Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, "Face to Face" (non-lectionary)

Sermon 2/20/11
Matthew 25:31-45

Face to Face


            We’re in a span of time right now that is the season after the Epiphany. It’s this time between Epiphany Sunday and Transfiguration Sunday and the beginning of Lent that isn’t really anything in particular, liturgically speaking. And it is a time that is shorter or longer each year, because it depends on the date of Easter, which then determines when Lent begins. So sometimes this non-season is as short as three weeks, and sometimes, it is as long as eight week before Transfiguration Sunday, like this year. Lucky for you, that gives me just enough time to spend a week on each one of my goals for the coming year for ministry in our congregation.
Last week, you remember, we talked about evangelism and being welcoming. You remember the challenge I gave you? Gave us? Our challenge in the year ahead, besides being God’s welcome wherever we are, is to invite someone, bring someone to worship with you this year and to see if you can help them become a part of this congregation.
This week, I want to talk to you about mission. That a church should be in mission seems pretty much a no-brainer. Who’s going to argue with that, right? And I’ve mentioned many times before that church studies show that churches that are outward-focused, focused on serving others, churches that continue to focus on others even when times are difficult – those churches are actually healthier and stronger than churches that turn inward in times of crisis.
We have a lot of mission happening in our church. To name a few: We collect food items for PEACE of East Syracuse and for food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have monthly collections for things like personal items, hats and gloves, school supplies, and so on. Once a month, we make sandwiches for the Samaritan Center. We host the East Syracuse Meals on Wheels program, which not only provides meals for some of our own members, but also can count many of our members in its volunteers. We volunteers in the Mailroom at the Syracuse Rescue Mission once a month, and regularly serve meals at the soup kitchen. We have a team of people who leads a worship service at The Crossings Nursing Home once a month. We have a huge group every year that participates in the CROP Walk to stop hunger, either by walking, or being part of the organizing team, or by sponsoring walkers. We ring the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas time. We carol to our homebound members and to an adult home here in East Syracuse. Our Sunday School students have put together boxes of toys for Operation Christmas Child, and they’ve raised funds for Heifer International to provide people with animals that help them make a living. We collected health kits and money for Haiti relief after the devastating earthquake last year. We host speakers to share with us important work that we support through our church – prison ministry, Matthew 25 Farm, here to share today, to name just a couple. And we have more ideas in store for the future. All these things I have listed are ways that we are in mission, and I know I have left things off the list, just skimmed the surface.
But, this year, I want even more. I want even more from us as a congregation, as individuals. One of my goals this year is for us to be a hands-on mission congregation. I am so proud of all the ways that we serve others. God calls us to go ever deeper in our discipleship. And so I want us to think about ways to be hands-on about our mission. All the other pieces that contribute to our total mission program are essential – we need to collect items and give money to support missions and help in behind-the-scenes ways. But I want us to particularly think about the hands-on aspect of mission. But maybe saying hands-on mission doesn’t help to get to the heart of what I’m driving it. What I want us to be about is perhaps more than hands-on – I want us to be involved in face-to-face mission.
What do we do when the demands of the gospel and the call for justice – what do we do when the needs of others are right there – when those who stand in need are right there, when it is all right there in our face? Face-to-face is what it is all about for Jesus. Think of the parable we just heard from Matthew’s gospel – the parable of the sheep and the goats. This parable is the last parable recorded in the gospel of Matthew, and it is the last thing Jesus teaches about before the passion – before the Passover, last supper, trial, and crucifixion. When the Son of Man comes, Jesus says, using a phrase to describe himself, the nations will be gathered before him, and the people will be separated like a shepherd would separate sheep and goats in a flock. The sheep, put at the Son of Man’s right hand, will hear words of blessing, and be invited into the kingdom. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and your 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.” The righteous or ‘just’ ones are confused – “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they wonder? They don’t remember ever encountering Jesus. But Jesus says, “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.” This scene repeats in opposites with those who are like the goats. Jesus calls them accursed, unable to enter the kingdom, because they saw Jesus in need and did not respond. Likewise, the goats ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you . . . and did not take care of you?” Jesus responds in kind, “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.”
