The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Part 4 of our Sermon Series “Practicing Christian”
Today we continue our sermon series on six core practices for following Jesus. We started with Spiritual Friendships, moved our way to worship, wiggled our way past reading the Bible. Now we come to something a little different: it’s the practice of Service. Service.
The simplest definition of service is doing stuff for other people who need it. Jesus’ great commandment, or direction to his followers in the Gospel of Matthew, is to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength on one hand, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, the fact that Jesus puts the two together means that we can’t fully love God, without also loving our fellow human beings with the same kind of depth. If we love God and are indifferent toward, or hate other people, then we aren’t truly loving God. The whole thing falls apart.
Our scripture passage for today is the prime example, perhaps the most extreme example of the important of the spiritual practice of service, of neighbor love.
Here, we’re given an image of the end of time. Jesus has returned with an army of angels as a cosmic judge, sitting on a cosmic throne. We, of course, don’t need to take this as a photograph that’s been mailed back in time to us from the future. But it does imaging a future time beyond history as we know it. The Anglican priest and writer Robert Capon says that it’s a time where “the iceberg of divine presence under all history at least thrusts itself up in one grand, never-to-be-hidden-again [arrival].” That the divine that we can sometimes sense, but can’t see, is unveiled, and the truth of all history, every moment every human life is brought into light, and judged. “The Son of Man has come in glory,” says Capon. “Everything is out in the open.”[i]
And before the judge, all nations, it says, are gathered. Which means everybody. All people. Christian, non-Christian. Good or bad, faithful, unfaithful. Ancient people, modern people, and everyone in between. They’re all here, they’re neatly divided into two long lines, Jesus divides them into two different camps:
The first camp, it says, are to be called the sheep. We find out that they are to “inherit the kingdom.” That is to say, they will get to experience the world set right. The coming together of heaven and earth, the establishment of never-ending joy, justice, and bliss that the universe was created for. It’s the gorgeous stone path leading past blooming flowers on a sunny day leading up to the perfect cozy home. One that will last into eternity.
Why? Because they served Jesus. He was hungry, they gave him food, thirsty gave him water. A stranger and they welcomed him, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick. And visited him in prison.
They don’t remember that. “When’d we do that?” they ask. And Jesus tells them that when they welcomed, fed, clothed, cared for and visited “the least of these who are the members of my family” they did it to him. When they cared for the poor, the outcast, the person on the margins and in need.
They had the chance to serve the way Jesus served, and they took it. And in doing so we find they were actually doing it to Jesus himself. And that’s earned them a spot in the kingdom lineup, a first class ticket, and a reservation for the penthouse suite.
The second lineup though, these folks are called the goats. We find out that their line’s a conveyer belt leading to nowhere but off a cliff into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Seems kind of harsh. Why? Because they didn’t serve Jesus. They didn’t welcome, clothe, house, feed, or care for Jesus. “When didn’t we do that?” they ask. When they had a chance to care for the poor, the outcast, the person on the margins and in need. They had the chance to serve… and they didn’t take it.
Instead of following Jesus’ directions, they turned away, they ignored, and they shrugged. And in doing so, we find out they actually did it to Jesus himself, they turned their backs on him in the form of the hungry, the homeless and the sick. In doing so, they earned a donkey ride and an open-ended reservation for the furnace room. So to speak.
Like I said, we don’t have to take it literally. But our passage from Matthew 25 is the quintessential New Testament text about the importance of service, because it says that our eternal destiny is bound up with how we treat the poor, the lost, and the broken. According to this text, is that in the end, when all is said and done in the universe, how our lives will be judged is by what we do, or don’t do, in help and service to the poor, the hungry, and the sick in this life here and now.
And it sounds like a decent motivation for service, doesn’t it? Serve, feed the poor—or else. Sounds pretty straightforward. You’re either a goat or a sheep. Sounds pretty cut and dry. But it isn’t.
Because how much is enough? If you’ve seen the recent documentary on the famed Mr. Rogers, you’ll have heard that up until the moment he died, he was worried that he was a goat, and not a sheep. Mr. Rogers, whose entire life was devoted to love of neighbor, was worried he didn’t do enough, or help enough people. Same thing with Mother (now Saint) Theresa. Despite living in poverty and committing herself to the children in the slums of Calcutta, she always thought she could do more, help more. It reminds me of movie Schindlers List. Despite risking his neck to save countless Jews from Nazi death camps, there’s this poignant scene near the end where Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) has this pang of guilt for not having done more. “This gold ring,” he says, “could have saved fifty more.”
