November 26, 2017, Matthew 25:31 – 46
The joke: At Sunday School they were teaching how God created everything, including human beings. Little Johnny seemed especially intent when they told him how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs. Later in the week his mother noticed him lying down as though he were ill, and said, “Johnny, what is the matter?” Little Johnny responded, “I have a pain in my side. I think I’m going to have a wife.”
I tell you this joke for 2 reasons. One is that after reading this text from Matthew – I feel we are in need perhaps of a little levity and second is a more serious and relevant reason – and that is this – This sort of literal thinking -whether it be the parting of the Red Sea or the plagues visited on the Egyptians or Eve created from the rib of Adam or Jesus stilling the storm, this sort of literal thinking has in many places and many churches made Christianity unavailable to many as on the surface they are asked to accept as fact some pretty imaginative, frankly unbelievable stories. Or, this sort of literal thinking has given rise to whole denominations ignoring geology – as in the earth is only some 8 thousand years old, ignoring evolution, as in man sprang from mud and woman from a rib and imposing some pretty stern, set of rules and consequences that have damaged many and continue to do so. And what for me is the most upsetting part – is that this sort of literal thinking has in many ways discouraged any sort of deep diving into meaning and purpose. In our subject passage today, we hear if you follow the rules you will get to heaven. If not, well, you will not.
And I do not find this sort of carrot and stick approach helpful in the long term. As a teaching tool it ensures compliance because of consequence. But as a transformational tool it falls short of lasting learning. A more helpful way to show us how to lead our lives, to make decisions, to order our investments or dictate our actions is to touch our cores with the rightness of the teaching. A better way is to acknowledge the carrot and stick approach in the cultural context of the time in which Jesus lived – to give the history of the way God was understood in the time in which Jesus lived – and then to consider the teaching absent the stick. As to culture – the psalm Anne read for us speaks of God as King, as shepherd, as saviour and as creator. This is how the Israelites understood God. Their kings had been dethroned, their people were under the thumb of the Romans, their knowledge of the origin of the world and weather and the planet was confined to reading an earthquake or a drought as God’s will. Their knowledge of disease, as God’s disfavour.
But the teaching of this Jesus – the teaching is profound. Full stop. To understand it in our own time and place – we need to look to our own culture – our own understanding of this teaching in the light of science and of human behaviour, in light of our ability to understand the consequences of our own actions. And when we examine the teaching we see just how profound these words attributed to Jesus actually are. They are survival, first of our species. When you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, slake another’s thirst, visit the prisoner – you have done each of these things for you as well. Not only for you, but for our children and your children’s children. When Jesus said ‘what you do to each of these you do to me’ we can in our time see this statement as wisdom pointing to the reality of the interconnectedness of and interdependence of all life on this planet, we can affirm that bad water in India, war in Syria, the devastation of the rain forest for computer components are actions that widen Jesus words “What you do to the least of these you do to me,” to ‘What you do to the least of these you do to all.’ And second these words, this teaching, is growth for our spirit. A wise man used to greet me with the words: How is the state of your soul? How indeed?
And so, the two words I want to speak of this morning are trust and transformation. If we look beyond the carrot and the stick, if we use our intelligence and our capacity for deep thinking and honest self examination, we will be giving thanks, we will be singing gratitude no matter our state or stage for our presence here this morning, souls capable of deep thinking and profound understanding.
There is a picture – it is in the copies of the sermon at the back of the sanctuary. The first picture is depicting ‘faith in Christ’ – it shows a stick figure walking a tight rope entitled ‘my belief’ – over a gorge in which is written the word SIN – the left bank of the gorge is labelled DEATH and the right bank is labelled LIFE and the individual is teetering across with the balloon caption over his head that says “I hope I get this right!”
The second picture is the same stick figure resting with a hallelujah – arms up – in the palm of two hands. The picture is labelled ‘faith of Christ’ and the balloon caption is of the owner of the hands – God- saying ‘I’ve got you!’
The faith of Jesus. Trust that you are held in the hands of God. A word picture to illustrate a profound point, not evidence of an anthropomorphic God.
There are many ways of understanding God – the divine mystery – the beginning and the end, the eternal ruler of the ceaseless round as the hymn we sang described God.
The youth group here at the church call themselves the “Transformers.” And that is one way of coming to an understanding beyond the carrot and the stick of this passage. First we must transform, then we will trust. First we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, first we change how we look at one another and see the face of Jesus in the stranger in the other, and then we will grow to trust. Transformation, leading to trust. Another way of getting there is first we will trust and then out of such trust we will transform. First we see the face of Jesus in the mirror and then we will see the same face in the prisoner, in the homeless one. The poet Rumi said “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” Trust, then transformation.
What Jesus could never have known was how badly we sometimes mixed up his message how messed up we made his teaching. Just look to the irony of the picture of Jesus – t’he saviour of the world’ as the title tells us in Latin – on the front of your bulletin – someone paying the most ever spent on a painting – $450 million smackers – Feed the hungry clothe the naked slake another’s thirst indeed!
In his time and place the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell were the teaching tools to encourage, ensure changed behaviour – in our time and place it is the profundity of the teaching given both the outer knowledge we have of the physical plant we live on and the inner knowledge we come to have as a result of exercising compassion and kindness toward one another that leads to trust and to transformation. Or to put in another way – seeking to emulate the ways of Jesus – has an meritorious effect on our collective and individual souls.
Trust not to fear – trust to see the face of Jesus in all you meet. Trust to see the face of Jesus in the mirror. Until you realize your life holds the same portion of the light as the man in prison, as the dictator in Syria, as the head of a multinational, as the sex trade worker, you will not be open to trust or to transformation.
Sometimes I feel as if I am seeing through a glass darkly but only because such a wall has been erected between us and Jesus – a wall that seeks to divide and not unify – a wall that seeks to point fingers while leaving the plank in our own eyes – a wall that sees the stranger as well …strange and less.
There are many ways of understanding the human in relation to God – one way is to begin with sin to be expiated or with the adherence to rules before the availability of salvation – I would like to introduce a different way to see yourself this morning – instead just right now imagine that you are light – that we begin as light – as part of the light of God – as a fractal, a tiny part of an infinite light and that we end as light. Therein lies trust and therein lies the courage and the conviction to take to our core the teachings of this Jesus, bearer also of light.
From Marcus Borg: “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.” Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning
Here is a song about the light we share and we are a part of – a song that invites trust and provides courage for transformation, for participation wholeheartedly in the teachings of Jesus.
Through trust we transform, through transformation we trust.
‘I am light’ by India.Arie sung by Jessie and with Louis on guitar.