3-19-17 Sermon by Rev. Jay Anderson
“I Dream of a Church: Christ’s Representatives”
That scene is a classic one in the genre of horror films, to the point of being cliche. That which is haunting or threatening the protagonist is actually coming from within their own house.
Bishop Easterling pays homage to that scene when she uses that same line of warning in the poem we just read. “Before it is too late,” she warned, “may we understand that the call is coming from inside the house.” The Bishop’s warnings about the use of fear, division, hatred, harassment, neglect, hate, and oppression in the world does not exclude the church of which she, and we, are a part. It is a damning warning that will cost us our spiritual lives in horror-movie-slasher-style if we do not heed it -
“the Stench, Rot, Brokenness, Emptiness, Insecurity, Woundedness, and Disease, is from within and not without,” she declares. They are part and parcel of the spiritual forces of wickedness that I shared with you last week that we vowed to renounce and resist, but that we allow to incubate within us, as well as within the church.
How do we as the church recover from Bishop Easterling’s diagnosis? What are we to do to stem the flow of blood, to stop the oozing of life that has led to decades of decline in the church? What will it take to make the church relevant again in the eyes of now two generations who find this whole endeavor a bit suspect?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers - that’s beyond my pay grade, as they say. Hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on the subject. But I have a couple of ideas, and Jesus gives us some clues as well. Here’s something that many of us believe is a good place to begin: Let’s start by not preaching hate in all its subtle forms in the church anymore. That is, let’s allow the Good News given to all nations and all peoples to actually be good news, to all nations and all peoples. The theology of division, just like the politics of division, does nothing to help and everything to hurt. It’s not working - not in the world and not in the church. Dividing people into “us” and “them,” along political, theological, racial, ethnic, or sexual lines, is unChristian, it’s unbiblical, it’s sin. It just won’t work.
Threatening people, judging people, blaming people, placing ourselves above people, scaring people is not going to bring people into a relationship with God, with Jesus Christ, or with the church. In fact, it’s driving them away in droves. Understand, Christ is not going to let us grow his church using sin as a tool, so it just has to stop.
I know, I know, some people think that this whole decline in the church, this decline in the world, would stop if preachers would just preach about Hell more! I know some of you think that about me. Well, do you ever watch the Rod Parsleys and John Hagees and the other hellfire and brimstone preachers on TV? They and others like them have been preaching messages of condemnation and damnation for an awful long time, and look where it’s gotten us.
It’s gotten them big congregations, big houses, big fancy cars, but the larger church has been devastated by it, and many of the young people who are outside the church think that all churches are just like that - and they have flatly rejected it. Yet, something has to change. What the larger church has been doing for the past 50-60 years isn’t working, at least not in the U.S. It is said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well…
It’s easy to preach a message that blames people. It’s easy to point fingers. It’s easy to play God and do our own separating of people into sheep and goats based on what WE think is the right way to think, to pray, to worship, to believe, to vote, to love. There’s a very important scene in the film, “The Shack,” that addresses our human desire to play God when it suits us. Many Christians, in other churches of course, not here I’m sure, like to think that because they’re members of the church that they’re somehow special snowflakes, or maybe Cinderella, and that the glass slipper of salvation fits only on their foot. And some preachers like to preach that because it gets them a captive audience, and big house, and big cars…
But Jesus had something to say about that in our passage from Matthew 25 today.
Matthew 25 gives Jesus’ summation, near the end of his ministry, of what it means to be a disciple, a true follower of Jesus Christ. He shows us, on three levels, what living a Christ-centered life looks like. At the first level, Jesus directs his followers to obey his commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself, what Jesus said summed up the heart of the law. Where Luke’s Jesus uses the unlikely Samaritan as an example of what this looks like in practice, Matthew’s Jesus lists the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned among the neighbors his followers are called to love.
On a second level, disciples are called to imitate the vision of Jesus, who dined with those labeled “sinners,” those on the outside. And it’s important that we understanding what is happening in that act. Jesus is offering forgiveness to them in his willingness to dine with them, EVEN BEFORE any repentance on their part takes place. There is no repent-first-forgive-later transaction going on here. The grace is on the table already. Seeing others as God sees them means embracing in grace those we would call sinners. It means not judging them, but inviting them into redemptive relationship and the fellowship of grace, and not excluding them simply because they sin differently than we do.
On a third level, Jesus tells his followers to perceive “the other” as though he or she were Christ himself. Serving the needy should be approached as though one were serving Christ himself. More succinctly, they were to see in each person they encountered, Jesus himself.
