Text: Matthew 25:31-46
One of the difficulties of modern life, I think, is that there is just so much. So much everything.
There is so much to do. We have all kinds of choices before us. When I was a kid, our activities were pretty defined. We played football in the fall and basketball in the winter. We played baseball and rode bikes in the summer, although basketball was actually OK in other seasons too. If it was raining we played Monopoly. I went to church on Sundays, morning and night, and watched Batman at 6:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I mean, the choices were not that hard.
But today – now there is so much. You’ve got lacrosse, skating, tae kwon do, gymnastics, children’s choir. You can be in the Lego League. There is soccer and t-ball and my goodness, an endless variety of video games. There are all kinds of camps to attend. There are all kinds of lessons you can take. There are a lot more options and it’s more complicated. I’m not trying to sound like an old guy, I mean all of this is wonderful, but as far as organized activities, there are a lot more options than there used to be.
It’s not just kid’s activities. There is so much information – so much to know. So much to sort through. Along with all of this information, there is so much noise. We have 200 TV channels as well as Nextflix, Hulu, YouTube, and an incredible array of social media. Messages and images and information are coming at us all the time.
Much of this is good. Much of this is welcome. If you have a question, about virtually anything, you can google it. If you need to repair something – on your home, your vehicle, your lawn mower, whatever – you can find a video online to show you how. You can keep up with friends and family from around the country, around the world. But still – there is so much. With such a wealth of information and possibilities, how do we determine what to focus our attention on?
This almost overload of possibility extends to the realm of faith – of religion. There is a religious smorgasboard out there that is almost unimaginable. Sociologist Will Herberg wrote this very famous book in the 1950’s with the title Protestant, Catholic Jew. It was basically about three ways of being an American in the 1950’s. It was and still is an insightful book, a classic, but wow, times have changed. There are all kinds of religious choices out there, one of which is no religion, and the vast amount of information we have at our disposal helps in making such a variety of choices available.
Of course, we know that there is not simply diversity between various faiths and traditions, there is diversity within traditions. What kind of Baptist? There are something like 57 flavors. And even within the American Baptist Churches, one congregation can be very different from another. This kind of diversity has always been there, but somehow it seems even more pronounced today.
But this morning, I don’t really want to talk about the array of options that are available. I want to talk about our own faith, our own commitments, at deeper and more personal level. Even within our own lives, we have decisions to make about what matters the most.
Our text this morning is actually Jesus’ last lengthy teaching to his disciples before his death. Jesus could have shared with them on any number of subjects, but this is what he chose to say to them. So we can assume it is important.
In Matthew, we have what is known as the Great Commission, in Matthew 28. “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and son and Holy Spirit...” That is the Great Commission, and then we have this morning’s passage, which is known as the Great Judgment.
It is a vision of the end of the age. The Son of Man comes in glory with his angels, and he separates people like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats.
Now right away, we have to ask, what is the deal with the anti-goat sentiment? What’s so bad about goats? Why are they the bad guys?
I have no idea but I have heard of cultures in which goats are so important that this passage is translated differently, to where the goats are the chosen group and sheep or some other livestock are on the outs. What we might take note of, however, is that with the species of goats and sheep raised at that time in the Middle East, the casual observer could not necessarily tell just to look at them which were sheep and which were goats. You couldn’t tell which was which.
That is the situation at this Final Judgment. You cannot tell who is who. Even the so-called sheep and goats don’t know. The group they wind up in is a surprise to them.
I remember a story about Charlie Chaplin once coming in fourth place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. Here, nobody really knows who are the sheep and who are the goats – not even members of the flock. Or herd.
These two groups, these two indistinguishable groups who are mixed together, are separated based on one question. One final question. This is where we get to that problem of so much. In a faith filled with so much teaching, so many emphases, so many examples in scripture, what is this one question?
