Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gospel Non-Sense

Preached at the ordination of Abby Mohaupt at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, California.

Matthew 25:31-46
November 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto

Matthew 25:31-46
 "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.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.'  Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'  Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


Years ago, a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Jesus on it. On the magnet were the words: Jesus is coming. Look busy. My friend gave me this magnet as a kind of elbow-to-the-ribs joking reminder of our shared history in the world of dispensationalists. If you are a good Presbyterian, living here in the rarified air of Palo Alto, you may not have been exposed to this kind of thinking, but believe me, it is widespread.

The short definition of dispensationalism is that it is a belief in “the rapture,” the second coming of Jesus that will take believing Christians away. This rapture will be followed by a time of terrible tribulation, war and pestilence for those who have been – are you ready? – LEFT BEHIND!  Jesus is coming back. And he is pissed. (Abby said I could say that here.)

That’s what I learned as a child, growing up in Dodge City, Kansas. Jesus is coming back to catch us up into the sky, and he will sneak up on us like a thief, when we are busy doing something rotten, like dropping ants into an ant-lion’s hole, or leaving our Bible on the floor, or sassing our teacher, or cheating on our income taxes, or drinking, smoking, dancing or watching a movie, and the trumpet will sound and we will be caught up into the air in the twinkling of an eye. If we aren’t left behind. To suffer. Yes, Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me…

You can imagine what it must have been like for me as a child to come home to our normally noisy house – I have five siblings -- in which there was always someone practicing the cello or piano or trumpet, always someone arguing or reading out loud or shouting from upstairs, always someone looking for a lost shoe or yelling at some kid to get their coat on and get out the door, for Pete’s sake, we are late for your dentist appointment. If that is what home sounds like, to enter an empty, quiet house can only mean one thing: the rapture. And there I was, left behind.

Either way, stay or go, the next big event will be the tribulation, followed by the great white throne judgment. We will all be gathered up to stand in front of this great big white throne, and I suppose the ones who got raptured will be there in special party outfits, while those of us who didn’t memorize our Bible verses like we were told will be in sackcloth pants and itchy hair shirts. And then, Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. The righteous will go to heaven, and the unrighteous will go to hell.

That is, if you are saved by grace through faith, born again, you will go to be with Jesus. In heaven. If you are not, you won’t. You will go to hell, directly to hell. End of story… It has sent many a fundamentalist child running to the PC(USA).

There was a serious problem with dispensationalist logic  – if you can call it that – and it comes right from the Bible. From the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter, verses 31-46.
It’s a problem for Presbyterians, too. Because, let’s face it, this prophetic event Jesus describes doesn’t square with most of what we understand him to have said. It certainly doesn’t square with our Reformed understanding of God’s grace. Nor does it square with our understanding from the Hebrew scriptures that God is sovereign, God is merciful,
and that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Nor does it square with the rest of New Testament, especially Paul’s writings. It is right there in Ephesians 2: 8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Jesus pulls the rug out from under our theology in this text. He’s come into Jerusalem.
It’s the last week of his life on earth. He has been busy, the way Matthew depicts him, busy with apocalyptic parables – the fig tree, the talents, the bridesmaids, all of them aimed at letting us know that God’s reign is near at hand, but the day of Christ’s coming is unknown – unpredictable – unmanageable. You won’t see it coming. But when it does, you had better be ready. Because you will have to give an accounting of yourself. To Jesus. And it is not going to be pretty.

Because the people who thought they had it knocked, those of us who thought we were righteous, the ones who had already packed their carry-ons, gone through security and were waiting at the gate? Unh-unh. They were surprised, in the scene Jesus imagined.

Wait a minute, Jesus! Is this some kind of trick? We never saw you like that – we just don’t think of you that way. Sure, we saw the kid at the bus station, looking scared, asking for change. But he certainly didn’t look like you. And we saw the people lined up at the food pantry, and that young woman who uses her Cal-Fresh card at the market. But we didn’t see you. Never heard about you being in the hospital, or in prison either. Sure, we heard the cries for help, but we questioned their authenticity.

But look here, Jesus – maybe we didn’t recognize you, but you know us! We are nice people. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. We give to the United Way, and we buy Girl Scout cookies. We had our children baptized, and we brought them to church any Sunday that they weren’t busy at a soccer tournament or SAT prep. Jesus, surely you recognize us?

But Matthew’s Jesus has said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,'  will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” Jesus doesn’t seem to recognize the ones whose faith is only in words. They are the goats.