In some traditions this ideas is embraced in the term, Namaste, which says that the holy in me sees the holy in you. In our context it would mean “the Christ in me sees the Christ in you.” If Christ is present in us, if we are Christ-centered people, then we are to acknowledge Christ in the other. That, Jesus says, is what it means to be his follower.
So, in this last of Matthew’s parables of Jesus, Jesus redefines righteousness for his followers in all ages. He doesn’t tell them that their salvation comes because of what they thought or believed about him, but by how what they thought or believed led them to act in his name. Righteousness doesn’t come by following rituals or obeying legalistic mandates; it comes in embracing the way of the kingdom, which is to share love and grace to all the nations and all the peoples. God always favors those who are most vulnerable and invites us to come alongside those most at risk, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. That is the grace of the kingdom of God.
But isn’t this just “works righteousness” you might ask? Isn’t this saying I can earn my salvation by the things I do? No, it’s not, and for a couple of reasons. First of all, Matthew had no concept of this idea of “works righteousness,” that was a Paul thing and nowhere does Matthew even suggest that that’s what’s happening here. Second, remember, in the parable neither the sheep nor the goats realized it was Christ they had encountered. Both of them asked Jesus “when was it that we did this, or didn’t do this?” The point is that the action was not done out of any expectation of reward or punishment. The righteous cared for those in need because they saw need, and the unrighteous saw need and failed to do the same. The righteous loved God by their love of neighbor, the unrighteous denied God by their lack of love for their neighbor. The righteous, in the spirit of namaste, saw Christ in the other and responded as they would to him. The others denied the Christ, the holy, in those labeled as other, and in turn, denied care.
Jesus’ parable tells us that grace is given freely without regard to merit, but that obedience to the law of love is still demanded of the faithful. Our care for the least is our care for Christ himself. It is a natural outpouring or response to the love shown us. If we do not provide care for Christ in all his many disguises, then how can we expect him to judge in our favor?
Let’s approach this idea from a different angle for a moment. I invite you to take a good long look at this image. This is an icon created by Robert Lentz titled “Christ In the Margins.” An icon is a picture or image used as a meditation tool to focus, in this case, on Jesus. We’ve shared before the practice of lectio divina, where we read a passage of scripture three times and listen for different things within the reading. Well this is similar to that, it’s called visio divina. And you’re invited to simply look closely at this icon, consider the details, and then think about these things as you take it in:
-What resonates with you most strongly about this picture?
-What word, phrase, image, or emotion does this image trigger in you?
-What surprises, excites, or disturbs you about this representation?
One interesting thing to consider: the icon doesn’t make clear which side of the fence Christ is on does it? Is he imprisoned or are we? Through both our cultural institutions and our personal lives we all place barriers between ourselves and true happiness. We and our institutions, including the church, also try to imprison Christ in various ways, to tame him and the dangerous memories he would bring us of our goals and ideals, of what we aspire to, of who we say in our baptismal and membership vows that we want to be. So, consider how meditating on this icon might impact our understanding of this scripture before us today.
Theologian Robert McClellan asks an intriguing question in considering this passage. “Why,” he asks, “are so many ‘recovering Christians’ walking the earth, carrying with them painful scars inflicted by the churches of their youth?” Recovering Christians…didn’t even know that was a thing did you?
Our reading of the story today didn’t go to the end of the passage as it is written in Matthew, because that ending is the part of the story that is so often abused. “The story of the sheep and goats is a story about us,” McClellan says, “but it’s not faithfully told when it is told to incite fear. Fear, [as in “turn or burn theology,”] doesn’t move anyone into vibrant discipleship. To make that part of the passage, that image, the [focus] of the passage is a mistake and is to misrepresent what Jesus is calling us to do and to be.”
And he goes on, “Fear causes people to fixate on the many things they have not done or cannot do, obscuring their ability to see the innumerable essential things they can do. With discernment comes clarity about the simplicity of the tasks before us and our God-given ability faithfully to fulfill them. Food, water, clothing, hospitality, companionship: these are not only the most necessary elements for communal life; they are also the most readily available gifts to give. The lesson of the sheep and the goats is good news, because it asks each to share precisely what each has. That is the true center of this passage. Whether it is food or water, a compassionate ear or an open heart, everyone has something to share.”
And we know that, right? In our food pantry ministry we give food and drink and hospitality. Our free store ministry provides clothing, hospitality, and companionship. In our community meal, we supply all four of these - as we do in our Mustard Seed Street Outreach and perhaps in the others as well. In our tutoring ministry, we provide companionship and guidance. In our visitation ministries we bring caring hospitality, a listening ear, and companionship. And we could go on with each and every thing we do - this idea is not new to us as a church. This is what we do. And that, McClellan suggests, should make all of us - longtime members, casual attenders, and first-time visitors alike - feel enlivened, not threatened by this passage, because it calls us to serve in ways firmly within our grasp. These are things that each and every person in the life of a church, young or old, rich or poor, mobile or homebound, can do. This is a reassuring lesson from a story that is so commonly portrayed as frightening and threatening, and that is used to divide.
