SIFTED & WEIGHED
"The gullible believe anything they’re told; the prudent sift and weigh every word."
Proverbs 14:15 MSG
Proverbs 14:15 MSG
The last and the least
THE LAST AND THE LEAST
Matthew 25: 31-46
November 26, 2017 -- Reign of Christ Sunday
Back in the 1980’s there was a TV show called “Charles in Charge” that lasted about 5 years.
It was about a college student, Charles (he was never given a last name), a student at the fictional Copeland College who was in need of a place to live while he attends classes. He finds that place with the Pembroke family where he carves out a deal for himself, serving as a sort of nanny for the three Pembroke children for which he receives free room and board.
The theme song to the show, presumably sung by one of the kids, went like this:
New boy in the neighborhood
Lives downstairs and it's understood.
He's there just to take good care of me,
Like he's one of the family.
Charles in Charge
Of our days and our nights
Charles in Charge
Of our wrongs and our rights
And I sing, I want,
I want Charles in Charge of me.
I thought it was an interesting little jingle because it tapped into what is kind of a universal longing in human beings – the longing for someone to be in charge, to just tell me what is the right thing to do.
Of course that was never how the show went. The key to good entertainment is conflict (Shakespeare taught us that, after all) so, no matter how hard he tried or what he brought to the table the kids rarely agreed with him and, as they say, hijinks ensued.
Anyway, while this need for someone to be in charge may not be the universal longing it is, in fact, a universal experience. Every once in a while, we want someone to be in charge and tell us what the right thing to do is. Only, when they do, we want to argue with them. Or we want to make excuses that they will accept when we don’t follow what they say.
It’s like the title of James Moore’s excellent little book, Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned; but I Have Several Excellent Excuses.
Today, we are going to talk about putting Jesus in charge of our lives – no exceptions no excuses.
REIGN OF CHRIST
The last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year and the Sunday before the beginning of Advent is called Reign of Christ Sunday or, sometimes, Christ the King Sunday.
It is usually the Sunday before Thanksgiving except for years when Thanksgiving falls earlier than normal on the calendar. Then Reign-of-Christ falls on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as is the case this year.
The emphasis for this particular Sunday is the reign of Christ in the lives of Christians. It is a time set aside to celebrate the fact that Jesus is the Lord of our lives, the King of all Kings, the person upon whom we pin our faith and our hope. And even in a time and culture such as ours, where words like “Lord” and “King” are not only meaningless but almost offensive, it is he whom we strive emulate in our own lives, in the decisions we make and in the way we treat others.
(Well, that’s the way it should be. We do call ourselves Christians, after all.)
So, what that means in real terms is that on this day we kind of step back and get ourselves and our lives – spiritual, physical, mental – realigned with his. We started out thus aligned, we admit that we went through a year where we kinda drifted off course, and now we take some time to get back on track, to remind ourselves that it is Jesus, not Charles, or anyone, or anything else who is in charge.
One of the things that golf teaches us is that if you are lined up even a fraction of a millimeter off line at the tee, by the time the ball travels 200 or 300 yards that fraction of a millimeter will have translated into dozens of yards of error and sending you into the rough or, as is usually the case with me, into the lake. To end up where we want to be we have to be lined up correctly at the beginning.
But what does it look like to be lined up with Jesus? What do I see when I see someone for whom Jesus really is in charge of their lives?
Fortunately, Scripture steps in to help us out on this.
SHEEP AND GOATS
In this very familiar passage which we read from Matthew’s gospel, we start with Jesus pictured as a king, sitting on the judgement seat, judging, dividing people up into categories – right and left, good and bad, sheep and goats.
Both groups, goats (bad) and sheep (good), seem confused, however. Neither the goats nor the sheep understand why the judge rated the sheep superior and the goats as disreputable. “Wait! We did what?” the sheep ask, uncertain about the times and places they had shown acts of mercy. Likewise, the goat crowd seems put out. “Uh, excuse me, Lord, when did we fail to feed you, or welcome you, or clothe you?”
