This morning’s gospel reading is one of those occasions when what we think, what we want to being going on and being said – bears little or no resemblance to what Jesus was trying to get at. Our trouble is we don’t speak the language of the New Testament – our dilemma lies in that we’re dependent upon an English translation that sometimes leads us astray. I don’t want to disappoint but sadly this morning is one of those times.
We want to use this passage to justify ourselves – we do the very things Jesus is on about around here. But this passage isn’t about us. One of this worlds’ better biblical scholars put it this way concerning who Jesus was talking to: If “all the gentiles” excludes Jews, it must also exclude Jewish Christians and therefore Christians in general, who will be judged according to the criteria established by the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus. “ All the Gentiles” refers to pagans who are neither Jewish nor converts to Christianity. Jesus audience this morning is therefore not you and me – not the Church – but the world around us, our secular nonreligious, spiritual but not religious neighbours.
And now it gets even worse. Scholars who interpret “all nations” as referring to pagans also usually understand “the least of these members of my family” as a reference to Christian missionaries.
You’ll remember that Jesus sent his disciples out with nothing so as to be totally dependent upon the hospitality of those they went to proclaim the gospel to. This passage at least in part is to encourage the first wave of Christian missionaries by announcing that folks will be judged by how they treat them. Consider for a brief moment at least that your salvation may be, in part, dependent upon how you treat the clergy.
You can see we’re getting ourselves into quite a muddle now. It is fair to note that Matthew does want to expand “the least of my brothers and sisters” beyond missionaries to include the poor and the distressed, whoever they may be, as Jesus’ brothers and sisters. And the kindness of those outside of the church is for Matthew not an atonement for their sins but evidence that like it or not, know it or not, that those folks are in a relationship with Jesus they are if you will anonymous Christians. So why does any of this matter?
There is a story told of a four year old child who awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone she ran to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on the light and reassured the child with these words: “You don’t need to be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.” The child replied: “I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!”
We need folks with skin in the game…..be they faithful Christians…..or folks who show up on Monday night for out of the cold who might recoil at the thought that maybe just maybe they’re more a Christian than they think. Jesus needs people with skin in the game if we’re going to do his ministry in this place – and truth is he’ll take anyone whose willing to serve.
A wise Christian once told a parable about Jesus that helps get at our point this morning: A man came up to Jesus and complained about the hiddenness of God. Rabbi, he said, I am an old man. During my whole life, I have been faithful. I have waited and waited for God to come to me, but it now seems it was all in vain. Why dear Lord will God not show himself?
Jesus smiled and responded gently: “ Once upon a time there was a marble throne at the eastern gate of a large prosperous city. On this throne sat three thousand kings. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all went to their graves with their wishes unfulfilled.
Then when all the kings had died, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon the throne. God, he whispered, the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. How then, Omnipotent One, can they look directly at you? Have pity, Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you!
Then – listen, old man – God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut, and in front of the hut, a woman nursing an infant.
Thank you Lord the pauper whispered. You humbled yourself for my sake. You became bread, water, a warm tunic and a wife and a child in order that I might see you. And I did see you. I bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face.
You see God has chosen to put some skin in our game. God takes on flesh so that every home can become a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink become a sacrament; outward and visible signs of God’s grace.
God’s many faces are everywhere, in flesh, tempered and turned down, so that our human eyes can see the divine. God, in his many faced face, has become as accessible, and visible to humanity, as the nearest water tap. If only we had eyes to see it…….
You see we don’t serve the poor – we serve God – incarnate in the folks who come – to volunteer, to cook, to clean, to eat, to belly ache, to challenge and thank us for our efforts however feeble they have been. They come here to meet Jesus in us – and we come here to meet Jesus in them. And that’s just how it is down here at the church.
Most of us are of generations of Christian Anglicans who are pretty reserved when it comes claiming our identity as followers of Jesus. Not many of us are going to tell our friends; “come to church with me I’ll introduce you to Jesus.” But increasingly I’m coming to believe that we’re going to have to get over our bashfulness about Jesus if we’re going to have a future. We can’t grow a church by telling folks we do nice things for people – we can only grow a church by introducing people to Jesus. I think that’s really just how it’s always been down here at the church.
A pretty good preacher in the deep south of the America tells the story of going to a funeral in what he called an off brand fundamentalist church. We all know that those folks don’t share our bashfulness about Jesus. It was a hot August day in Georgia, the church was small and steamy and he’d never seen anything like it. They wheeled the coffin in; the preacher began to preach. He shouted, fumed, flayed his hands every which way.
“It’s too late for Joe,” he screamed. “ He might have wanted to do this or do that in life, but it’s too late for him now. He’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can’t now. It’s over.”
And the thought came to the preacher in the pew…. “What a comfort this must be to the family.”
From the pulpit came; “ But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for a decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!”
Well our young liberal preacher who tells the story thought; that was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. “Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family?” In the car on the way home he turned to his wife and asked; “Have you ever heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate in your entire life?” I would never preach like that at a funeral. And she agreed. She agreed that it was tacky, and manipulative, and calloused. “Of course,” she added, “the worst part of all is that what he said was 100% true.”
It’s true St. Margaret was a saint with a heart for the poor – it’s also true that she was a saint with a rigorous prayer life – she knew Jesus both in the silence of her prayers and in the faces of the poor. Some folks want to use this morning’s Gospel as an excuse, as way to downplay worship and prayer and spirituality. They forget this passage wasn’t directed at us in the church but at our secular neighbours and at the folks we serve who can’t fathom that Jesus might be found amongst them.
You know, it could be time to put Jesus at the front of the line. Time to stop telling folks to join us cause we do nice things – and time to invite them to find Jesus here – in the bread and in the wine – in you and in me – on Monday nights and Friday nights – on Wednesday nights in St. Agnes Hall in the voices of children and in the prayers that rise up amongst us in our evening worship as a candle is passed amongst us. It may be time for some of us to finally surrender and give our lives to Jesus.
Like St. Margaret did so long ago – like the young preacher did in the car with his wife on the way home from an awful experience in an off brand, no account, sort of backwater church where Jesus was loud and angry but equally real and present.
Like the pauper on the throne who dared to whisper into God’s heart so that he might see the divine all around him. Maybe…….. just maybe…… it’s time for you and I, to stop negotiating our surrender with God, time to clear up our thinking, and give our lives to Jesus. We’d be a different community – a different church – a transformed people if we dared to boldly and without apology put Jesus first. Amen.