Sunday, November 22, 2020
A few years ago, I was driving down the interstate between Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, cruise control set, talking away on my cell phone, when I turned and saw a state patrol car in the lane right next to me. “What are you doing?!” he mouthed to me as he motioned for me to pull the car over. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “Busted.” I was so embarrassed. I felt like a little kid getting called to the principal’s office. Even worse, I was on a way to a synod meeting in the synod car, it wasn’t my own car! And talking on the phone while driving! At least when the officer asked where I was going in such a hurry I could say, “To church!” That with being several months pregnant at the time got me off the hook for a ticket, but I felt (I still feel when I think about it) a pit in my stomach, and vowed to be more careful and not so lazy especially when driving the synod car.
As we wrap up our series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew, on this last Sunday of the church year, we have the most detailed scene of the final judgment in all of the New Testament. It’s not always fun to think about judgment day. And it may surprise us that Christ places the most importance not on the things we’ve done…swearing too much, being unfaithful in our marriage, stealing cigarettes from the corner store as teenagers, and so on…Christ judges most harshly those who have failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger. God in Christ cares deeply about what we do as followers of Christ to care for the least of these. And I don’t know about you, but for me, when I read this passage, I feel a similar pit in my stomach as when I got pulled over by that state patrol officer. I haven’t done enough. It’s a convicting passage for all of us, even those of us who aren’t rich by our immediate surrounding’s standards. American Christians with immense wealth by the world’s standards get lazy and often don’t think about or care about the exact people Jesus clearly instructs us to care for not only in this gospel passage, but throughout his teaching and ministry. We often find it much easier to judge others and cast blame upon others, viewing ourselves as the “good guys” than to admit that we may be wrong, that we may not have done enough.
I feel particularly convicted by this parable this year because this has been a tough year for all of us and for me personally. When we go through more difficult times it is so easy to think more and more about ourselves and forget about others. I have too often found myself in simply survival mode this year. Ever since living outside of the United States for a year, I have striven to keep up with international news and try to read news sources outside of our mainstream American media to broaden my perspective and be aware of things that unfortunately get little U.S. media attention. And I confess that this year, I’ve been sucked in often to the “COVID COVID COVID” drumbeat of what’s happening with the numbers here locally without paying much attention to how this is a GLOBAL pandemic, the U.S. presidential election and racial unrest. Did you know in just this past week, Central America was hit by two tropical storms that thankfully lost their strength by the time they reached the U.S. but has devastated countries already struggling with massive poverty, unemployment, corruption and gang violence. Hong Kong is still dealing with suppression of democracy. There was a military coup in Peru. And a child dies from hunger every 10 seconds.
In a year where at the end of November we are just tired of bad news, I struggle with whether to even bring up being aware of yet even more bad news. We have coronavirus fatigue. We have Zoom fatigue. We have post-election fatigue. And this can definitely lead to compassion fatigue. However, I have found whenever I start to get too down in the dumps about my own sorry situation, God usually pulls me out of my funk by pointing me to the needs of others. Someone else’s situation is worse. Other people are suffering like me. Others need to hear the good news of the gospel. God can use my gifts to help others. Lutherans believe that it is a natural human tendency to turn inward and focus only on oneself. Christ’s whole mission is to help us see beyond ourselves to save us and this world. This is why this gospel is so powerful – Jesus doesn’t just say “serve the poor or else,” Jesus says when we look upon the least of these we are looking upon Christ himself. When we don’t serve others or even think about those who are less fortunate, we miss out on being in relationship with Christ himself. Wherever people are suffering, wherever there is the greatest need, Christ is there among them! And this means that redemption is possible anywhere, for anyone! What an important reminder this holiday season that thanks be to God Jesus died for me, to save me from my sins, the things I have done and the things I have left undone. But Jesus didn’t just die for me. Jesus died for them, too. Jesus died to save the whole world.
This Thanksgiving, may the pit in our stomach, the hurt we feel for our own situations and for the situations of others move us to gratitude. May God pull us out of our wallowing to see how much we are truly blessed. But let’s not just stop there. Christ compels us to look outward, beyond seeing our personal blessings to consider how we might bless others and how we might be blessed by others in serving Christ there among them. The danger of reading this gospel passage in isolation is to start to believe we’re doomed – the sheer volume of need in our world is overwhelming – surely we have missed opportunities to serve Christ in our midst. Yet the very next chapter in Matthew tells us about Christ going to the cross for us, to die for us even though we don’t deserve it. And the good news in this passage is the assurance of Christ’s presence among us, whether we recognize him or not. Both the righteous and the unrighteous don’t recognize Christ at first – did you notice? “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” They both ask. Christ assures us that he is there. He is here. Equipping us to serve and inspiring us for service. Blessing us with his presence. Offering forgiveness and an abundance of second chances. Calling us to die to ourselves and be raised to new life over and over again so that we might more fully trust in him and his salvation. May our gratitude this Thanksgiving move us to action, for the sake of God’s kingdom. And may God open our eyes to see Christ among us. Amen.