The answer, of course, is the same: just as you did or did not do to the least of these, so you did to me. When it comes to judgment calls, Jesus does not mince words. The ones on his right—the sheep—are rewarded for performing basic acts of kindness to the king, while the goats are castigated to eternal fire for failing to offer even the tiniest shred of mercy.
Both groups are confused. Neither one remembers ever seeing the king hungry, thirsty, or naked. Still, Jesus the judge knows. Christ the judge remembers. While the critters can’t seem to make head or tails of their situation, the judge has the situation under advisement and is about to render an opinion.
And that opinion will be the theological heart of this week’s portion of Matthew’s vision. For Matthew, faithful discipleship is concerned not with big acts and grand gestures, but with the everyday practicalities of living in the kingdom. Those who “seek first the Kingdom of God” have such an all-encompassing view of life that they don’t have time to judge the deserving from the undeserving. Their lives are bent on offering mercy. They do it lavishly and generously and extravagantly and, yes, even wastefully.
Our closeness to Jesus, says Matthew, is not determined by our doctrines or our church attendance or the size of our offering but how close we are to the “least of these” in our midst, the least wealthy, the least attractive, the least intelligent, the least powerful. Our residence in God’s kingdom hinges on how in the brief, every day, moments of our lives, we treat those people whom the world has made small and inconsequential.
But who are the “least of these?” What do they look like? Where do we find them?
WE FIND THEM AT WALMART
Sometimes we find them at Walmart.
Holiday hustle and bustle can cause anxiety and frustration in even the well prepared and calloused shoppers, so it’s no wonder the elderly gentleman in line at the Clarksdale, Mississippi, Walmart became flustered while trying to count out the change in his pockets so he could make his purchase.
After losing count and dropping coins and starting over several times he turned to Spring Bowlin, who was standing behind him in the line and, with voice and hands shaking, tried to apologize, “I’m so sorry.”
It was right about then that the cashier, instead of getting angry or frustrated, took the man’s hands, dumped all the change on the counter and told him, “This is not a problem, honey. We will do this together.”
“I was moved by her actions,” Bowlin told TODAY. “Simple, genuine kindness is a thing of beauty…my heart was warmed at Wal-Mart during my lunch break.”
Now, this simple but sweet story has certainly warmed the hearts of many others, too — the Facebook post has over 73,000 likes and 40,000 shares.
WE FIND THEM IN THE STREETS
Sometimes we find them in the streets.
As deaths from drug overdoses reach new peaks across the United States, the opportunity to show mercy becomes a matter of public health. Government statistics show that more than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, or an average of 175 per day. The rates have been increasing for several years, leading some to estimate that within ten years, more than 650,000 Americans will have died from drug overdoses. By comparison, the city of Boston has about 617,000 residents. And it’s more than 10 times the number of Americans that were killed in the Vietnam.
In response, Team Sheep might be the volunteers helping care for addicts, the churches that offer recovery groups, the groups passing out blankets to the homeless living under bridges on cold nights, or pastors reaching out to those in treatment. In contrast, Team Goat seems to prefer enhancing the criminalization of drug use, further isolating the least powerful and least able to find help.
Team Sheep, for example, would likely have been troubled by a proposal from a city council member from Middletown, OH who suggested last summer that the city’s EMS squads might need to begin limiting how many times opioid drug users are resuscitated. Council member Daniel Picard proposed a firm two-visit limit per overdose patient, placing a hard stop against “frequent flyers” who do not enter treatment. Dispatchers will have lists of those who have been treated twice for overdose. If a name comes up on an ambulance call that’s on that list, no ambulance will be sent.
Picard’s logic is driven by the dollars associated with emergency services and cost of the overdose reversing drug Narcan. Who makes the judgment calls in these cases? It’s more than a question of semantics. It’s frequently a question answered as God’s people engage in the sort of deep reflection on what it means to offer mercy, even when we do not know to whom we are helping.
WE FIND THEM STANDING NEXT TO US
Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, the “least of these” always boils down to one thing: They are the people who have less power than we have. The are the people with less experience, the people with less knowledge, the people with lower status, lower pay, and a lower place in the pecking order than ours.
