Sunday, November 26, 2017

All the Nations Will Gather Before Him

Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24


        I am not ashamed to admit that Matthew 25:31-46 is one of my favorite scriptures.  I have preached numerous sermons on this text and have alluded to it regularly.  How many times have you been challenged by the words, “When you did it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”?    I remember encountering these words for the first time when I was a child in Sunday School.  In my early years of ministry I preached on this passage and a young woman, barely fifteen, wrote a powerful poem in response to the sermon.  I have kept the poem as a reminder of how influential God’s word can be.

        Now that the text is so familiar, I struggle to find new ways to present it.  What else can I say that has not already been said?  Monday morning, for what seems like the thousandth time, my bible opened to Matthew 25. But this time I actually noticed something I had always overlooked.  Listen once again to verses 31 &32, “When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne of glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.”  For a lifetime I have read that text and somehow have skipped over the phrase, “all the nations”.  I have always seen this text as an examination of how each individual responds to the sick, the lame, the hungry, the imprisoned and the naked.  Certainly each of us should take this text to heart as an individual, but this scripture is much bigger than just me or you.  It is social commentary on our collective whole which passes judgment on the community, the nation, the world.  The text suggests we are all responsible for each other. That is a radical concept which is hardly unique to the overall Biblical message. And as I reviewed the Biblical story I realized Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 25  was solely based on  his knowledge of the Torah.

Remember Cain and Abel.  Two brothers took their sibling rivalry just a little bit too far.  Both offered a sacrifice to God.  Abel spent a great deal of time thinking about his relationship and love for his Creator.  The gift reflected his thoughtfulness.  Cain just threw a couple dollars in the offering plate. God’s reaction was a natural response to the seriousness by which each gift was given.  Abel’s gift was praised.  Cain’s gift rejected.  That really made Cain mad.  Instead of begging for forgiveness, Cain took it out on his brother.  Soon after the murder, God arrived on the scene and asked Cain if he had seen Abel.  Remember Cain’s answer?  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The unspoken response was, “Yes, in my community, you are each responsible for each other.” 

        This was just the first of many examples of this consistent theme of the whole community being responsible for each other.   Remember the Exodus from Egypt.  If a family did not have a lamb to sacrifice for the Passover meal it was the neighbor’s responsibility to make sure blood was placed over the door protecting both families from the angel of death. Once in the wilderness, the fate of the individual remained tied to the fate of the community. If one sinned, all had sinned. This continued when they crossed the Jordan. Remember the story in Joshua when Achan takes silver and gold after the battle of Ai.  Punishment fell on all the tribes of Israel.   

Years later, as exiles in  Babylon, the prophet Isaiah  dared to suggest that corporately we are responsible for not just the neighbor who might be our brother or good friend but for anyone who is a stranger, an orphan, a widow, or even an enemy.  We are all residents of God’s Kingdom.

        So when Jesus tells the story of sheep and the goats, the implications of the story are grounded within the souls of his listeners.  The parable is not even original with Jesus. It was a retelling of a familiar story his listeners had probably heard as children.  Jesus draws from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel.   At the time of Ezekiel, shepherding was a well established metaphor for the one who governed.  Each king was seen as the shepherd of his flock.  One of the earliest documents in the Middle East is the law code of Hammurabi. It declares the king was appointed to “Promote the welfare of his sheep, cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and keep the strong from oppressing the weak.”  I am sure that is what every shepherd originally had in mind but it didn’t always work out that way. In times of peril, the prophets charged the shepherds with dereliction of duty.  Listen once again to the Ezekiel’s words.  “The lost I will seek. The strays I will bring back. The broken-limbed I will bind up.  The sick I will nourish back to health.”  It almost seems that God is more concerned with the care of the weak, the disadvantaged, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger than with those who champion religious orthodoxy. 

        So what is going to happen when God gathers all the nations together?  Am I held accountable by your actions?  Or is it just the guys in charge that need to fear the wrath of God?  Trust me, I can complain all I want concerning the state of world affairs and it will fall on deaf ears because who in their right mind cares what I think. But can we ignore Ezekiel and Jesus when they are quick to insist, “The nations will be judged according to how the poor are treated?”

        Maybe the question we should be asking is who are the shepherds in our community?  Surely the churches would be counted among the shepherds in Nelson County.  So perhaps the questions become, “What is the role of the Church?  Who are we called to be?  To whom does the church answer?  Is the church responsible for folks outside its doors?” 

        Quoting from the Presbyterian Book of Order it seems we are called to do three things:

1.  Make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2.  Demonstrate our love of Christ through worship, fellowship, a life of prayer, and service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

3.  Participate in God’s activity in the world by healing, reconciling and binding wounds; ministering to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the powerless; engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice; giving itself in service to those who suffer; and sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable and loving rule in this world.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers, said that we define ourselves as a church through our acts of hospitality.  He then reminds us, “The Hebrew people were commanded to be hospitable to the stranger and the outcast because they were once strangers and outcast in Egypt. We who are Christians celebrate the hospitality of the innkeeper, who placed Mary and Joseph in the stable when there was no room for them in the Inn.  Jesus did not come to a palace but a stable. And through the centuries Christ has never despised the common, the vulgar, the soiled and the humble dwelling places.  Such are his specialty. What hut has Jesus not entered? At what dilapidated hovel has not Christ knocked?  And what is his word of hope?  ‘I bring good tidings of great joy to all people’.”  

There is a classic picture depicting Jesus standing and knocking on the door of the Church.   Most of us have no problem opening the door to Christ.  But when the person at the door is an undocumented immigrant, an ex-convict, or a stranger, are we still as quick to offer hospitality? 

Perhaps our answer lies in the holiday we just celebrated. History tells us the Pilgrims were political refugees from England by way of the Netherlands.  With no documentation they landed as strangers, desperately in need of hospitality.  And that is what they received from the Wom-pa-no-ag tribe.  Thursday we celebrated that “the least of these”, the Pilgrims, were strangers, welcomed with an act of hospitality. 

I truly believe that Rockfish Presbyterian Church is one the shepherds of our community. I believe we are committed to bringing good tidings of joy and acts of hospitality to our entire community. I believe we understand we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. But I also know it is hard to keep giving and giving and often feel like we never get back anything in return.

The Jewish scholar Martin Buber shares the story of a Rabbi who was imprisoned in Moscow during the 1950’s. The Rabbi’s jailer was determined to disprove the existence of God. He asked the Rabbi, “If God is all knowing why did God ask where Adam was after he ate from the forbidden fruit?”

The Rabbi responded, “It is a philosophical rather than a factual question.”

Then he asked his jailer, “Where are you?”

This is the question any shepherd must ask. Where are we when there is hunger? Where are we when children don’t have enough clothes? Where are we when folks are in prison? Where are we when folks are sick?

I hope we do our best to respond, “We are with Jesus.”

To God be the glory, Amen.



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