Removing Roadblocks #3: From Separation to Community

October 4, 2020

Series: October 2020

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Today's Scripture

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.’”

Today's Sermon

Removing Roadblocks #3: From Separation to Community

We are in the middle of a sermon series called “Removing Roadblocks,” where we take a look at troubling scripture passages that may be impediments to our lives of faith.  So, you may be wondering, why this passage?  There is nothing very troubling about this.  Of course we are called to serve others, and to care for the least of these.  Those of us who grew up in the church have been taught about that since we were children!  In fact, one of our recent Sunday School lessons focused on this very scripture passage, as we talked about the importance of living with compassion for others.

The scripture passage we read in our Sunday School curriculum, however, stopped right where we have stopped today.  When we hear this particular passage, we often focus on only this much of the story.  We care for Jesus when we care for the least of these.  But this is not where the passage ends.  There is more.

“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?’ 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.”

I don’t know about you, but this is definitely troubling to me.  This part of the passage is filled with such judgement!  If you haven’t done these things, you will go away into eternal punishment.  Let’s just go ahead and file this under “things we wish Jesus didn’t say.”

That being said, I actually don’t want to get too bogged down today in what Jesus might have meant by eternal punishment.  There are lots of different interpretations about that.  It is unlikely he meant “hell,” as we might think of hell today, because the scriptures in general just are not very concerned with the concepts of heaven and hell.  Some scholars say Jesus may have meant separation from God.  When we do not care for the least of these, we are separated from God and that feels like eternal punishment.  Others say a more appropriate translation from the Greek is not punishment at all, but “correction.”  When we do not serve the least of these we are called to correct our behavior.

We could spend all day considering what Jesus’ idea of eternal punishment is, but if we do, we miss the main point of this passage.  What Jesus is teaching here is the upmost importance both of serving our neighbor and of seeing Christ in our neighbor.  If we say we love God … if we say we follow Christ … then we must love our neighbor, in concrete and tangible ways.  By feeding, by visiting, by clothing.

I think the real roadblock in this passage is not the judgement or the threat of eternal punishment, but the challenge it offers to us as Christians.  Yes, many of us have heard this passage since we were children, but do we actually live it in our lives?  Do we see the face of Christ in all people?  Do we look beyond ourselves to serve and care for one another?  Because if we don’t, we are not living as God calls us to live.  In fact, we are living separated from God.  We should be troubled by this scripture passage and by how it asks us to carefully examine our own lives of faith.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry preach over Zoom.  It was such a powerful sermon.  He opened by saying that our country is currently dealing with not 1, but 3 viruses.  One is obviously COVID-19.  Another, he said, is the virus of racism.  Sadly, this is not a new virus for our country, but it has come into public consciousness in a new way in 2020.  The last virus, he explained, is the division among us as a people.  Our country is suffering from a virus of division.  He said this virus is all about selfishness, self-centeredness, the idea of “my way or the highway,” and me being the center of the universe while you are the periphery.  America has re-segregated itself, said Curry, not in terms of race but in terms of like-mindedness.  If you don’t think like me or agree with me, then I want nothing to do with you.

After laying out the issue, Curry then offered a word of hope.  He said that change can and will happen when we decide that we can do better. When we make the decision to choose God’s dream instead of the nightmare we have created. When we make the decision to become beloved community and not chaotic madness.  He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”  And, said Curry, we who call ourselves Christians must do this because we follow Jesus Christ.  Curry reminded us that Jesus has shown us the way beyond the madness and self-centeredness.  Jesus has shown us the way to live together as children created in the image and likeness of God.  Jesus has shown us the way to move beyond the chaos to living in the kingdom of God.

Jesus shows us the way in this passage from Matthew.  We do this by really, actually, living as he taught.  By seeing Christ in all people – even those with whom we disagree.  By serving all people – even those who are not like us.  

A few practical examples – 

  1. We do this by denouncing white supremacy and taking tangible steps to dismantle the system racism in our country.
  2. We do this by offering prayers of healing for our president who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, whether or not we agree with his politics and policies.
  3. We do this by caring for all who are sick; making sure everyone has access to the health care they need.
  4. Especially on this World Communion Sunday, we welcome ALL people to the table.  Everyone.  No exceptions.

This passage is challenging.  It is meant to be.  May it not be a roadblock, however, but a call to action.  “Whatever you do to the least of my people, you do to me.”