They are the people whose lack of power makes them vulnerable, easy targets, low hanging fruit for the predators of this world.
Most of us have seen this dynamic play out somewhere or at some time in our lives. Maybe on the playground or on the sports team, on the job, or in the community. And lately, we have all seen it in the tsunami of sexual misconduct and harassment cases that have been in the news.
Let us be clear, brothers and sisters, these cases are not about sexual behavior. That is just the means at hand. If violence was as acceptable these stories would be stories of violence. But most of us, the vast majority, would be horrified to see or hear of someone committing physical violence against women.
With sexual misbehavior, however, we tend to just roll our eyes and sigh. Oh, that’s just what’s his name being a jerk, we say. Or, well, he didn’t really hurt you. Or, boys will be boys.
But none of those are true, are they?
Because we know that these are men, not boys. This is not the playground, it is the workplace, the boardroom, the classroom and, sometimes, yes, the church. We know that it goes well beyond “just being a jerk.” We know that the damage done can last a long time and sometimes the scars never go away.
In every example we have seen, save one, these have been cases of powerful men abusing their power in order to degrade, demean, debase and dehumanize another human being simply because they can, because it gives them a thrill and makes them feel bigger and stronger and even more powerful.
I will not speak, here, of specific cases because, with every day new information is coming forward and new accusations are being made. Besides, as gross and disgusting as the individual cases may be, we all know, in our hearts, that it takes a village for this kind of abuse to not just happen but become a pattern of behavior as it has in so many of these cases.
The predator is allowed to prey on his victims because good people, decent people, stepped aside and cleared the path. They kept silent when they could have spoken up. They let the little things go by without comment until the little things became an avalanche. They let the weak be savaged by the strong and shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, and tsk-tsk’d to each other and did nothing.
Max Fisher and Amanda Taub put it this way in their “Interpreter” newsletter, published in the New York Times:
“These [small, seemingly inconsequential] moments, we are learning, matter. They tell men, in a thousand small ways, that they can cross little lines. They tell women that they are expected to “be cool.” They communicate that it’s solely the victim’s responsibility to speak up, that we expect the powerless to take on the powerful on their own. And then somehow, we are surprised when the little transgressions become big ones, when women feel compelled to stay silent, when men in our midst turn out to be predators who operated openly for years.
“We like to tell ourselves that as long as we aren’t perpetrators ourselves, we’re merely bystanders. But if you read the stories closely, you will see that the offenders get away with it for so long and so many times over with the help, however unwitting, of the bystanders. Of us.
“This realization is troubling and has been met with understandable resistance. We do not want to believe we might be complicit in crimes that we consider abhorrent. But the sort of sexual harassment and assault we see in the news — sustained, repeated behavior — takes a village. Our small choices matter. Unless we change them, the stories will keep coming.”
As abhorrent as these acts are to those of us who do not commit them or condone them, they must be even more so to those of us who call ourselves Christians.
The kind of sexual abuse we have seen in the news this past month is the very antithesis of what and who we are called to be. It violates every syllable of the passage in Matthew 25 that we have read this morning. It calls on us to decide who and whose we are going to be.
Are we the sheep on his right hand, the ones who step up to help, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and the imprisoned? Are we the ones who take our stand between the victim and the abuser whatever the consequence?
Or are we the goats who do nothing, who pass up even the simplest, easiest, and cheapest kinds of charity, who refuse to get involved, who walk by on the other side and then are surprised that we are considered part of the problem?
Friends, on this “Reign of Christ Sunday,” let us align ourselves, once again with the one in whose name we live and breathe. Let us stand for the weak and the powerless. Let us resolve that where justice has no voice we will be that voice, where kindness has no advocate, we will plead its cause, and where love has no shape or form, we will be its incarnation. In Jesus’ name…. Amen.
 Thanks to my friend and writing teammate at TIW, Rev. Dr. Christopher Keating, for much of this section.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.