November 26, 2017

Series: November 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Matthew 25:31-46

31“When the Son of Humanity comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40And 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.’ 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.’

44Then 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?’

45Then 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.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


          Charles Mully was a street kid in Kenya for 10 years, beginning at age six when he was abandoned by his family. Six years old, consider that, the age of the children who come forward for children’s time here at church, all on his own. In desperation, after attending a church service and being told all was possible with God, the still young Mully knocked on the door of a house that looked as though it belonged to a well-to-do family. An Indian woman opened the door. It turned out her family owned a large farm. This immigrant family took Mully in and gave him work—that will preach in and of itself. First he cleaned and worked around the house and then he was given a job in the fields. Six months later, he was promoted to a manager. Mully married a woman he met in the fields, they started a family, and he proceeded to launch business venture after business venture of his own until he was a millionaire several times over. It’s one of these stories you simply have to see to believe, and is featured in the documentary, “Mully” All of it was made possible because when a woman opened the door, she saw something in the face of this stranger.

          In today’s gospel reading, Jesus offered the following teaching, “When the son of humanity comes in his glory…All the people will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” (Mt. 25:31). The separation is based on who fed, gave drink to, welcomed in as a stranger, clothed, nursed, and visited in prison those who were in need. Those on each side express puzzle, asking, “When did we do this to you,” or “not do this to you,” the response comes, and you know it by now, “just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (v. 40).

          Those who did are rewarded and those who did not are punished. Now interestingly, this passage is often deemed harsh, with Jesus depicted as vengeful, unforgiving. How one experiences this teaching, of course, depends a lot on perspective. To the hungry who were not fed by those who had plenty, to the thirsty who were denied drink by those who could have provided it, to the naked, the sick, the foreigner, the imprisoned (likely unjustly) who were abandoned, the accountability promised by Jesus’ teaching probably feels a lot like justice. Justice, on one level, is about accountability, and accountability at its core is about love.

First, accountability is about love for the victim, those who have been mistreated, and Jesus’ words of divine solidarity here should be of comfort to them. Wouldn’t we want those who have harmed us to be held accountable? With all these revelations about sexual harassment, and there are more every day, isn’t one way we love victims and try to prevent more people from being victimized to hold people accountable for their actions, and hold all of us as a society accountable for the things we do to create the conditions for such behavior? Accountability takes us beyond mere gestures of sympathy into meaningful change.

Accountability is also love for those who do wrong, or avoid doing right. Yes, we tell our children, God loves you just as you are, and yet doesn’t God love us into better versions of ourselves? This is how we love our children not by giving them permission to stay as they are but by helping them grow up. One way we help them grow up is by holding them accountable for their actions. I don’t know how many of you participated in sports growing up, or drama or any group activity, but if you did you know that being corrected by a coach or director, even sternly, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s not fun, but it’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is when the coach stops correcting you, stops noticing you altogether. That’s when you know, consciously or subconsciously, that he or she has given up on you, having decided the potential is elsewhere. Jesus wants us to recognize the potential right before us in the people we encounter, so much so that he likens it to seeing his own face, the very face of Christ.

Here, our Jesus reflects a theme that we can find across a number of the great religious traditions. In response to Buddhist participation in violence against Muslims in Burma/Myanmar, ethnic cleansing, The Dalai Lama has called for his followers to see the face of the Buddha in those they would harm. Doing violence to them and you are doing violence to him. Sound familiar? In Islam, the Holy Quran contains this wonderful phrase, “wherever you might turn, there is the face of God,” (Verse 2:115), wherever you turn. The face of God in the other, from Genesis to Jesus, it’s deep in our tradition, and across our traditions.

When such things are mentioned, people rush to point out where a particular religion has failed. They have all failed, and Christianity among them, each rationalizing why “in this case,” violence toward the other is acceptable or “in that instance” the wellbeing of the other who could be helped is someone else’s problem. That, however, is tantamount to denying the image of God in anyone but one’s “own people.” Note, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t require extraordinary measures. He’s asking for basic care for all beings, universal, not earned nor worked for, given out of recognition of the divine image imprinted indelibly on all.