            In this passage, the crux, the key, seems to be in that everyone expects that they would have had a chance to show their good or bad behavior to Jesus directly. They don’t ever remember meeting Jesus. But you get a sense that all of them, sheep and goats alike, would have tried to do kind things for Jesus if they’d met him face to face. We mess up a lot of the time, but we could at least treat Jesus himself kindly, right? But the sheep and the goats don’t realize that they’ve been seeing Jesus all along – in the people they meet, in the people they serve, or the people they’ve looked over. That Christ is within us, lives in each person, is key for us understanding this parable. 
            Whether a person is counted as a sheep or a goat in this passage hinges on how they treat others. That seems fairly simple. We all want to treat others kindly. But Jesus gets at something more than that. Being a sheep or goat hinges not simply on how you treat others who happen across your path, but on how important it is to you to make sure your path crosses with others who need you to treat them well! Just like we talked about with welcome last week, when we thought about how Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him, but went to where others were, when we thought about how we can’t wait for others to show up at worship, but have to go where people are and invite them to know God, so it is in this passage, this lesson. This passage is about being intentional – Jesus seems to focus us on not just being nice or kind to those who come into our lives, but purposely coming into the lives of those who need us, the “least of these,” who Jesus calls members of his family. In other words, whether you are a sheep or a goat depends on your relationships – how you relate to others, who you relate to, why you relate to them. This parable is about relationships with those who are the least of these. 
Nothing is riskier for us than relationships. Think over all the relationships that make up your life and your world. With our friends, family, loved ones, our relationships are usually some of the most valued things in our lives. But they’re also probably the source of some of the deepest pains we’ve known in our lives. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to be in a relationship. We have to open ourselves, to share ourselves. In any relationship, between friends, spouses, siblings, parents and children – we have to know that the person can bring us great joy, and great pain. And we have to risk that it’s worth it.
But the trouble is, because relationships are so risky, while we certainly do nurture relationships with close friends, family, we often play it pretty safe. We don’t open ourselves up to too many people. And we tend to form relationships with those who are like us, share a way of life with us. We tend to limit how much we interact with people who fall outside of our close circle of friends and family – at least how much we interact in meaningful ways, ways that go beyond the surface, ways that are more than exchanges of a “How are you? Fine, thanks” conversation. If relationships are risky, we tend to be pretty careful at limiting our risk to relationships we think are really worth our time and effort. Relationships are risky. But we’re very good at limiting our risk to only those most crucial relationships.
And then, into our carefully sheltered lives, breaks the word of God, and the example of Jesus, who was all about face-to-face relationships. Throughout his ministry, one of the things Jesus was most criticized for was who he spent his time with. The Pharisees challenged Jesus over and over for sharing meals, going into homes, healing those who were unclean, who were considered unfit for society. Jesus spent time – real time – with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, people everyone else hated. And though Jesus certainly had those who were close to him – the twelve – he also had other disciples – at least seventy who he commissioned for ministry, plus women who he made part of his ministry, plus children that were cared for, plus the crowds that followed him everywhere. He even spent time with the very Pharisees who so criticized him. When it came to relationships, Jesus was always taking risks, always making it face-to-face, always opening himself a little bit more, always willing to make himself vulnerable.
And so naturally, Jesus seems to expect the same of us. When we turn back to this parable of sheep and goats, we find that Jesus expects us to be face-to-face with him through being face-to-face with others. He expects that when we encounter others, we’ll see his face in them, and because of that, we’ll be ready to risk – ready to open ourselves up and make relationships.
My challenge for you today is that in the coming year you and I find at least one mission to be part of where we are spending time with the people we serve. If you’re already doing this – that’s great. But you’re still not off the hook. Find more way, or a way to take your involvement to the next level. Find a way to serve that puts you face-to-face with those you are serving. Find a way that brings you into relationship as you serve. Jesus is clear in this parable. We’re blessed when we feed, and clothe, and visit, and comfort. We’re blessed when we make relationships. When we risk. When we come truly face-to-face with the least of these, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen. 
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