Steeple at St. Sebald Lutheran Church, rural Strawberry Point, Iowa
This is a sermon that I gave on November 23, 2008 at Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa. The scripture basis for this is Matthew 25:31-46, Ezekiel 34:11-24, and Ephesians 1:15-23.
The following is a brief meditation based on writings by Claudia Burney:
"Jesus' family lives next door. He’s got an eight-year-old niece and her three-year-old brother. The Son of Man is the uncle of those starving Ethiopian children. They only gets breakfast and lunch at school, when they make it. His sister is a crack addict. His aunts are illegal immigrants, and the processing plant is closing. Poor King of Kings.
Jesus' brother is two houses down and has six children. and his sister-in-law’s pregnant with the seventh. I don’t know if they haven’t figured out what birth control is, or what, but how can his brother feed all those babies on that salary? That means hardworking taxpayers’ money has to go for the Christ’s family food stamps! It's not the right thing to do...
The child of the Lord is a crazy man-paranoid schizophrenic. If he doesn’t take his medication, he walks up and down the street, cussing and spitting on everybody he passes. He’s homeless. Digs out of the trash cans for food. Somebody ought to get him off the street. Jesus' son is nothing but a nuisance. I’m starting to see the family of the Son of God everywhere I go. They're always crying or begging or looking pitiful. Why don’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps? This is America! Makes me mad. They're ruining our neighborhood and taking our jobs! Somebody ought to do something about them. Somebody ought to. Somebody...."
Perhaps Jesus lives right next door to you or down the road a few miles.
He may even be in your own home.
The question I’d like us to ponder this morning is “What are we going to do about Jesus?”
What are we going to do about the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the shivering, the sick, the imprisoned?
What are we going to do about Jesus?
Maybe we ought to start with, “What are we gonna do about these teachings of Jesus?”
Let’s consider Jesus’ parables that we've been hearing for the past few months.
A few chapters back in the Gospel of Matthew, in Matthew 13 Jesus tells the story of a field with some good crops and some weeds.
Since Jesus was speaking to people who understood at least the basics of farming, when Jesus got to the part about the weeds, the natural reaction of the crowd had to be, “Pull ‘em up! Plant good crops in their place.”
But Jesus has the landowner in the story leave the weeds in place.
Later on, in Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells an equally undermining story.
The owner hires some workers to work in the vineyard in the early morning.
Around nine o’clock some other guys show up and start working alongside them.
The same happens at noon and three- o’clock.
And they all get paid the same amount.
These and other parables of Jesus inform us that the Kingdom of God looks a lot different from the kingdom of the world we live in.
Let’s face it.
In our culture, we have an understanding of a kingdom which is deeply embedded in return on investment.
And this worldly culture-type of thinking sometimes enters our churches.
Church-growth consulting firms often provide charts and statistics showing where and how much investment will be required to “grow” a congregation.
But does this type of model, resonate with the model that Jesus Christ puts forth?
Is it what Jesus would do?
“Of course!” some of us might exclaim, as we move logically down the line in Matthew’s parables.
“What about the parable of the talents?
Didn’t Jesus talk about using our resources well?”
To that, the answer my friends is a big resounding “Yes!”
But what does that mean in God’s Kingdom?
Does it mean building fancy buildings and having the most state-of-the-art equipment in order to stay in the race with the world?
Or does it mean something more?
One thing we can see for sure as we look at Jesus’ parables is that God is already at work.
This is what the parable of the vineyard presupposes.
We don’t create the vineyard; we join as workers.
Whether you’re coming in at six in the morning or nine or noon or three in the afternoon, the harvest is huge.
And the Return on Investment may not work the same as the return on our 401(k).
This is why Matthew 25 is so important as we try and answer the question: “What are we going to do about Jesus?”
Why did Matthew follow the parable of the talents with the parable of the sheep and goats, anyway?
Perhaps the answer is this: The Return on Investment for properly using the resources we have been given is determined by our ability to use those resources among “the least of these.”
