Sheep, Goats, and Other Disciples

Matthew 25. 31-46

The bible contains a big story. A big story that we have tendencies to over complicate or over simplify. Sometimes it seems we are capable of both at the same time. We sometimes chop it up into smaller stories or even special verses. Sometimes we skip past the difficult parts or focus on parts that comfort us.

The Gospel of Matthew handles this dilemma well. It tells part of the story and connects it with the larger story. Matthew’s story is connected to what has already happened and points us forward to what is to come.

One of Matthew’s primary themes is what he calls the kingdom of heaven. He reaches back into the Law and the Prophets and grabs old words from the bigger story and puts them smack dab in the middle of the story of the kingdom of heaven.

In chapter 22, a question is asked and sounds something like this; “Jesus, this is a big story. There is so much we have been told, so much we have learned, there is so much in the Law and the Prophets – which of these things is the greatest?” Jesus answers without hesitation “Love God with all you have… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew does not want us to miss that Jesus connects the gospel of the kingdom of heaven with the story told by the Law and the Prophets. Neither does Matthew want us to miss that Jesus makes a connection between loving God and loving others.

Matthew wants us to imagine a world that is larger than what we think we need to get done today. To imagine a world that is more than what can be read on your facebook wall or your twitter feed. To imagine a world that is not limited by what we see or hear on the news. Imagine a world unlike any earthly kingdoms that have ever been. Imagine a world not dependent on power, control, coercion, manipulation and arm twisting. Imagine a world not dependent on those in charge making laws to keep themselves in charge.

Matthew wants us to imagine what the kingdom of heaven is like. And he wants us to know that in this kingdom the greatest commandment is “love God… and love your neighbor.” Matthew wants us to imagine a world like that. And the least of these have a prominent place in this kingdom. Our text is explicit about this.

We want to be careful here, we want to be sure we do not read these words as words for people who don’t go to our church. The fact is, we often read Jesus’ words as words for people who aren’t us. The fact is things get a little messy when we read sayings from Jesus. Because Jesus does not speak into a vacuum. He is always talking about real situations. He is always talking about real people. He is serious about love of God and love of people. These things cannot be separated. This is part of the older, bigger story told by the Law and Prophets. And Jesus says that story is about loving God and loving people.

In our text, Jesus mentions himself explicitly. He often hints he is a character in a parable – this time he is pretty straightforward “When the Son of Man comes.” Later he uses the term “King.” But perhaps most noteworthy, in this parable he is connecting himself to those who are hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and imprisoned.

We want to be sure and get this. Jesus has already connected the command to love God and to love people. Now we are being told that loving Jesus and loving people is essentially the same thing. To love the “least of these” is to love Jesus. To deny the “least of these” is to deny Jesus.

When did discipleship get so complicated? Why can’t we just attend a weekend retreat or a six week course or work our way through a good book and come out on the other side a card carrying disciple of Jesus? Why does it have to matter how we treat difficult people and needy people? Why does it matter how we treat people who are different? Why does it have to matter how we treat people who are risky to hang out with?

The fact the king of the story connects himself with the least of these is eye opening. If we should treat the least of these in the way we treat the king, then perhaps we should imagine a world where everyone gets treated like queens and kings.

We know the golden rule – “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Matthew seems to trump this rule and suggests we treat the marginalized as royalty. This kingdom of heaven is full of surprise. We never know what we will be challenged to do next. Imagine a world where the least of these are the toast of the kingdom!

Our text is part of a theme that Matthew thinks is worth repeating. Jesus keeps talking about being prepared and being faithful. He keeps telling stories where the master gives instructions, goes away, and returns… it is almost like we are stuck here. Earlier in chapter 25 we find ten virgins waiting on a bridegroom. The bridegroom returns to find some of them prepared, others not. Then we find three servants given bags of gold by their master. The master returns to find two faithful, but one is not. And now again, he is coming back and the question is hanging in the air “will we be found faithful?”