McClellan also suggests that that’s not the only good news in this parable. The most frequent question he receives from parishioners, he writes, is about belief. “What if I am not sure what I believe?” they ask. “Christians have long concentrated on right belief, good teaching, and proper theological understanding of how God works in the world. Councils have been formed, creeds written, and wars fought to determine how we are to believe in God,” he reminds us. And we know that is true when we consider that there are, I think I read, over 10,000 denominations within Christianity itself who can’t agree on what is right belief.
To be sure, what we believe is important, but probably not in the way you think. It’s important, not so that we can be right and someone else can be wrong; it’s important in that how we think about God is inextricably linked to how we live our lives and interact with the world around us. When we think of God as an angry, vengeful, judgmental God, then our faith and our living tend to become angry, vengeful, and judgmental at worst, or timid and fearful at best. When, on the other hand, our belief about God is that God is loving, inclusive, and grace-filled, then we too tend in our faith and our lives to be loving and inclusive and grace-filled as well. What we believe matters, not because there's some theology test upon which we have to have a certain score to get into to heaven, not because we will be judged on whether our answers are correct, but because what we believe shapes how we live, and how we live shapes how we represent Christ in the world.
McClellan offers, “Doctrine can be helpful for guiding our lives, and shaping our beliefs. However, belief can…be a stumbling block as well. Often people feel somehow less Christian because they have trouble with one of our tradition’s positions or statements. They feel somehow left on the outside because they are not sure of their beliefs. As a result, they feel less suitable for the work of the church, less likely to engage in it, and thereby less likely to have the very experiences that will inspire the faith they feel they lack.”
“What this passage provides is a relief from the pressure to have all of the answers before being able to act. Where people [might] hesitate at the sight of doctrine, they are quite willing to jump into action when they see someone in need. Think of those who might be on the margins of any worshiping community who spring to life when it is time for the [big yearly mission or outreach event]. Consider the longtime attendee who refuses to join on the grounds of theology, but who leaps into action to organize meals for someone in need.
This too, is faith, and according to this passage, is perhaps more blessed than someone who believes all the right things, but then fails to put that faith into actual practice. Moreover, in the same way right belief can lead to faithful action, right action can also nurture and provide context for our belief. [We all have] plenty of unsettled theological questions - I do, you do, and we always will - but it’s in the moments of the kind of service Jesus describes that I know that I feel God closest and my faith most unwavering.
If you look at the full context of this passage, Jesus seems to be saying that if there is any sort of “Final Judgment,” then the criteria on which we will be judged will not be what we know (or think we know) or what we say we believe, but rather what we have actually done (or neglected to do) for the less fortunate — specifically, whether we’ve helped feed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. To adapt Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, however you treat the least of my sisters or brothers is how you have treated me.”
Jesus seems to be promising — to those of us born centuries too late to meet the historical Jesus in person — that the closest we can come to a transformative face-to-face encounter with Jesus is to aid and be fully present to the poor and the marginalized. What we do or don’t do for them, is what we do or don’t do for him.
The scornful glance at the panhandler on the corner becomes a scornful glance to Jesus. The taking away of assistance to hunger programs for the poor is literally taking food out of Jesus’ mouth.
Our action and our belief become so intertwined that the faithful move through life, not as those afraid of a vengeful king doling out eternal punishment, not as those riddled with guilt about what they can or cannot profess about God, but simply and wonderfully as those changed by the transformative Spirit and Word into Christ-centered followers who feed, share drink, welcome in, and clothe the naked, and care for the stranger, the sick, the hungry, the immigrant, the refugee, the other. That’s the church that Christ dreams of - those are the people who truly represent Christ in the world.
So how do we recover from that diagnosis found in Bishop Easterling’s poem? One disciple at a time, one ministry at a time, and one church at a time. Christ defines living faith as faithful living, and invites believers to put into action the Prayer he gave us: that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is those who respond in that way, he says, who are truly ready to inherit the kingdom of God.
So, with all of that said, and with some of your minds blown, I want to conclude with this blessing:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
And will you now turn to the neighbor on either side of you, and bless them, saying to them, “The Christ in me sees the Christ in you.”
(wait while this happens)
Amen. (SING REPRISE OF SONG)
Reprise of Song
Make it so, make it so!
We pray for that day, make it so.
We dream of a world where Love reigns among us
and your will is done, O God make it so!