Maybe the Return on Investment in the Kingdom of God has to do with how much love, empathy, money, time, and talents we use in investing in people—which is the same as investing in Jesus, is it not?
What a different model on Church Growth.
If our return on investment is determined by how much we invest in others how would this change how we use our time, talents and money?
For one thing, we may not be so careless with what we have.
If we were to see our stuff—our money, our time, our families, everything we have—as being given to us to use in the work of God’s Kingdom, we might be more careful with what we buy and how we use what we purchase.
We might also use a different measuring stick to define success.
How do we define God’s blessing on the church today?
More people, bigger buildings, better programs?
Those are ways that we can measure growth.
Certainly we want more people.
But is that all there is to it?
I've heard it said that, “Grace is a vibrant and growing congregation.”
We are growing as a congregation here at Church of the Saviour.
But we do have a long way to go.
It would be awesome to have this building packed out every Sunday morning and all through the week, but what if God is measuring our success by completely different qualifications?
What if success in God’s Kingdom is more people being fed, less discrimination against other human beings, people growing more and more in love for God and neighbor, less hate, taking care of the lonely or lost neighbor next door, ministering to people living with terminal illnesses, helping out at the local food bank, giving what we can of our income to Church or going way above and sending some money to Episcopal Relief and Development for projects around the world.
What if success in God’s Kingdom is more about those things and less about us.
In Romans, Paul urges us—due to God’s mercy—to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
That means we give all that we are and all that we have to God.
That is success.
That is the goal.
That is the measuring stick.
“What do we do about Jesus?”
We give Jesus everything.
And we do this through loving other people with Christ’s unconditional love—no matter whether they are rich, poor, straight, gay, black, white, illegal immigrants, US citizens, male, female…you name it.
And we love them, not only by what we say to them or about them—but by what we do for them.
In our Epistle Lesson from Paul's letter to the Church at Ephesus. Paul says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you.”
So, if we have faith and love towards all the saints. And by saints that means all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then we are doing what God wishes us to do.
This is the measuring stick of success.
Love towards others means that we do things that we wouldn't do otherwise.
Suppose you see a brother or a sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
You see, faith by itself isn’t enough.
Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”
Is your faith alive or is it dead and useless?
God measures our success by completely different qualifications than that of the world.
Are more people being fed, are less people dying of AIDS, and are families being restored?
This is a very different understanding of what we should expect to receive from investing in God’s Kingdom.
It’s not a selfish thing—it’s about everyone.
What a reason to invest.
The main point of the parable of the weeds that I mentioned earlier is this: “Who knows where God may be at work?”
And the best way to answer that question may be this: “God is at work when people act like Jesus.”
And we act like Jesus when we are bringing “good news to the poor,” proclaiming “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” and are helping to “let the oppressed go free”.
We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a lost and dying world.
Jesus invested in people—so should we!!!
In Ezekiel, it says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” How do we do this? I believe we do this when we...
Love with mercy.
These are actions.
Do these actions define you and I—do they define the Church of the Saviour?
And you and I—we are the Church of the Saviour—whether we are in here worshiping, studying the Bible, or out in the world working with others one on one at work, at school, in the community, at our neighbor’s house, in our own home.
Our faith and our actions cannot become two separate expressions of our commitment to God.
We can’t have one without the other.
We’ve all heard stories of leaders in the church who seem upstanding on Sundays but go home and are anything but upstanding.
Or what about those who praise God in church only to cheat customers and abuse employees in the workplace?
In this morning’s parable of the Sheep and Goats there are consequences for not caring for those at the margins.
What we do about Jesus has everything to do with how we treat those in need.
Did you give a cup of cold water, a hot meal, clothing, a place to stay, a bit of your time to sit and listen to those who couldn’t possibly return the favor?
The answer to the question of: “What do we do about Jesus” begins with the person sitting next to you, behind you or in front of you…
…it begins with the people who live next door to us or down the street.
It begins with those who live in our own home, and it expands outward.
“Master, what are you talking about?
When did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink?
And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’”
May it be so!