By celebrating the feast of our patron Saint St. Margaret we get Matthew’s gospel of the sheep and the goats a week early! You might think lucky us…..or you might not. It all depends who you think you are in the story. This is one of Matthew’s more powerful tales and many better than me have preached on it.
In front of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the faithful, just weeks before his death, how he wanted to be remembered. “ If Christ is the ruler our lives, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being Time magazine’s ‘man of the year’ is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, will all my being.” Sounds to me like Martin knew a thing about being a follower of Jesus.
But there’s a real danger in preaching about on this text. And it’s right there on the page. The righteous are righteous because of their deeds and they didn’t even know it. They didn’t know how good they were, didn’t even know they possessed the goodness that’s fit for the kingdom of heaven. Lots of us want to know, want to keep score, use our good works to feel all righteous, superior and better than the next guy.
In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the historical books that didn’t make into the Bible, but that we can still claim as part of our heritage as Christians, the writer tells the story of Jesus passing someone giving alms to the poor, “Bless you if you do not know the good you are doing. Curse you, if you know the good you are doing.” “Bless you if you do not know the good you are doing. Curse you, if you know the good you are doing.” Kind of makes you think……
I don’t think Margaret set out to canonized a Saint of the Church. I think she saw a need and she did her best to meet it. She established ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims in getting to their destination so they could offer prayers of thanksgiving and concern in sacred spaces. Margaret also instigated the restoration of the monastery at Iona, a place that once again restored, speaks to the modern church of faithfulness and concern for our fellow human beings in very honest and real ways. She saw a church out of step with the greater church Catholic church and set about bringing the wisdom of the wider church to Scotland – and while we might quibble now about some of that wisdom – she acted out of love and faith and good intent. And of course she saw and example in Jesus and did her best to serve, like he did before her, the poor and vulnerable. When she rose to pray every night at midnight – I don’t image Margaret prayed to be canonized a Saint – I expect she prayed for courage and strength and love enough to meet the needs she saw and knew she could meet.
A hungry man was walking down the street in a village in medieval Turkey. He had only a piece of bread in his hand. He came to a restaurant where some meat was being grilled. The cooking meat was so near and the smell so delicious the man held his piece of bread over the meat to capture some of the smell. As he started to eat the bread, the angry restaurant owner seized him and took him away to see a judge.
When they arrived before the judge the owner protested, “This man was stealing the smell of my meat without asking permission. I want you to make him pay for it.”
The Judge was a wise man, and so he thought about it for a moment, the he held up his change purse in front of the restaurant owner and shook it.
“What are you doing that for? Asked the bewildered owner. The Judge replied, “ I am paying you. The sound of money is fair payment for the smell of food.”
A wiser man than I, commenting on that story, wrote: “ The challenge then when we deal with the least and the last is to make sure that what we are sharing with them is real. We must make sure that our care is expressed in ways that are tangible and capable of changing lives.”
You and I know the stories that come out of our Out of the Cold program – folks like coming to St. Margaret’s – the food is good – best breakfast in Toronto they say – it’s safe – people treat you like you’re a person here. There is good reason to be proud of this ministry. But…..
We run into Jesus as Judge this morning. We run into St. Margaret this morning. Sure enough we can judge ourselves as pretty darn good – most congregations don’t do half of what we do for the poor. How do we stack up against Margaret? Against Jesus?
It’s way to easy to feel guilty right about now. I sure hope that’s not why Matthew told us this Gospel story – or why Thomas told his. Or even why Margaret rose at midnight each night to join in prayer with others.
What if Jesus was being more prophet than judge when he told the faithful this story of sheep and goats and judgement. Isn’t this story good news if you’re waiting for someone to care about your plight. Isn’t this story good news if the kitchen cupboard is looking to be empty for most of this week? All those folks who present as followers of Jesus – surely one of them, inspired by a faith that includes a place for the last and the least, will help.
“What a friend we have in Jesus” comes alive for those living on the edges of life. We see the image of Jesus over and over again in the Gospels as the one who receives the children, responds to the outcast, touches the untouchable, dines with the rich who collect taxes, embraces the foreigner and the blind. Jesus didn’t look the other way, rarely judged, and always four a specific way to care for them.
Our friend Margaret inspired by that example did the same. Neither one seemed to worry to much about which line they were in. Both, in fact, at times in their lives found themselves judged to be in the wrong line. Margaret grew up an exile in a foreign land – lots of religious folks found Jesus to be a mystery – and still do.
We have a great ministry here at St. Margaret’s – but we’d be wise to recognize the dangers presented in this morning’s Gospel. What good is it to feed the poor – if we only feed them in order to lord it over somebody else who we feel falls short of our expectations? If in feeding and caring for them we’re only worried about our place in the kingdom – then are we feeding them at all? It’s not about feeling guilty – it’s about remembering who we’re serving.
A young preacher told the story of sitting at a lunch counter in his local town. He was there a lot and folks got know that he’d be there most days. Frequently he sit alone. One day a rough looking soul slid in across for him and just sat there. Looking up from his paper the preacher asked, “ can I help you.” “I’m hungry,” was the reply. The preacher called out to Beth for a menu; “Order what you’d like.” The food came the stranger ate, and an awkward silence hung between them. The preacher wanted to know stuff, the stranger was just hungry. The preacher wanted to talk – it’s an occupational hazard – the stranger just wanted to eat. The preacher gave up, the stranger got up thanked him and left.
Beth came over to clean the plates up, “who was your friend,” she asked. Don’t know, he just plunked down across from me, told me he was hungry. And then it hit the preacher – he knew who the stranger was – the monks he visited have it in their rule of life – Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received. In fact, all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Not wanting to be thought crazy, the preacher didn’t share that with the waitress, Beth. He just smiled, knew, and silently gave thanks to God for the opportunity to have met Jesus.
On this feast of St. Margaret – it’s a good and proper thing for us to give thanks for the opportunity we’ve been given here to serve one another. Judging is for another person and another day. As we remember Margaret and begin another season of Out of the Cold – let’s give thanks for the opportunity to meet Jesus in this place; in word, in sacrament, in one another, and in those we’re privileged to have the opportunity to welcome and serve.
And you know, in a short bit of time we’re all going to make those Baptismal promises again – they’re not easy to keep – but what a joy, challenge and privilege it is to welcome the newly baptised and be reminded of whose we are; and of God’s great dreams for Keira & Ellis who will receive the sacrament, and of God dreams and love for all of us here this morning. Amen.