“The Least of These” Colchester Federated Church, November 22, 2020 (Matthew 25:31-46) Reign of Christ & Thanksgiving Sunday
Here’s the truth—not every day in ministry is great. That’s the case in most professions and in life in general, of course. One of my hardest days in ministry was when I visited somebody in prison. It’s a long story of how that came about. Prison is just such a difficult environment to say the least—with barbed wire fences and guard towers and people handcuffed and in prison uniforms. The whole setting felt intimidating just from the parking lot before even going inside.
Even though I was there to visit, stayed in the designated visitor area, and could freely get in my car and drive home afterwards, it was hard. Because it made me think about the whole criminal justice system and frankly made me feel inadequate as a Minister. Because what could I possibly say to help ease the spiritual anguish of somebody in prison? At least now I could share some wisdom from Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (maybe you’ve seen the movie Just Mercy or read the book.) Stevenson often says that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” How profound is that? Maybe sharing that idea would have brought that person in pain some peace, who knows.
This morning we heard Jesus tell us in the Gospel according to Matthew that caring for one another looks something like this, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
These are concrete ways Jesus taught his followers to care for one another. Because when we do, we are actually caring for Jesus himself. Jesus said, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” But he never said that it would be simple. If there was any comfort to offer that day, I realize in hindsight that the comfort may have been in simply visiting that child of God in prison when asked. Because that seemed to be all that I could do and maybe that was enough. The experience emphasized the power of our presence for one another. Because it’s not just about our beliefs, it’s about our actions—how we live our lives as followers of Jesus. Sometimes just showing up for one another matters more than we may realize at the time.
Now today is Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s the Sunday before Advent where we contemplate what our world would be like if Jesus ruled. We hear a lot of talk about “Christian values.” Though for some reason those who often talk about Christian values tend to skip over this passage from Matthew 25. This passage about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. Friends, these are Christian values—caring for those on the margins of our society. It’s a challenging text given current events, our economic realities, and all sorts of conversations we may have about what our values are with the difficulties we are facing as a country during this pandemic.
Turning to Matthew’s 25th Chapter, we can see that if Jesus’ teachings were at the center of our lives, let alone at the center of our national policies—people and policies would be judged as successful based on different standards from those often voiced in our society. The righteous are judged to be so because they fed and quenched the thirst of the hungry, they welcomed strangers, they gave clothes to people who had none, they took care of people who were sick, and they visited prisoners. Because they did all these things, they’re morally right. Jesus tells us that.
People don’t get declared righteous because of how much they’ve achieved, how much money they earn, or how attractive they are. God has a whole different set of priorities. It’s like my theological buddy William Sloane Coffin once said, “Of God’s love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.” God’s love is poured out for everyone. God needs us to provide love for others because we are all valued so deeply by God. And it ends up that God doesn’t love me or you anymore than God loves people who are poor or hungry or in prison.
What this passage highlights is God’s reign as a metaphor on which we can contemplate human behavior. Though let’s start with our own behavior before we get too judgy about anybody else. Speaking about God’s reign makes it clear where our human rulers and the laws we enact have real deficiencies when it comes to justice and mercy.
Jesus says that when we care for, clothe, feed, and welcome the stranger, we are caring for, clothing, feeding, and welcoming Jesus himself. Let that idea sink into our hearts.
Because that’s a powerful idea, a revolutionary idea, and what has become a Christian ethical ideal. It’s no wonder that Jesus got into trouble with teachings like this. It’s no wonder that Jesus got killed by those in power for teachings like this. It may make us just as uncomfortable in 2020. This is why Jesus’ Way has lasted for over 2,000 years though—his teachings are revolutionary and timeless and challenging. His teachings also show the depth of love that God has for humanity and how God’s love is poured out universally for everyone.
Thinking of God’s reign this morning and what this looks like, thinking of God as the one ultimately in charge defies hopelessness. We can’t control world events. We can’t wish this pandemic away or pretend that it’s over just because we’re over it. But here’s what we can do (yes, sometimes in modified forms these days). We can feed the hungry. We can clothe the naked. We can visit those in prison. We can care for the sick. We can welcome the stranger.
And when we do this, the future just looks brighter. When we do this, we’re living our values as Christians. We don’t value stuff as much as we value people. We don’t value success as much as we value being one another’s keeper. And when we forget how we’re called to live out our faith, we have Jesus’ words to pull us back from the brink. Jesus who reminded us, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” Thanks be to God and may it be so with us. Amen.