What does it take to be a sheep instead of a goat? How many of the least of these do we have to serve to finally get it right? Even if these great people have done enough (which they never thought they did—which is always the interesting thing about great people), what hope is there for any of us? What hope is there for me or for you? What do we have to do to justify our existence?
Truth be told, it’s also inconsistent with the rest of the Bible and Jesus in particular. This whole scene portrays the practice of service as a means to an end. It turns human life as a giant exercise in earning our way into God’s good books, or doing enough things to justify our own existence. Which, as we know is an impossible task. Moral perfection is an impossible task. Because the moment where we think we’ve made it that’s when we lose it through self-satisfaction and self-justification. The moment we think we’ve made it is the moment we stop moving. Whereas, according to the Bible in general, it’s God’s love is completed unearned. Salvation, healing, eternity, fullness of life, according to the Bible this is all an unearned gift from God. Not a personal achievement to be won. So if serving the least and the lost is about justifying our own existence or earning our way into heaven, it seems at odds with just about everything else in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.
So without downplaying this text—it’s a hard one. And without downplaying the harsh demand—it’s challenging to say the least. I want to point out something that I think is more significant here.
This is an apocalyptic text. Apocalypse, meaning unveiling. And the thing is about apocalyptic texts is that they’re usually meant to tell us something about the present than the future. They want to shine a light from the future on the present day, to help us see hidden realities at work that we can’t seem to see on our own.
What this text is “unveiling” is the hidden presence of Christ, the mysterious unseen reality of God here and now. Here’s what the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth (my homeboy) says it is like this:
“But where is he [Christ] hidden now?” he asks. “With God at the right hand of the Father? In his Word and Sacraments? (meaning the Bible and the practices of the church), in the mystery of His Spirit, which bloweth where it listeth? All this is true enough, but it is presupposed in this parable… that he is no less present, though hidden, in all who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison. Where ever in the present time between the resurrection and second coming one of these is waiting for help, Jesus Himself is waiting.”[ii]
When we think of God, we tend to think of a sunset, a baby’s face, or an orca whale spouting seawater before it flips on to its belly. Or any other remarkable joy or beauty in our world. Which is true enough, and fair enough. But according to this text, if we want to “find God,” if we want to encounter the sacred, the Holy, then the place to look is in lives of people who suffer. People who struggle, go without. People who are literally imprisoned, and imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and the outcome of their own sins. Where God seems the most absent, Jesus says it’s where he is, and where God’s most present.
And believe me, it can be the hardest thing to see, especially in the face of the ugliness that can come out of ourselves and our fellow human beings. But this is where Jesus says he is. “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.”
The spiritual practice of service is not a simple good deed. In serving a sandwich in the soup kitchen, we’re looking for Jesus. In handing out a cup off coffee at the drop in or handing out a bag of groceries at the food pantry, we’re opening our eyes and our hearts to the divine Spirit of life. And in simply loving, respecting, and going to bat for someone who the world sees as unloveable, according to Jesus, we’re not just loving them. We’re loving the Lord of all. It’s an act of faith, because it’s not obvious to see or easy to do. But it’s where Jesus said he’d be. Where he promises to be.
Service isn’t about proving our moral superiority to the world, proving that we’re sheep and not goats. It’s not about earning our way into God’s good graces (which is impossible), or (on the flip side) earning ourselves a ticket out of eternal fire. It’s not even about being a good person (what ever that may mean). But followers of Jesus practice the discipline of service, because we believe that it’s where we’ll find God, and where our own hearts begin to beat in the same rhythm of the heartbeat of the universe. Because in seeing Jesus in the least expected places, and in serving Jesus in the least expected people, we’re somehow made to be more like he is. In doing so, we set our feet on the path of God’s eternal kingdom.
So I pray that God may open all of our eyes to the hidden presence of Christ in our midst. I pray our hands are given the strength to serve. And I pray our hearts may be open to receive him by receiving his people in love. Because that’s what service is all about.
[i] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 506.
[ii] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics, III.2 (Peabody: Henrickson, 2010), 507.