This time he returns to separate sheep from goats. Perhaps it is a good time to mention that in the first parable, Jesus is not really talking about a wedding. In the second, he is not really talking about investment. And now, in our text, he is not really talking about sheep and goats. Still here he comes, and he is handing out rewards to the faithful. And being faithful has everything to do with what kind of disciple we have been. It has everything to do with how we have treated the master. I mean how we have treated the least of these. I mean how we have treated the master. It all gets so blurry at this point.

When Jesus begins talking about the kingdom of heaven, things get messy. Like those in the parable, we understand the importance of treating Jesus well. But it is difficult to treat others the same way. Jesus has already made it clear that we cannot separate loving God from loving others. And so, we want to take it seriously when we read “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

The least of these is an interesting idea. Some of us may relate to what this means. Others have no clue. Since Jesus tells the story we may ask if he might have known something about the least of these. We think it possible that Joseph died early. If this is the case, would Jesus and his family have benefitted from the kind of hospitality the parable talks about? Or would the family have known what it was like to have been denied such hospitality? We can be certain Jesus knew the least of these in his adult ministry; it is at least possible he experienced it as a child.

We get a short list of what the least of these means; 1) hungry and in need of food, 2) thirsty and in need of drink, 3) stranger in need of rest, 4) naked in need of clothes, 5) sick and in need of care, 6) in prison and in need of company. We start to get an idea of what this means, needy, marginalized, exhausting types of people… and we might be able to think of others who might fit on this list.

Matthew has reported a number of stories that Jesus tells. And all of them want us to imagine a kingdom of heaven where the rule is different. And the rule is different because the ruler is different. Jesus wants us to be living the mission he has given. He wants us to forgive those who are not deserving. He wants us to befriend those hard to get along with. He wants us to love enemies. He wants us to serve the least of these – he wants us to treat them like queens and kings.

Matthew is not proposing that we do not live by faith. He is not trying to start a debate between faith vs works. Matthew is just reminding us of something we already know. That when we receive love – we love. That when we receive forgiveness the proper response is to forgive. And when we are cared for during times of need, the proper response is to serve those in need.

Let us imagine a world that challenges the way we have been taught to think about things. There is a brand of spirituality that claims faith is a private matter. That what goes on in your everyday life is between you and God. That as long as you know what you believe then God will bless what you have and give you more of it. That your possessions and your schedule and your dreams are right where they should be and you can stay where you are and start to sing “it is well with my soul” til kingdom come.

But that is not our brand of spirituality. Because we are trying really hard to take what Jesus says seriously. And when we do that it challenges our worldview from our possessions to our schedule to our hopes and dreams. The fact is, we try hard to figure these parables out – instead, it seems we always find out they have us figured out.

There is a real danger of not following through with our part of the story. A danger of not following through with discipleship. There is a danger of thinking we have got this figured out. There is a real danger of thinking we are a disciple when we are a goat. There is a danger of thinking we are entitled to eternal glory.

But in our parable the goats are surprised, for that matter so are the sheep. The goats were thinking they had this wrapped up. They were members of a reputable church. They were convinced they were disciples by their own definition. Yet they forgot that part of the great commandment that tells us to love our neighbors.

Loving others is hard. It is hard enough to love our biological families, how are we supposed to love other people? How are we supposed to love the least of these? Jesus is inviting us to imagine a world where to love God and to love others cannot be separated from one another. And that, we discover, includes the least.

Advertisements

On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

A Written Sermon

“The Ministry of Forgiveness” (Matthew 6.12)

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are speaking a new language. This is the language of another kingdom. The truth is, we have become well versed in the language of the present kingdom. We throw around words like tolerance and use phrases like get over it and preach coexistence and learn to avoid people who have wronged us. We might use the word forgiveness but we use it for small matters. We might forgive someone for breaking a glass or getting the carpet dirty or hurting our feelings.

But in kingdom language, forgiveness is a revolutionary term. We can’t throw it around lightly. Forgiveness is shocking. Forgiveness is reckless. Forgiveness is undeserved. Forgiveness is world changing. When we pray this prayer we are praying for a revolution. We are praying for the world to change.

