This week’s sermon wraps up three weeks in Matthew 25 with another perplexing parable. I am thankful to Netflix for providing illustrative material, and to Ginger and Kenny for bouncing around ideas. Here’s where I landed.
I read an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago written by a book reviewer who made the comment that they worked hard to never give away the ending of a book in their review, but that, for most people, the ending determined whether or not they liked the book. The same was true for movies.
A couple of weeks ago, Ginger, my wife, and I watched The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series on Netflix about a woman who grew up in an orphanage in the Sixties and became a chess prodigy because the janitor at the school taught her how to play. We both loved it even though neither of us knows much of anything about chess. A friend in North Carolina who is an English teacher didn’t like the ending and asked what others thought on his Facebook.
I said I thought endings were hard to do well in fiction and in real life. Maybe the same is true of scripture.
Jesus could see the gathering storm about him. He knew his days were short and his ending was not going to be an easy one at the hands of the Romans, who were known for particularly violent conclusions. So he told these three parables to his disciples to give them a sense of how God was at work in them and in the world. He had spoken more directly in passages we have talked about: love your enemies; if you want to lead, be a servant; the first will be last and the last will be first; and love God with all that you are and love your neighbor the way you love yourself.
And the disciples kept asking about the ending. The big finish. Who gets to sit next to you when we’re all said and done? Who do you like best?” They didn’t get it.
So he told them parables. In the first two, which we have looked at over the last couple of Sundays, the one with the power in the story did not represent God—but we had to pay attention to figure that out. (I’m hoping you remember.) The parable of the bridesmaids wasn’t about being prepared; it was about being awake. The servant that was cast out was evicted because he wouldn’t play the master’s crooked power game. He wasn’t lazy, he was honest—and it cost him his life. Our text for today is the last story of the three and it is about The Big Finish: the final judgment. To me it almost feels like Jesus was saying, “You want a judgment story? I’ll give. you a judgment story.”
And he said, “When the Human One comes in all his majesty . . .” That is a name he used for himself, so it does seem pretty clear that he is the King in this story. It says he looks at everyone in front of him and divides them into sheep and goats. It doesn’t say whether the split was 50/50 or 90/10, just that they were separated from each other. Then he tells the sheep they could come in because they took care of the him and he tells the goats they were out because they did not.
I have to pause here because when Jesus says anything about sheep, I think of my dad who used to say, “When Jesus calls us sheep it’s not a compliment; they are really dumb animals.” Goats, on the other hand, appear to be smart, energetic, and opportunistic. They will eat anything. They live in almost any terrain. And if you search the web for “baby goats” you will see some of the cutest videos ever.
Nevertheless, when both groups ask, “When did we take care of you?” Jesus answers, “When you did it for the least, the humblest, to someone overlooked or ignored—you did it to me.”
Not for me. To me.
Two things struck me about this story that have nothing to do with a final judgement. The first is a story from Durham—North Carolina—where we used to live. One evening Ginger and I had some folks over for dinner and two of them were a couple who co-pastored a church in East Durham, which is the most economically disadvantaged part of town and also a part of town made up of mostly People of Color. A group from a white church across town came for an all-day service trip one Saturday to help with various projects around the church. They showed up in matching t-shirts that had their church name across the front and on the back one of the verses from our reading today: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The two pastors at our table talked about how much it hurt to feel looked down on. It felt like the white church came out of condescension rather than compassion. What they shared with both the sheep and the goats in our parable is that they didn’t know what they were doing. We have to remember there is often a big gap between intent and impact, particularly when we are trying to help.
The second thing that struck me goes back to the first parable and Jesus’ words about staying awake. The disciples wanted to know what it is going to be like with God at the ending and Jesus told them what it is like to be with God right now. What I hear in Jesus’ words is that if we want to look for God, we should not be looking into the future, or trying to figure out the Big Finish; we should be paying attention to every set of eyes looking back at us: “When you care for the least, the humblest, to those who are overlooked or ignored—you do it to me.”
Once again: not for me. To me.
I have had a hard time getting ready for Thanksgiving because I have been grieving the holiday. It is my favorite because the way the days fall means I have time to cook like crazy and gather many loved ones around the table. This year, for the first time in thirty-one years, it will be Ginger, Rachel my mother-in-law, and me. I imagine you are going through a similar thing. I know I am not alone in my sadness.
As I was just getting my pity party cranked up, Ginger started talking about people we know around us who may not have enough food for Thanksgiving or may be unable to cook for themselves. I needed her help to see more than my misery. She saw the misery, too, but she did more than offer me pity. She offered me a chance to share both my sadness and my joy. I love to cook. She showed me people who needed food.
In about a half an hour, I had my grocery list made and I was off to shop so I could come home and get ready to start cooking. As I get excited about sharing my food, I have found a deeper understanding of what it means to love my neighbor as myself. I have been offered the chance to find just as much joy in cooking for someone else’s table as I do when I cook for my own.
And I said, “Hey—this is what I’m preaching about.”
Ginger and I watched another movie on Netflix last night called The Half of It and towards the ending, one of the characters, Ellie, says, “Love isn’t patient and kind and humble. Love is messy and horrible and selfish and bold.” We might find it awkward that she added her words to I Corinthians 13; I don’t really think of love as horrible or selfish, but maybe we can think of her words like those in a commentary or a sermon: she helped connect the text to her life. And I think she has a point about love being messy and bold. Love is a risk. Love is a choice. If we are going to love, we are going to have to be awake to all the bold and messy ways we can express it right here in the middle of things, without waiting for the ending.
If I were going to add anything to I Corinthians 13, I would say love is specific. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me.” That’s pretty specific. We incarnate love when we do something specific to let another person know they love them. We do something to them, not for them. Doing these things to one another will add up to a story worth telling with our lives, regardless of the ending. Amen.