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The Sovereign with the Surprise of Mysterious Reciprocity

Tom Foote, Jr.

November 20, 2011
Matthew 25:31-46

11-20-2011 Sermon

Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Austin,Texas                          Ted V. Foote, Jr.

I bring you greetings in the Spirit of Jesus Christ from First Presbyterian Church, Bryan, and the Bryan-College Station/Brazos Valley area, a member church of New Covenant Presbytery.  In the season of Texas A&M University’s decision to change athletic conference affiliation in 2012, we can note, with some irony and regret, that our two congregations are this year on record affirming the common elements of our respective ministries.  In many ways, that’s unfortunate, but the past is what the past is.

While we expect research and academic exchanges to occur and be mutually beneficial,  if the truth be known, fraternities, sororities, and other clubs at our two institutions of higher learning have interacted more through the years than have our two churches.  Now, with God’s help, perhaps the separation from a common athletic conference, rather than give us a new excuse to ignore each other’s ministries, will encourage us to develop mutuality in our continuing outreach to the University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University, respectively, and in ways we Presbyterians have not attempted heretofore.  The Session and congregation of First Presbyterian-Bryan are delighted to have San and Kaci and student ministries’ participants in Bryan this morning, and I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to worship with you.

Additionally, we of FPC-Bryan are currently in God’s debt through you in a particular way.  Some of you know that a daughter of this church serves with us in Bryan for her seminary intern year.  That would be Keatan King.  We are grateful to Louisville Seminary and to Keatan’s sense of call for this opportunity.  Some may say Keatan took a career risk serving on staff where I am one of the pastors, and also where there are so many Aggies.  However that may be, we’re very glad she took that risk, and it’s important for me to say, “You all have done wondrous work in your preparing Keatan to serve Jesus Christ with others.”  We in Bryan-College Station are immensely thankful for our opportunity to serve with her, knowing full well how undeserving we are.

Let us pray:  Wondrous God, by your Word and Spirit, revealed in Jesus Christ, and through the proclamation of your Gospel, surprise us with your grace. Shine light into the shadows and darkness which hold us back from joyful service.  Shield our eyes from the distracting brightness of counterfeit values.  Help us to know and love You, as You have always known and loved us.  In your name we pray; Amen.

Let us hear God’s Word, reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 25, beginning with verse 31.

The Word of the Lord.            Thanks be to God!

Some of you, at some point, have heard or sung either part or all of a “frontier revival song” written in 1892 by James M. Black:  When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more, And the morning breaks eternal, bright, and fair; When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore, And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Both the Christian faith and other faith traditions promote varied understandings that “this world is not all there is.”  A song like “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” envisions God’s people gathered in spiritual and/or resurrection form “up yonder” in the eternal presence of God.

The parable we’ve read this morning envisions the scene described in that song, yet with “the dial turned up.” While the song tells of being gathered for a heavenly roll call, the parable communicates a reading of final grades.

I’m 58 years old.  It’s been 32 years since I took my last set of exams, and I still get nervous thinking about all the stress of completing course requirements – more or less to the best of my ability – as other commitments and time allowed – and waiting to receive a grade.

When I was an undergraduate at Baylor University in the 1970s, a local Waco surgeon audited two of the British history courses in which I was enrolled.  I envied him immensely.  He attended as often as he could clear his schedule.  He absorbed the lectures, read the assigned books, and that was it.  No exams.  No research papers.  No grades.  No sweat.

While preferring to be able to audit a class in which I am immensely interested, my next favorite academic situation would be a course where no “scaled-performance” grades are given.  You show up.  You participate satisfactorily in discussions or a project, and you receive a “P” – for “pass” – almost automatically.

This parable in the second half of Matthew, chapter 25, neither imagines life as an academic course one can simply audit nor as an academic course with an almost automatic “P.”  As the old frontier revival hymn describes the occasion “when time shall be no more,” the parable Jesus tells presumes, like students approaching the end of a semester when time is running out, that there’s a least some abiding anxiety about the announcement of final grades on our lives – on my life and yours – or that we people ought to have some anxiety about this.  So, in a way, by telling this parable, we may initially conclude, in terms we employ to describe current educational phenomenon, Jesus is here “teaching to the test,” – saying essentially, “Let me tell you what you need to do to pass this test:  Help others.  Support others.  In doing so, you will be helping and supporting me – and you will pass!”

Yet a careful reading of this parable raises an important re-evaluative question:  Is Jesus actually “teaching to the test,” basically advising, and saying, “You help others, and you will pass my test in life”?  It’s an important question to ask, because, at the end, both the blessed group and the condemned group express puzzlement and lack of understanding.  “Now tell us when exactly we saw you and responded helpfully?” AND, “Now tell us when exactly we saw you and ignored the opportunity to assist?”  Both the blessed group and the condemned group express puzzlement and lack of understanding.  “When did we see you, Blessed Sovereign?”

The key to understanding here, and therefore the key to “being in sync” with Jesus’ teaching, is something different from merely “help others because Jesus is present in the life of every other person, and you’ll, therefore, be in trouble if you don’t help every other person obsessively all the time”!

Try this as the difference:  First, we people-creatures are all at the same level with one another in the “image of God” category.  All at the same level.  Have you ever been standing at one level on a set of stair-steps and attempted to pick something up when that something was on a lower step?  You cannot make it happen so long as you continue to stand where you are:  Only if you kneel completely, knee touching the ground, and reach, or step to the lower level.  Assisting others / partnering with others as God intends and seeks for us to do is no easier than standing on one level of steps to retrieve something from a lower step.  The only way it’s possible, is by getting to the level of what you’re seeking to reach:  For Jesus’ purposes, this means, as creatures amid a vast and intricate Creation, getting to the human-in-the-image-of-God “level”!

