Sermon: The Least of These (November 20, 2011)

            Okay.  Let’s just get this out of the way:  Everyone here is a sheep.  Not a goat in sight!  I say that because often when we read this “least of these” text from Matthew, we get stuck on the idea of if we don’t do enough of the right things, if we don’t do enough good deeds, if we don’t do the most for the least of these, then we’re going (Choir: “straight to hell”).  Right.  And being afraid of going (“straight to hell”), we get paralyzed and do nothing or we get rebellious and do nothing.  Or we just discount this whole religion thing as quaint but obsolete.  And do nothing.

When we get bogged down in the question of where we’ll spend eternity, it distracts us from the question of how we’re spending our lives right now…and I’m convinced that THAT is the question Jesus is asking in this parable.  So, let’s just declare ourselves sheep and get on with it.

It’s not such a stretch to imagine everyone in this room as a sheep.  I’ve never been in a church that does so much for “the least of these.”  If a need is mentioned in this place, the response always is swift and generous— whether it’s chicken for MUST lunch, Christmas gifts for the girls at Wellspring, space heaters for people who need them, or supporting our youth in their mission trip to an Osage Indian reservation this summer.  Or this past summer when the MUST food pantry was out of food?  I mentioned that in worship and many of you left the service, drove to Publix or Kroger and were back with food before Sunday School was over.  We aren’t a large church, but we do have a large heart, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of “the least of these.”  I’m proud to pastor such a flock of sheep.

But reading this parable, I wonder if we’ve reached our sheepy potential?  I wonder if we’ve learned everything we can about serving the least of these?  I wonder if there’s still room for us to grow in the ways in which we live Jesus’ love in the world?

            Here’s why I wonder that…because there’s something about this passage that bugs me.  It makes sense that the goats didn’t realize that when they didn’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and all those other things…it makes sense that the goats didn’t realize that the things they weren’t doing they weren’t doing to Jesus.  I mean, in this story, the goats are clueless anyway.  It makes sense they didn’t get the connection between helping others and helping Jesus.

But don’t you find it strange that the sheep hadn’t made that connection either?  They asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you drink, naked and clothe you,” and all those things.  Jesus answered:  “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”  “Oh, man!  That was Jesus?  Why didn’t somebody tell me?  I just thought that was old Joe who I see every time I go to serve at MUST.  I didn’t know it was Jesus!” 

We can’t deny that the sheep were doing good works.  They were doing amazing things—clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  But somehow in the midst of all their good works, it looks like they had missed Jesus.  They were doing good, but somehow, they were missing Jesus. 

I’d like to tell you one sheep’s story.  His name was Henri Nouwen.  He was a priest who, after a successful career of teaching, was becoming restless and looking for the next thing to do.  After a period of discernment, Henri ended up at a community called Daybreak inToronto.  Daybreak is a community for severely disabled people and the assistants who care for them.  “When Henri arrived inToronto, he was assigned to work with Adam.” 

Adam was “a 24 year-old man, [who] was very…handicapped.  He couldn’t speak.  He couldn’t walk.  He couldn’t dress or undress himself.  You never really knew if he knew you or not.  His body was very deformed.  His back was distorted and he suffered from continuous epileptic seizures.   

“I was really afraid,” Nouwen wrote.  “Here I was a university professor.  I had never touched anybody very closely and here was Adam.  Hold him!  At 7: 00 in the morning I went to his room and there he was.  I took off his clothes, held him and walked with him very carefully.  I was frightened because I thought he might have a seizure.  I walked with him to the bath and tried to lift him into the bath tub – he was as heavy as I am.  I started to throw water over him, wash him, shampoo his hair and take him out again to brush his teeth, comb his hair and bring him back to his bed.  I dressed him in what clothes I could find and took him to the kitchen.  I sat him at the table and started to give him his breakfast.  The only thing he could really do was lift the spoon up to his mouth.  I sat there and watched him.  It took about an hour.  I had never been with anyone for a whole hour, just seeing if they could eat.

