Walking On Sunshine
Thanksgiving –Pentecost 25A
November 22, 2020
Trinity Mennonite Church
A man named Marty Doerschlag has a superpower that you won’t see in the movies: He can remember a face forever. You could call him The Recognizer!
“If I spend about 30 seconds looking at somebody,” he said to NPR, “I will remember their face for years and years and years.”
Doerschlag realized he had this gift after a series of strange encounters and sightings. One year, he sat behind a man at a Michigan vs. Ohio State football game. Three years later, he recognized the guy in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Did he remember the score of the game? No. But he recognized the man.
Scripture tells us that even someone as familiar as Jesus can be hard to recognize at times.
So how can we recognize and identify Jesus in the world today? The Presbyterian Church (USA) started an initiative called Matthew 25, which issues the challenge to “actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive.” Across the denomination, Presbyterians are being challenged “to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor.” When they do these things, they are considered to be a Matthew 25 church.
I don’t know about you but I think we are a Matthew 25 church. This initiative is based on the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew, which tells the story of the final judgment. At that time, Jesus will look out over all the nations of the world and separate people into good sheep and bad goats. He will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36).
Then the people who were good sheep will say to him, “Lord, when did we do this for you? We don’t remember ever serving you in these ways.” They are typical recognizers, and don’t have a recollection of seeing Jesus. And Jesus will say to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40).
The former group acted righteously not out of any sanctimonious motivation prompted by the hope of heaven, but because they saw someone in need (vv. 37-39).
As Anabaptist Mennonites I think this is at the core of our being. Menno Simons suggested that: “True Evangelical Faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked. It feeds the hungry. It comforts the sorrowful. It shelters the destitute.” It is what prompts us to can meat for people who are hungry. It is what feeds kids during the summer. It is what supplies foster parents with needed clothes and bedding for the new addition to their family. It is what motivates us to clear our closets after every season to clothe the naked. It is what prompts us to give to the rebuilding of a single mom’s bathroom after a crack in the bathtub destroyed the flooring. But when might our helping others turn from generosity to disguised selfishness? Perhaps it is not only what we do, but also the motives, that will finally count for or against us in the judgment. So we cannot simply keep record of all our good deeds. We may need to examine ourselves more closely. We must guard against feeling proud.
Let’s confess among ourselves that we can be rather self-satisfied in our personal review. Even if we find ourselves more “goat than not, we often end our personal assessment with something like, “Well, God knows my heart.” I suppose that is the rub. God does know. And, if we are truthful, Matthew 25 is an indictment of us—personally and as the collective church. Living as we are now, when all the safety nets seem broken, we are challenged to live into these words as a community for ALL among us, not just our family and church. Living as we are now, when workers have been downsized, businesses closed, health insurance ended, we work for equity and availability of care for ALL. Concerning those in prison, we build societies in which prisons become unnecessary.
Remember the sheep were surprised. Because they had not been aware that they were doing this to Jesus. They were surprised because they had done their good deed in quiet unassuming ways, not looking for recognition or reward. Thus they were surprised by joy. All good works are simply the extension of God in each of us, so there is no reason to boast.
In sharp contrast, those at the king's left hand "will go away into eternal punishment." This group chose not to render aid because as they went through life, they never saw Jesus in need. If they had only seen him, no doubt their conduct would have been exemplary -- as they would have undoubtedly claimed. However, the king rejects their disingenuous reply and says to them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (v. 45). This latter group, however, neglected others (v. 44). Simply put, they would have cared for Jesus, but not for anyone else.
Those at the left hand of the Son of Man seek an excuse and almost put the blame on the Son of Man himself as if to say, “You didn’t reveal yourself; how could we see you?”
When looking at the least of these, we can say not just once but forever, “I do not know the man.” We can say he is worthless, that he has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die.
If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find Jesus in those who have the “wrong ideas,” if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be, for all eternity, in the company of those whom I avoided every day of my life?
This, then, is the key to the Matthew 25 initiative: To serve the neediest members of the family of Jesus. And when any of us do this, we are able to recognize Jesus.
So, how can we see Jesus today? He may not be clear at every moment. He comes to us in people who are strangers, who are hungry and who are sick. When we serve vulnerable people, we become recognizers of Jesus in the world today.