When we pray these words, we do so because of relationship with God. When we look at this prayer closely, it is not to dissect it into bite sized pieces so we can know more. We look at this prayer closely because we desire relationship with one who has long desired relationship with us. We seek to align ourselves with Jesus. We acknowledge we cannot tackle all of life’s problems and there are things we simply cannot accomplish. So we pray these words, entering a realm where God is ruler. We pray these words and understand where power lies. Matthew does not suggest power in prayer, Matthew wants to be clear, he is all in, power is with God. This prayer takes us into a realm where God is ruler. A realm where our will takes a backseat and God’s will comes to the forefront.

This part of the prayer has a strong interest in relationship with others. As we are forgiven, we are to forgive others. This would be so much easier to pray if it only were “forgive us…” It becomes complicated when we are expected to forgive others in the same way. Yet, Matthew wants us to know, we are forgiven so that we may participate in the ministry of forgiveness.

This changes everything. We cannot live life the same any longer. Since we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. Have you been looking for a ministry to become involved with? This is your lucky day, Matthew is inviting you to the ministry of forgiveness. You haven’t been looking for ministry? Matthew doesn’t allow for that option – you have been called to the ministry of forgiveness.

Here is a connection between what God does and what we do. Later Matthew tells us the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. I will read the story… Matthew 18.23-35. This story provides a commentary on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

As we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. When God forgives us, we are to become representatives of forgiveness. It is like we are agents for the kingdom. We represent what it is like to live in this kingdom. Here where we receive and give forgiveness. Forgiving others is the proper response to being forgiven. In the parable we meet one who did not represent kingdom come. He was grateful for being forgiven but had no interest in forgiving others. He does not represent what it is like for God to rule on earth as it is in heaven. He is not speaking the language of another kingdom.

The unforgiving servant in the story wanted to pray the part “forgive us our debts” but not the part “as we forgive our debtors.” But the Lord’s Prayer is not a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us. We do not get to say yes to daily bread and being forgiven and then skip over forgiving others. This is the bare bones of Jesus teaching. The essentials of what we bring to God in prayer. The prayer helps us to pay attention to our soul. Don’t worry about what others are saying. Don’t worry about fairness. Don’t worry about how many likes you get – pay attention to your soul. Does it surprise us that Jesus includes forgiveness among the essentials of what we bring to God in prayer? Jesus desires to keep us close. Failure to forgive cuts you off. Failure to forgive is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

We might be uneasy with so much forgiveness talk. We certainly are not the first. Matthew tells a story about people uneasy with Jesus and his forgiveness policies. In this story we meet a paralyzed man. It is no surprise at this point that Jesus looks at the man, assesses his needs, then forgives the man’s sins. Others thought this was inappropriate, even blasphemous. We know how this story goes. Matthew wants us to know that in this kingdom, the king of the kingdom has authority to do anything. But everyone is not convinced so Jesus asks a question, “which do you think is simpler, to say, I forgive your sins or get up and walk?” We know what they are thinking. Anyone can say they forgive sins. Jesus turns to the paralyzed man and says “Get up, take your bed and go home.” Matthew does not leave us in suspense long, “and the man did it.”

We are beginning to get the importance of forgiveness in this prayer. The importance of forgiveness in this kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, whoever he is with – forgiveness is his default strategy. Jesus is throwing forgiveness around like he found it at a wholesale club on discount.

One of the more well-known stories we have in the New Testament is a story about a running man. Today it is trendy to run. Clothing manufacturers might not care if you run but they want you to look like you run. Shoe manufacturers want you to wear shoes they have designed just for running. Dignified people are photographed while running. But when the story of the running man was told dignified people did not run. Dignified people did not even walk fast. But Jesus tells us a story about a running man. A man who embarrasses himself by his lack of dignity. It is more embarrassing when we realize he is running to greet one who is a disgrace, one who has embarrassed the family.