            “Something happened. I was frightened for about a week, a little less frightened after two weeks.  After three or four weeks, I started to realize that I was thinking about Adam a lot and that I was looking forward to being with him.  Suddenly I knew something was happening between us that was very intimate, very beautiful and that was of God… Somehow I started to realize that this poor, broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a whole new way.  Gradually I discovered real affection in myself and I thought that Adam and I belonged together and that it was so important.”

There’s a way of helping people that helps them, but at the same time, keeps them in their place.  Do you know what I mean?  I will help you because I have so much and you have so little.  I will help you because I am able-bodied and you are disabled.  I will help you because I’m an insider and you’re an outsider.  Sometimes the way we help others reinforces the idea that people who have more net worth also have more human worth. 

What Henri learned from Adam, though, is that he and Adam were equals.  Part of what helped Henri discover “real affection in himself,” was recognizing that, despite the very real differences in their abilities, he and Adam were just alike.  They both were human beings.  They both were loved—deeply loved–by God.  And Jesus lived in both of them.  It’s almost like in learning to see Adam’s humanity, Henri was able to see his own humanity.  In learning to see Jesus in Adam, Henri learned to see Jesus in himself. 

Maybe that’s what Jesus is calling us to in this “least of these” parable, at least those of us who identify as sheep.  We’ve already answered the call to work with and in behalf of the least of these.  Maybe our new call is to do so mindfully…to think with every person we help—this is Jesus.  This is a human being.  This is a person who is just like me—deeply loved by God. 

It is good to good things.  It is good to good things in the name of Jesus.  What might happen, though, if we do good things as if we are doing them for Jesus?  What might happen if we look for and find Jesus in the least of these, the outcasts?  It might just be that in loving the Jesus in others we will discover the Jesus in ourselves as well.  IT might just be that we will discover that we all are children of God.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©  2011

Matthew 25:31-46

Here’s a story I left on the cutting room floor… 

Christ Heuertz made that discovery one afternoon inJerusalem.  Chris is part of the “Word Made Flesh” movement, people who live in community and serve the poorest of the poor across the globe.  I highly recommend his book “Simple Spirituality:  Seeing God in a Broken World.” 

On the day in question, Chris found himself on the Via Dolorosa—the way of Suffering.  It’s the path many think Jesus took on the last day of his life.

At the end of the way, Chris saw a Palestinian man.  “He had a long black beard and dirty hair that fell below his shoulders.  His eyes were kind.  He was barefoot.  He had no pants.  The only thing keeping him from being completely naked was the open rag of a shirt that he wore, torn and dirty, loosely hanging off his shoulders.  It caught me off guard,” Chris writes.  “He obviously was not in his right mind.  However, this man was gentle.  As his dazed eyes drifted into the sparsely clouded sky I could tell he was harmless.”

“Various tour groups making their pilgrimages throughJerusalemwould walk down the path with tears in their eyes and the typical romanticized holy-land-tour wistfulness.  Arriving at the end of the path, the tour groups and pilgrims came face to face with this naked man.  Their responses were usually very similar.  At first, most were frightened by the man.  Many flat out ignored him, walking right past him, acting as though he wasn’t there.  Some, realizing he was harmless and helpless, would cruelly try to scare him off or send him away.”

 “I went back to my dorm room that evening and began reading through the Scriptures.  I found myself stuck in Matthew 13:44, where a man discovers treasure hidden in a field.  The passage tells us that ‘joyfully’ he went off to sell all his possessions in order to buy the field… I sat at my desk with my Bible open, thinking about the meaning of this verse.”

 “I was compelled to pray about the passage.  Suddenly it was as if the Lord took a hold of my heart, trying to show me that I was the ‘hidden treasure.’  Jesus joyfully went to the cross and sold everything (his own life) so that I could be his.  I was overcome with a sense of God’s love for me.  It broke me.  I sat at my desk weeping, drinking in the love that God was lavishing, pouring out on me.”        

“I reflected on the events of that day, remembering the pain and sadness I saw reflected in the face of the naked man.  Praying for that man, the Lord opened my eyes to the hidden treasure that had been standing before me.  That crazy man, naked and dirty, also was a ‘hidden treasure’ that Jesus loved so much that he gave his all for him.”



About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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