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To Love Is to Live
San Williams at First PC, Bryan
November 20, 2011
(Preached at First Presbyterian Church in Bryan, Texas)
Today we come to the end of the church year. We come also to the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. In this teaching, Jesus tells a story, an eschatological vision. It’s called the Great Judgment, the final outcome of all life and history. So on this Christ the King Sunday, let’s rivet our attention to this climactic teaching of Jesus.
His teaching opens with a breathtaking vision. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” What a supreme irony! The One who had no place to lay his head will sit in the place of honor in the Kingdom of God. The carpenter’s son who lived among the poor and the outcast, who sought neither fame nor power, will be lifted up as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The One who refused to sit in judgment over sinners will come to judge the nations. The rejected One bearing a crown of thorns is the ruler of all creation. What an upside-down, counter-intuitive vision. It’s the lowly one who reigns!
And look what the Lowly One does when he comes in glory. He sorts things out. He separates the sheep from the goats. Some he places at his right hand, calling them blessed and inviting them into his Kingdom. Others, though, he places at his left hand, calling them accursed and sending them away into darkness and death. This sounds like an opportunity we’d like to have. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to separate the sheep from the goats, according to our own leanings and prejudices? Our divisions might break down as: Republicans/Democrats. Liberals/Conservatives. Christians/everyone else. Occupy Wall Street crowd/Tea Party folks. Aggies/Longhorns. Thse are some of the typical ways that we sort people into categories.
But in the judgment of the Lowly One, the sole criteria by which the sheep are distinguished from the goats is love. The sheep who are blessed are simply the people who saw those in need, cared about them and came to their aid. In this one climactic passage, the core teaching of the Law, the prophets and the Sermon on the Mount are summarized and sharply focused. With a succinct, piercing pronouncement, Jesus sets the standard by which all people—believers and non-believers alike—are to be judged. Namely, by the love we show to our fellow human beings, especially those who are most vulnerable.
And to everyone’s astonishment, Jesus declares that, in helping the least and the last, we are serving him. God, Jesus reveals, is not a remote supreme being somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. No, God is here in all the messiness of life, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. To see the face of God, we only need look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children. What an astonishing teaching!
Browsing your church website, I was impressed with all the sheep-like ministries you’re involved with: The Carter Creek After-school Program, Brazos Church Pantry, Still Creek Ranch, Habitat for Humanity, Twin City Mission, just to name a few. Similarly, my congregation in Austin has a variety of ministries to the poor—programs for street kids, assistance for homeless and low income people, a food pantry for the hungry, and so on.
Let us hope Jesus is taking note of our sheep-like qualities. But are they enough? How do we know for sure whether we are goats or sheep? At UPC we have a Tuesday morning Uplift program. Each Tuesday around a hundred folks come to our Fellowship Hall in need of various kinds of assistance. We welcome them warmly, treat them with respect, offer coffee and snacks, pray for them and try to help as we can with utilities, bus passes, new shoes, eyeglasses, and so on.
This past Tuesday a man named Omar was among those needing help. He didn’t speak English, so, thinking he was Cuban, we found a Spanish-speaking volunteer. It turns out he was Iraqi, not Cuban, and he was speaking Arabic, not Spanish. Despite the language barrier, we learned that he had recently had surgery on his leg, which was now becoming infected. At the emergency room he’d been given a prescription that cost $400. Now homeless, without insurance or options, he had come to us for help. The best we could do was to send him away with a list of other agencies that might be able to help. Not only were we unable to provide what he needed, but also we are part of a system and a society that’s not doing a very good job of taking care of the neediest among us. Watching Omar limp out of the church with nothing in his pocket but a piece of paper, made us feel more like goats than sheep.
Our university neighborhood in Austin is a popular hang-out for street youth. These teenagers and young adults are about as hard-to-love a bunch of people as you’re likely to meet. Typically, these are kids who aged out of foster care. Many were abused as children. Alcohol and drug addiction are common among them.
Last Tuesday one of the street kids, a young woman named Emily, came to us asking for a bus ticket to Tennessee. Her life is a total mess. Not yet 25, she’s already given birth to three babies on the street. She’s a heroin addict. She’s angry, desperate. We talked with her the best we knew how, but when we didn’t give her what she wanted, she threw a fit, banged on our door and yelled, “You must be stupid. You don’t understand.” She’s probably right. We’ll never understand all that she’s been through, and we didn’t know how to help her. Still, closing the door on her and sending her away left me feeling very goat-like. Truthfully, I’d classify myself—and perhaps most of us–as hybrids: part sheep and part goat. How, then, can we be sure which camp we’ll be in when Christ comes in glory to separate the sheep from the goats?
Well, maybe we’re not supposed to know. Did you notice how, in today’s reading, those who are called blessed were totally surprised to receive God’s favor? They weren’t helping the poor in order to improve their status with God. It didn’t occur to them that by doing good they might earn their way to eternal life. They certainly weren’t showing love to others because they feared eternal punishment if they didn’t. No, the sheep in the parable were simply folks who saw human beings in need and tried to help. It’s good news to know that we are not the judge either of our own worthiness or that of others. Christ is the judge. That’s good news.
Here’s the bottom line. Ultimately love is what matters. Jesus puts it more radically: love is all that matters. It’s true that the Final Judgment is described in the harshest, most extreme terms–Eternal life or Eternal punishment. Blessing or curse. We may recoil from such language, but maybe it’s necessary because God and love are not two different realities, but the same reality. John says as much in his first letter: “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Friends, on this Christ the King Sunday may the power of love continually transform and shape our lives. It is, after all, the Gospel’s fundamental lesson, the essence of Jesus’ life, the truth that God has sought to convey from the foundation of the world: to love is to live…with God…forever!