Here are a few practical things you can do to serve Jesus today:
First, welcome a stranger. You don’t have to go far to find a stranger, since there are people unfamiliar to you within your own congregation. Go to your church directory and find a person you don’t know. Give them a call, tell them you are a fellow church member, and ask how they are doing. You won’t be asking them to volunteer, or make a contribution or do anything at all. You’ll just find out how they are doing and get to know them a bit. Beyond the church, the world is full of strangers—friends you haven’t met yet. When you greet a stranger, you are really greeting Jesus.
Second, feed the hungry. You don’t have to go far to feed the hungry. You may work at canning meat. You can support MCC who is committed to help villages dig wells for fresh water. You can volunteer during our summer feeding program for Hillsboro’s hungry kids. Bring food for the Food Bank. When you feed the hungry, you are really feeding Jesus.
Third, care for the sick. In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had opportunities to care for the sick and for their caregivers. But diseases will always be with us, and those struggling with various illnesses appreciate help with shopping, hot meals, or rides to the doctor’s office. At the very least, a card or a phone call is a tangible way to show your concern. Remember, when you care for the sick, you are really caring for Jesus.
Fourth, care for the prisoner. Prisons are filled with loneliness, hate, rejection, and fear. Very little love permeates the walls. Nobody trusts anyone. Living is surviving. Hope dwindles each day, and isolation separates families, friends, and opportunities for a good life after prison. One prisoner writes: “I am experiencing how little the church does for those in prison. Yet, even as a prisoner, I know that Christ never stops loving me, and even in my tribulation many blessings have been given. I believe that if our churches would minister more to prisoners, we would have fewer people returning to prison. A letter from a Christian to an inmate does much to help him or her find the Lord. A visit will do even more. I have seen it happen. These persons are God’s children too. If we ever want prisoners to change, we must introduce them to Jesus Christ. Let us share the Christ we know, who has come to save the world, not to condemn it.”
Then Benedict of Nursia developed a rule for monastic life that stressed hospitality to strangers, a practice grounded in Christ’s identification with the stranger in Matthew 25. Benedict called for the monk in charge of provisions for the community and its guests to be wise and mature, with special concern for children, guests and the poor (Rule of Benedict 31:1, 9).
When we serve children, guests, and the poor, we are really serving Jesus. When we welcome strangers, feed the hungry and care for the sick, we are really helping Jesus. The good news for today is that vulnerable people give us a chance to identify Jesus, alive and well in the world today.
I met Jesus under the hood of a car this week. She was working away at the battery post of her car. Tightening the cable connection. I was there to give her a tank of gas. While it filled, I found out she was a very capable person able to fix vehicles. She was down and out after a difficult divorce leaving her with 2 children to fend for on her own. She moved back to Hillsboro where she had a few friends. She lowered the hood. Turned the key. It started and we cheered. Welcome, stranger! Welcome, Jesus!
We can recognize Jesus, whenever we reach out to people in need.
Now you may wonder, how can this be a sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday. We can be thankful that God loves us so much that he allows us the freedom to choose how we live. We can be thankful that we have a chance to serve Jesus. We can be thankful that we have a God who cares about the least of these--the poor, imprisoned, hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick. We can be thankful that we have the opportunity to help others because we ourselves have been given enough. We can be thankful for the invitation to come, inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps there have been church people who occasionally have admitted to disappointment over Jesus’ teaching on the Last Judgment. Could he not have said something about the advantages of having been baptized and belonging to the right church? Wouldn’t this have been the right place for Jesus to have said, “If you want to inherit eternal life, confess me as Lord and Savior and be saved”?
Jesus’ kingdom opens itself to us not because we deserve it or belong to the right church (or any church), or have remarkable intelligence, or are theologically astute, or write religious books, or achieve recognition, or because we know bishops, or even know saints.
The kingdom receives us, Jesus says, because we are willing to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. We are saved because we care for unattractive strangers, annoying relatives, even those who threaten us. We are saved because we allow the mercy of God not just to enter our lives, but pass through our lives to others. We are saved because we respond to others as if they were Jesus.
May our eyes and heart be open to recognize Jesus.
Homiletics. November 22, 2020. Henry Brinton and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Sojourners. January 1988. Jim Forest.