And the sheep? The people who were just living ethical lives, unaware that they were doing God’s will? The people just feeding the hungry and clothing the naked unaware that they were feeding and clothing Jesus himself? Jesus flings open the gates to paradise for them, rolls out the welcome mat, and they are just as baffled as the goats. This is just gospel non-sense.

This story will not fit our logical understanding of how God operates. We understand ourselves to be people who have responded to God’s grace by offering ourselves in ministry – ministry to the least of these. We know that our good works are a product, not a cause, of God’s grace. It seems like a nonsensical reversal, this story – an eschatological prophecy that is not even a parable, really -- more like a simile. It is imaginative language, rather than descriptive. Surely Jesus really didn’t mean it like that. But while it is not meant to be taken literally, it certainly needs to be taken seriously.

This story is a prophecy -- cosmological, political, and symbolic. It is cosmological in that it will not submit itself to simplistic thinking. Because God’s salvation story is bigger than a mathematical equation -- of grace plus repentance plus good works equals eternal life. Trying to reduce it to that is like claiming that knowledge of all the building blocks of life makes us able to create that life. We can map the human genome, but we don’t know what makes the wood frog, frozen solid, come back to life and mate in the spring. Every spring.[1]

This story is political, as well. It is political in the way that many otherwise kindhearted people do not like. There is no means testing, in this story. There are merely people: hungry, thirsty, strangers – naked, sick, and in prison. There is simply the preferential option for the poor, without regard to whether or not they are deserving. We don’t even know whether those people said thank you after they ate,  whether they straightened up when they were paroled, or whether they went and found work when they got well.


When I hear this story, I’m reminded of my dad, who grew up poor, one of nine children of an abusive alcoholic father. Dad and his brothers and sisters had nothing when they were children – if they earned a little money, their father would take it. If their mother managed to get some dishes, their father would break them in a drunken rage. They scrounged up the parts to put together a bicycle, and their father ran over it. When the little kids began to cry, he backed up and ran over it again.

My dad was a sucker for kids who were disadvantaged. He’d take Christmas gifts to them, give their dads jobs, help them out with gym shoes and car repairs and school activity fees.
One time, my brothers, both attorneys like my dad, got worried about a young man dad was helping. They were afraid he’d go out to my parents’ secluded country place looking for a handout, and that he’d harm my mother or father. Dad scoffed at their concerns, so my brothers took a different tack. “Dad!” they said. “He is just going to take advantage of your generosity.” Dad laughed and said, “Well of course he is!”And that was the end of the conversation.

This care for the poor, whom Jesus loves, the least of his brothers and sisters, is a requirement of Christian life. I think it may be safe to say it is THE requirement of Christian life. Making sure that hungry people have food and the captives are freed is justified not by the promise of eternal reward but also by the fact that generosity and kindness are rewarding in and of themselves.

Finally this story is symbolic, not in a one-to-one allegorical way, but in a larger and more existential sense. These sheep, deemed righteous by their kindness to Jesus, whom they did not recognize, were clearly not acting out of any explicit faith commitment. They were not giving a cup of cold water to a disciple in Jesus’ name. They were simply giving a cup of cold water. They did not hold a Thanksgiving dinner at the church in Jesus name. They just fed hungry people. They were not arguing propositional truths or adopting creeds. They just sat with the sick, and visited prisoners. They demonstrated, by their actions, the Son of Man, the human one, could be found outside the walls of the church as well as inside.

And just as Matthew warned that no one can know the hour or the time when Jesus will come again, none of us can schedule the moment when we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus’ brothers and sisters. But here’s the thing: we may not be able to see Jesus – we may only see human beings, in need. They may not be people we know, or like, or want to hang around with. They may not meet any of our criteria of eligibility.

But our care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned is necessary, because Jesus said we should. Here’s what he said: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two are inseparable.

In a short while, we are going to gather together as the church to ordain Abby Mohaupt, our sister in Christ, to the office of teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA. It was Abby who selected this text, and I’m persuaded that she didn’t choose it simply in order to occupy my time. In fact, I’m convinced that she chose it because it goes to the heart of the gospel, the non-sense and illogic of grace.

We are going to ask Abby if she will be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people. We will ask her, on behalf of the whole church of Jesus Christ, “in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”

Because our call to follow Jesus is grounded in more than intellectual assent. Our ministry is more than sincerely receiving and adopting the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. After the receiving and adopting and believing, we act. And sometimes, we act before the receiving and adopting and believing. In fact, that scripture I quoted earlier, about being saved by grace, through faith – there’s more to it.

Here’s Ephesians 2: 8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. And here’s the next verse, verse ten: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Our way of life – feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting, caring. Because Jesus said we should.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these  who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Amen.

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