Sometimes we call this story the prodigal son, today we will call it the running man. We need stories like the running man because without them we cannot know the shocking undeservedness of what it means to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We need stories like the running man because we are not always convinced we need forgiven. And not always willing to forgive others. We need stories like the running man because we are inclined to think that people get what they deserve. Jesus is telling us about a kingdom that is ruled by a King who wants to forgive so badly that he will be like an undignified running man who cannot wait to meet a disgraced child.

We might be catching on that when we pray “forgive us our debts” God really wants to forgive. But this part “as we forgive our debtors,” That is still so complicated, it still seems so reckless. Not surprisingly, this has been questioned also. Matthew tells us that Peter wants to know how this works. Jesus has been throwing forgiveness around willy-nilly. Does it ever run out? Should we budget forgiveness? Should we reserve it for those more deserving? How many times? How about seven? Jesus replies, “seven, hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

It is so much easier to talk about forgiveness than it is to forgive someone who has really wronged you. Yet we gather to acknowledge, to receive, and to proclaim forgiveness. We are learning a new language. We are the representatives of forgiveness – called to the ministry of forgiveness. “forgive us… as we forgive our debtors.”

Are We Listening?

A quote to remind us the gospels were written with a purpose in mind;

“One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of ‘evangelists’ in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with problems of ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: ‘You’re just not listening!’ ‘Yes, we are,’ reply the modern preachers… ‘but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!’” (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 197)

A Christmas Sermon

“Prophets and Kings” (Matthew 2.1-12)

We sometimes talk about the first testament in the bible (we often call it the Old Testament) as if it is an assortment of stories. As a series of stories that fit loosely together. However, when we read more carefully we discover it is a single great story. It is a story that is pointing to something big. It is a story that lets us in on the fact that old Israel was playing a critical role in a great drama. But the drama did not end with the conclusion of the Old Testament.

Through much of that grand story there is a strong undercurrent, something simmering, a repeated theme. David, in spite of his flaws, was a good king. Every king since has been less than David. Ever since, Israel is always looking for the next king like David.

Ever since David was king, kings have been born in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place of the palace. That makes Matthew’s reference to an old prophecy somewhat a surprise. The old prophecy tells us that hope for the future is not in Jerusalem. It is time to go back to Bethlehem where David was born. The old prophecy is not only talking about a place but also a hope for a king like David.

The prophet is interested in a different kind of king because the kings of Jerusalem have become satisfied. The kings do not care for anyone other than themselves. The prophet says the solution is to return to humble beginnings. The prophet says it is time to go back to Bethlehem. The word used to describe Bethlehem literally means “insignificant” or “youngest.” Like Bethlehem, David was least significant in his family and the youngest of his brothers. The prophet reminds us that true kingship lies in the humble, insignificant roots of David and not the arrogant power hungry courts of the king.

Matthew inserts this prophecy into the story about a king who leaned toward the arrogant side. King Herod had already murdered two sons and his wife. He intended to keep his power, keep his throne safe and eliminate anyone who may have been a threat. And then the Magi show up. The Magi show up and ask “Where is He born King of the Jews?” The Magi show up and everyone gets nervous at the palace. Those same Magi who seem so trouble free in our nativity scenes show up and Matthew tells us that King Herod becomes “disturbed.”

The Magi may be surprise visitors who come from afar. The Magi have such good intentions; they show up bringing extravagant gifts. The Magi show up at the palace thinking this is the place one born King of the Jews may be found. The Magi show up and announce “We have come to worship Him.” King Herod hears this and becomes “disturbed.”

King Herod begins scheming already and asks where this one born King of the Jews may be found. He is told about the old document that contains the old prophecy that says the newborn King of the Jews will be born not in a palace but in Bethlehem. That same Bethlehem considered to be the least of places. That same Bethlehem where the great king David was born.

King Herod is scheming. That is what kings of earth do. They scheme, they plot, they make plans to keep their power. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the old prophecy. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the visit form the Magi. These things suggest he has been ruling all wrong. These things suggest he is not the rightful king. These things suggest that being king is something different than what he has been doing.

Just like the old prophecy said, just like King David, the newborn child King Jesus was born in the insignificant little town of Bethlehem. Like David, Jesus demonstrates that being king is found in humility.