A man with two graduate degrees, upon his retirement, moved to a different community.  After visiting several churches, he met with the elders of a Presbyterian church to become a member.  After they “went around the room” introducing themselves, the elders were ready to vote to accept his membership transfer.  Suddenly he asked:  “Don’t you all have any desire to know why I’m asking to become a member of this church?”  Everyone paused.  He said, “What I’ve witnessed here over the past few months, that I have not seen enough among other churches, is church members here considering and relating to children and youth as ‘full’ human beings.”  “Ohh,” the elders and pastor nodded.  A new member pointed out to the elders and pastor what they could not see in the very church among whom they served:  that their witness, even when they did not realize it, indicated to a “newcomer” how each and every person is at the same “made-in-the-image-of-God” level – in this case, regardless of age-distinctions.  They were doing that, and did not much notice that they were following Jesus’ basic teaching.

Second, long before “the roll is called up yonder,” the One who both creates and redeems us ALL “on the same level” continually claims a presence among people and Creation, particularly in creaturely vulnerability.  This continual visiting-presence of the Creator and Redeemer is surprising enough; but then there is the surprise of mysterious reciprocity. Reciprocity means that when you give, you also receive.  And when you receive, you also give.

Might Jesus be suggesting that when one receives from another’s outreach, in the openness required for receiving to occur, the recipient’s own personhood gives back to the one who has been willing to reach out / to the one who contributes assistance and support?  As receivers accept, givers receive, if we’re at the same “made-in-the-image-of-God” level.  This occurs, possibly to our surprise, as Jesus Christ joins both receivers and givers in our humanness, always at our human “made-in-the-image-of-God” level.

So as this Sovereign of the universe is among us in the spirit of Christ, in our giving, we receive.  In our receiving, we give. While we may not often consider this, reciprocity surprises us as the Sovereign of the Universe every day encounters us in human “made-in-the-image-of-God” relationships.  We or others can say that our meeting the Sovereign happens “when time shall be no more,” but, according to Jesus, such meetings occur as “time” and people and Creation are right here and now!

Two examples.  I was once visiting First Presbyterian Church of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  It was the coldest January day there in years: 18o.  When I was standing in the narthex of the church, prior to the worship service, one woman entered wearing a full length mink coat, accepted her bulletin, and moved to a pew.  The next person who entered also was a woman, yet she was wearing her full-length sleeping bag and carrying her other worldly possessions in two paper sacks.  The ushers had a sort of “deer in the headlights” look about what to do. The church’s pastor, Bobby Wilkes, though, never missed a beat.  In his black preaching robe and white collar, he asked the woman politely if she would like to leave her sleeping bag and paper sacks in the narthex.  She declined, at which point, he extended his left forearm her, ushered her to an aisle seat in a pew about half-way toward the front of the sanctuary, as if what he’d done was as normal as drinking his morning coffee.  He then joined the acolyte and other worship leaders for the processional.  At the conclusion of worship, as he recessed during the last stanza of the closing hymn, he stopped next to her pew, again extended his arm, waited for her to gather her sleeping bag and pair of paper sacks, then ushered her to the narthex.  He asked her name, and then asked one of the ushers to take her for a cup of coffee in Fellowship Hall and to confer with her about any other needs with which the church might assist.  When hardly anyone would have expected it, Bobby Wilkes, who was at the same “made-in-the-image-of-God” level as everyone else, modeled God’s surprise of mysterious reciprocity.  A woman with no home received grace, and she offered grace in return, whether she realized it, or not.  In that exchange-of-a-relationship between a homeless women and a Presbyterian pastor, Christ was present; and, perhaps, a worshiping congregation of 400 sensed the power of that Presence.

A 24 year old who works in the television and film industry was recently asked to lecture to high school theatre students about “what it takes” to “break into” that industry.  He told them this story about energy and life and reciprocity:  “I was working at a summer camp when I was 20 or 21 years old,” he said.  “One of the ‘outside groups’ coming to the camp was an organization which created special opportunities for children with extensive disadvantages.  One of the youngsters was 6/7/8/9 years old, who, I later discovered, was battling a Stage 4 cancer.  On the last night of the week, a dance was held, and he danced the entire evening.  Just before the crowd broke up, he came over, put his arm around my waist, and said, “I’m really tired.  But you know what?  I don’t ever want to stop dancing!”  The 24 year old told the high school students:  “That elementary age youngster with Stage 4 cancer thought I was doing something for him, but I did nothing for him compared to what he gave me – a vision for living that never stops dancing, no matter what happens.”

In accepting, helping, assisting, listening, pulling alongside, miracles of awareness and community occur. More importantly even than “when the roll is called up yonder,” Jesus’ teaching implores our attention toward and for relationships today.  When we treasure time and persons and Creation, while time and persons and Creation are all around us, then on any occasion that the Sovereign says, “When you saw me  . . .” we will have no reason to be surprised and ask, “When did we see you?”  Rather, realizing we are at the same “made-in-the-image-of-God” level as all others, we will be “filled enough” with gladness and gratitude from every occasion when we are surprised by the mystery of reciprocity.

In the spirit of Christ, reciprocity in our humanness is God’s gift today and every day.

– All honor and praise be to God.