Rarely, if ever, have I ever found myself as challenged by a passage as I have with this one today. This passage led me to staring at blank walls for considerable lengths, which is a sign of deep thought for me, and a lot of time reflecting and wondering about what this passages says to me and for us. Part of the reason for this is that I believe this is a passage given to us in a season where it is easy to go with the expected application. It would be easy for us to connect this passage, especially given that Thanksgiving is Thursday and Christmas is a few weeks away, to say we are called to care for those with needs.
It is a valid and appropriate application. The problem is that I think God, through this passage, is asking us to think about something much deeper. I think Christ is desiring more of me and from us through these words. I think what God desires for us is to be the church in all seasons, and not just in this season of giving and thankfulness.
So, what does God desire of us? Through these words from Matthew 25:31-46, I think God is calling us to a way of life and a way of being the church that is beyond our normal ways of seeing ourselves or seeing the church. I think God is calling us to see the people of our community, those who are hurting, who are broken, who are struggling, who are in need of hope, as our brothers and sisters. I believe God desires us to see Jesus in the people who live among us by building relationships and partnerships with them.
How do we do this? How do we, as a church, go about this? I think this gets to the heart of my inner wrestlings with this passage. I believe that within the heart of every Christian, there is a basic desire to be the church. We have a desire for the church to be a living, breathing, active body that proclaims the love Christ through words, actions, and deeds. We want to be a church who makes disciples, who cares for the poor, who feeds the hungry, and who welcomes the stranger. We want to be the church. We just do not know where to begin.
It is at this point of recognition that we throw our hands in the air, or perhaps place our hands on our hips, and breath a collective sigh of frustration. How are we do what Jesus calls us to in this parable? Can we even do it? Is what Jesus asks of us too difficult to believe that a group of people, living in this time and place, could ever accomplish what Jesus dares to believe that we can? The only way we may begin to answer these questions is look at the parable and to see what Jesus asks.
This is the last of those series of parables that we’ve been looking at where Jesus teaches about how we are to wait for the Lord’s return. During the last few weeks, we have seen where we are to live with hope and use this waiting period to use the gifts we’ve been given to proclaim Christ by our words, actions, and deeds. Now, we get to this parable where it seems that Jesus puts these two ideas into a way of life.
We are told that when the King, Jesus, comes, he will sit on his throne and will separate everyone into two groups: sheep and goats. The sheep will be placed at his right hand, which was a place of honor, while the goats would be given a place at the left. Right now, we are not told why the separation takes place as it does.
It is only when we move forward that we see the sheep are given a place of honor due to their actions. They cared for the king, the Lord, when he was hungry or thirsty, invited him in, clothed him, and visited him when sick and when in prison. The sheep were those who were called blessed, because they cared for the king in such a way. They were shocked by this proclamation and asked the king what they did that was so special. The king replied, “[W]hatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus says this because he identifies with the very people who are hurting and are in need. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find him associating with the unacceptable, the people the religious leaders said were beyond help. He routinely spent time with the poor, the abusers, the cheats, the adulterers, and the sick. Jesus was not only with them; he cared for them, loved them, and showed them how to live in a new way. By walking with them, Jesus makes an important statement, saying that those people society often rejects and casts off to the side are the very people God accepts and love.
This, Jesus calls us to do. In response to our faith in Christ, we are called to see Jesus in the people around us. To not see them as simply the poor, the troubled, the broken, or the under privileged, but to see them as if they were Christ. To see the image of God radiating out of their soul and to welcome them as we welcome Christ. It is a way of ministry and presence that sees the value and worth in all people and invites us to love and care for the people who are hurting, who are in deep need, and who need a place to call home. Out of our love for Christ, we are called to welcome those who are often ignored and care for them in ways that are holy, meaningful, and make a difference.
How do we do this? I think that is the question we find ourselves asking when we place ourselves within this parable. As those separated for their failure to care for others try to determine when they had a chance to see Christ in the poor, we find ourselves asking Jesus how might we do this. How are we to meet the needs of others by seeing Jesus in the people our community rejects?
I think an example in history may give us a guide. Le Chambon is a French community that is famous for its involvement during World War II. It is not famous for it being a location of a major battle of the conflict, but that it was a site of a massive effort to care for the people in front of them. Led by Pastor Andre Tocme, the community set out to prevent the Nazi army from capturing Jewish people in their area. They did everything they could to hide and protect the Jews from arrest and almost certain death for no reason other than their cultural heritage. It was an intense and community-wide struggle where the leaders of the community said that they didn’t do anything that was special, only that which they hoped anyone would do for someone in need.
What the community of Le Chambon teaches us is that seeing Jesus in others and caring for the least of these is about a committed effort of ministry. It is about building relationships and partnerships where we begin to get to know the people who are in need and associate ourselves with them. We welcome them into our lives and walk with them in ways that helps meet their needs, builds skills and talents, and gives them a renewed sense of self. It is a way of life that is dedicated, intentional, and calls us to identify ourselves with the very people Christ identifies himself with in our community.
It is a frame of ministry and service that seeks to build lasting relationships that go beyond the limitations of a one-off event to meet the needs of others. For decades, that has been the church’s response to caring for the least among us. We hold major events, invite people into our doors, and give away something. I think there is a place for one-off events such as these, which meet various needs at certain times and places. Yet, I think we have to recognize there are limitations to these efforts. They do not often create a way of life that builds lasting relationships.
The way we can see Jesus in others is to immerse ourselves within the communities of those who are struggling. To find ways to where we get to know the people around us. To build relationships, partnerships with those who are hurting. To do ministry with, and not for, those who are the least among us. That is a key point, for if we are to be known as a community who identifies ourselves with the people who are often rejected and the people Jesus Christ accepts, then we have to go and be with them. We are creating partnerships that transform lives, and that includes our own life. To simply say we are doing ministry for them is to say that our relationships are guided by the principle of having goods and services to offer. While we do have things to do offer, what is more important are relationships that we offer where we walk with our community’s “least” and learn from them as well. We see Jesus that way, because it allows both parties to receive the blessings of Christ’s love in the relationships.
Where do we begin? It is at this point that we often expect the preacher to give three points about a ministry action plan that will lead us into this kind of ministry of identification through relationships. That would be the typical response and, again, the passage demands more than a pedestrian attempt to build a way of ministry that could easily be forgotten by the time we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday.
Our passage calls us, I believe, to sit with this for awhile. Not just one of us. Not just a few of us. I think it calls all of us to sit with this for awhile. To think about the fact that there are people who are hurting in our community, including some whom we know. There are people who are struggling in our neighborhoods. There are people who feel like they have no hope. There are people who need to see the church walk beside them.
There are people in Salvisa, Lawrenceburg, Anderson County, and Mercer County who need to see Claylick UMC walk beside them in the midst of their hurts, pains, and struggles. To be honest, I think we need to see our church do just that as well. I don’t know what this looks like for us, but I think there is a place for us to be the church for the forgotten of our community. A church where the broken and struggling are welcome, loved, and accepted.
A church where we love all people as Christ loves us. That is not a plan of ministry. That is being the church.
How we do that here is going to take time to think about, to pray about, and to come together in ways that, perhaps, we have never done before. We can do it. You have shown me already we can do it. We can be the church God is calling us to be.