Now, I have to say, there are a lot of questions out there that church people will use to separate and divide. Lots of issues that are seen as the most important one. Churches divide over these questions. In the Nicene Creed, the question is whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. Sounds like an arcane, extremely technical theological point, but it split the church east and west in the year 1054. It’s been almost a thousand years and the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches have been split ever since.
What is the final question? What is this great question that will separate the flock? Does it have to do with the way we worship? With the amount of water used in baptism? Or whether you immerse one time or three times, for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Does it have to do with our posture and the frequency of our prayer? Does it have to do with our ordination process or educational requirements for the ministry? Or the way we support missionaries? Or is it about a theological checklist? Does it have to do with the nature of salvation?
The question might have been about the way that we understand and experience grace and forgiveness and justification, or about our understanding of atonement and Jesus’ sacrificial death, or of heaven and hell. But that was not the question.
These are all important questions. And all of these issues have certainly split churches, divided Christians like sheep and goats - or dogs and cats, or rabbits and squirrels, or whatever wildlife metaphor you might want to use.
This final question is a surprise, really, because there are a lot of Christians today who have one big question, and this question is definitely not it. The United Methodists had a big blow-up meeting in St. Louis a few weeks ago, and this was not the question they were wrestling with. The Westboro Baptist Church has announced that they will protest at Ames High and ISU in the morning, and this is not the question that concerns them.
Are you ready? Here is the Final Question: How do you treat people in need? That’s it. How do you respond to human need?
Now, finals are coming up in a few weeks. Did you guys know that? Consider this a public service announcement. Finals are coming up. If students knew that there was only one question on the final, and they were actually told in advance what that question was, it stands to reason that they would make sure they got that question right.
Well, we have that chance. How do you respond to people in need?
This is not a trick question. And it is not just an extra credit question added to the test. In this vision of the Great Judgment, this is the entire test.
The question really is surprising. It’s not a theology test. But at the same time, it has a great deal to do with Jesus.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This is Jesus’ last extended teaching to his disciples before his betrayal and arrest and trial and execution. And what happened after this? In the garden, he said, “I am sick with grief.” He was arrested - a prisoner. He was stripped – he was naked. He was in the company of strangers. On the cross he said, “I am thirsty.”
This was not just an abstract, theoretical exercise. Jesus really did suffer these things. And when we respond to suffering around us, we are serving Christ.
“I was alone. I had nobody in the world. My husband had died. My kids lived on the east coast. Did you reach out?”
“I was in prison, cut off from society for my misdeeds. I was a criminal, but still a human being. Did you visit?”
“I was hungry, living in a society where an enormous amount of food is just thrown away. Did you offer me anything to eat?”
“I lacked clothing, waiting for styles to change and hoping for an old coat. Did you give me anything to wear?”
“I was a stranger, new in town, new at school, new in the neighborhood, new at church. Did you introduce yourself and welcome me?”
It’s interesting – the sheep – the ones who served the least of these – did not do it to score points with God. They didn’t know God was watching and they didn’t know that to serve those in need was to serve Christ. They just did what they did because that was who they were. They were people who cared.
There was a story on the news this week about some middle school kids who went to a skate park in New Jersey. There was a mom with her 5 year old son at the park. It was her son’s birthday. Her son has autism, and he normally doesn’t like a big group of people and a lot of noise, and when this group of kids showed up, she thought they would leave. But she was stunned when one of the middle school students, a kid named Gavin, went up to her son and started talking to him. And they hit it off. And the other kids joined in. They helped him, they played with him, and when they learned it was his birthday, they all sang happy birthday to him.
This boy had a great birthday, and the kids have continued to meet him at the skate park and hang out with him. I think they were actually doing what Jesus was talking about.
Hundreds of years ago, the Church made a list of the Seven Deadly Sins – sins that gave rise to other sins and could just destroy a person. Among these were sloth, or acedia. It basically means, “I don’t care.”
When you see human need – do you care? Do you do something about it? That is the Final Question. And now that we know what is on the test, we can act accordingly. Amen.