The “all” is worth exploring because Jesus’ teaching actually does appear to be assigning different standards to different groups of people. There’s a phrase often left out when we repeat this common refrain, “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” (Mt. 25:40). Remember a few weeks ago, we discussed that the phrases “little ones” and “least of these,” specifically refer to the early followers of Jesus. They are not a simple synonym for the poor or most vulnerable, though many preachers (including this one) get mileage out of employing them as such. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of places in the Bible which urge for care of the poor and vulnerable; there’s just more at work here.

There is a subtlety that may have an even stronger message for us. Jesus is addressing those who aren’t his followers, who aren’t Jews, at least so argues New Testament Scholar Daniel Harrington. Verse 32 reads in your Bibles, “All the nations will be gathered…” but as Harrington points out the Greek ἔθνη can be translated “nations,” or “peoples,” and it can also mean “Gentiles,” non-Jews, and elsewhere is specifically used to those nations other than Israel.[1] The implication is that God will hold those outside Jesus’ community accountable for how they treat Jesus’ people, the Jews. Harrington asks, rhetorically, how much more, then, will be expected of Jesus’ people, of his followers.[2] In other words, we who have committed our lives to following Jesus, who benefit from his teachings and claim his presence still, we give ourselves over to be held to an even higher standard.

We can understand that higher standard to be a burden, or we can receive it as a gift. Watch what happens when we embrace this commitment. I didn’t finish the story of Charles Mully. Once Mully made it with his transportation company, and was rich from investments in oil and gas, something happened. Visiting a dangerous part of the city, his car was stolen by street kids he refused to pay to protect it. When returning home, he got in another one of his cars and just drove, for four hours he drove until the tears came. They came and came, and that’s when it came to him that he would never again work for money.

You can imagine the look on his family members’ faces when he told them, they who had become accustomed to a certain way of life, they who didn’t sign up for his transformation, and as the film unfolds, they who paid a significant price for what Charles Mully did next. He started to close his businesses, and he began walking into the slums at night. Young people were everywhere, sniffing glue, getting alcohol off alcohol, high from using drugs. He would look among them for a young child sleeping alone, under some scrap. Approaching them he would whisper and reach out his arms. As they came to him, as young or younger than when he was abandoned, he carried them home, to his home.

I mentioned the toll on his family. While Mully went out and got the children, his wife had to care for them, his children make room for them, give up a lot of their things. Eventually, Mully’s own children had to be sent away to boarding school. It was total chaos at the beginning and for some time, but over time they found their way, eventually building a compound by hand in the desert. They needed the space to be able to house the children, and also providing them schooling and job and life skills training. The only problem was it was it was a compound in the desert. There was no water. They drove for 4 hours each day to get water, and by now there were dozens and dozens of children. You can imagine the strain. Money and food started to run out. Then, just it was gone, an answered prayer showed up in the form of an unexpected truck filled with foodstuffs just showed up, with enough donations to last them a long while.

The praying continued, this time for water. Mully was given a word from God in a dream where they were to dig for water, even though they were told there would be no water there. They dug and dug, the older kids from the school. For days, nothing. No water for days, and then, with a strike of a shovel, the water came like a fountain. From that well flowed water for them and for the nearby Maasai children who needed it. From that well came a garden, and then a greenhouse, and then a tree planting project that literally changed the local climate. Soon acres of green emerged, and rows of greenhouses produced enough food to sell on the European markets. Mully made peace with his children, all of whom now serve the organization, Mully Children’s Family. To date, they have rescued thousands upon thousands of children.

And it started with an immigrant woman seeing something in this strangers face, and this stranger growing up to see something in the faces of others, something of the face of God. Here, I am not only speaking of the faces of those desperate little children. It’s easy for us to see God in their eyes. What made Mully different was seeing the face of God in thieves, those who stole from him, who others would call, “thugs.” In their faces, Mully saw something of Christ, he saw something of himself, and in doing so he recognized the potential right before him.

Just as you did it to the least of these who are of my family, you did it to me. Amen.

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1991), 356.

[2] Ibid., 360.