The Gospel of Matthew is well aware of Bethlehem’s status. Matthew is also aware that Bethlehem is now the birthplace of two great kings. The old prophecy is not a romantic reminder to prompt us to begin a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The old prophecy is announcing that things are changing and that things have changed. This is the disturbing truth of God’s plan. Being king is not about wealth but justice. Living in this new kingdom is not about power but love.

This will not be popular with kings of the earth. This has never been popular with those who hold the power. But the old prophecy is part of a single great story that points us in a specific direction. This story does not point us to a little town that has become the birthplace of great kings. But to One who has been born the rightful King. One who does not rule like the earthly kings. One who rules in humility and love. One whose arrival we celebrate this day. And on account of that we can sing glory to God in the highest and glory to God on High Street.

Preaching Against Evil Enchantment

C. S. Lewis did not preach many sermons. But one of his sermons “The Weight of Glory” has been on my mind recently. Here is an interesting portion of that sermon. “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us…” As he is apt to do, Lewis reframes things in a way intended to make us think differently.

This has prompted me to become curious about the recent fascination to create adult versions of the stories we learned in childhood. So, Little Red Riding Hood crosses paths with a werewolf; Hansel and Gretel become witch hunters; even Snow White learns to handle weapons. It is possible the revival of fairy tales is due to a desire for once upon a time and happily ever after and magical things happening to ordinary people. It is possible we try to hang onto our youth by retelling childhood stories or have a simple longing for adventure and enchantment. Yet I cannot help but wonder if we turn to stories like these because we fear that we ourselves are under a strong spell? But I digress…

This conversation reminds me of Mark’s Gospel. There Jesus announces the Kingdom and then proceeds with an all-out assault against the power of evil. We find Jesus delivering people from demons and illness. Mark makes breaking a spell look mild as he portrays preaching the Gospel more like hostage release or a prison break. At one point, it is implied that evil is tied up in the back room while the Good News goes forth.

In keeping with this theme it is important (but not always easy) to remember that we are at odds with evil and not with the people who are bound by it. It would be contradictory to oppose the very people we desire to see set free. In fact, it might be more accurate to suggest that the primary involvement of people is that they have fallen into its trap. People have been lured, seduced, and captured by this evil enchantment of worldliness. With Lewis, we preach to break that spell. Following Mark’s lead, we preach to set people free.

Where are the Disciples?

Sometimes the biblical narrative gives profound truth. Other times we get details about things that seem trivial. We find both in the Gospel of Mark 8.22-10.52. R.T. France considers this to be the second act of the gospel. As this act begins we receive profound truth “You are the Christ.” Yet, we do not want to ignore the details of movement in the text. The posture of disciples seems to matter. For example, Jesus turns around to see disciples behind him. Jesus then tells Peter to get behind him (in rather strong language). The text may be letting us know where disciples belong. Disciples belong behind Jesus.

When a man with great wealth approached Jesus he “ran up to him.” Afterward, Jesus “looked around” to tell his disciples how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. On the road to Jerusalem, Mark tells us it was “Jesus leading the way.” When a blind man receives his sight, Mark adds that he “followed Jesus along the road.”

Of course, these things could be simple details. They could be an effort to tell us where someone is standing in a particular scene. They could be efforts to help us picture events in our mind. However, they could be deliberate references of where disciples should be in proximity to Jesus. These references might be reminders that our plan may not be God’s plan. Such references may be reminders of where we ought to be. We are to be where Peter belongs, where all disciples belong – disciples belong behind Jesus. To be anywhere else, to offer any advice on the way the kingdom should work is to be in league with Satan.

The cycle has not changed since Mark chapter 8. Jesus starts talking about the cross. We still disagree with this plan and insist there may be more effective ways to build a kingdom. It becomes easy and tempting for us to allow some of these ideas into our sermons. It is easy to point fingers at Peter from where we are. Yet, in honest moments we are able to admit that we are still not comfortable with a cross as part of the plan. Again, Jesus will emphasize where we are to be (and he may use strong language) – we belong behind Jesus.