Nov. 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
I had a teacher in high school who would give us the answers to the final exam before the final exam. Not just the questions, but the answers. It was very helpful. She said, “I don’t want anybody to flunk. I want everyone to learn the material and be able to do well on the test. It just makes sense to give you the answers, so there is no reason in the world why any one should fail.” And . . . that was nice.
Our Gospel lesson this morning seems to indicate that Jesus, like my teacher, also does everything in his power to insure that when people face their final examination, they do as well as they possibly can.
Does all this final exam talk make us a little nervous? Well, it does me. I think when we hear this our natural first thought is that this is about who gets into heaven and who goes to the other place. And Jesus, who we all know is a forgiving kind of a guy, doesn’t seem to cut the goats in the story much slack. This seems like a not very funny version of a St. Peter at the pearly gates joke (and, having searched my internet sources for an appropriate example to share with you, I must say, there are some funny ones, but not many a preacher can tell from the pulpit. Want one anyway? A nice little old married lady died and met St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, Everybody has to answer a spelling question to get into heaven. You’ve been married for 47 years, always good to your husband . . . can you spell the word “LOVE?” Of course she can and she comes right in and makes herself at home. A few years later, St. Peter asks her to watch the gate for him while he runs an errand. As she’s sitting there, who should come up but her husband. She’s so glad to see him! “How’ve you been?” she asks. “Couldn’t be better, he says. The last three years have been the happiest of my life. I married Vicky, the nurse who took care of you during your last illness. She’s a real ball of fire. We’ve traveled all over the world. Had the best time. Why, today we were water skiing and my ski slipped off, hit me in the head, and here I am. So how do I get in?” “You have to spell a word.” “What word?” Czechoslavakia.
Getting into heaven jokes are . . . iffy. But the evidence is that Jesus’ story, is not so much about individuals getting into heaven when they die, as how the church that he was leaving behind on earth could fully and faithfully participate in the Kingdom that Jesus the Christ had brought into being on earth.
If it is true, that the Kingdom of God is at hand in Jesus’ life, and that Jesus has invited us to be a part of His Kingdom - then how do we exercise our citizenship in this divine new order of things? How do we show that we belong and we long to remain where Jesus’ love is the ultimate rule?
Maybe this is more like a citizenship test. Where does our love, loyalty and future lie?
In some countries, passing a citizenship test is really hard. You have to be born there, or be of the right ethnic group, or prove that you can speak the language. But the test that Jesus tells us the answer to here (4 times in 10 verses! ) is really remarkably lenient.
It isn’t asking us to do or know anything really hard. We don’t have to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, or repeat the words of institution for the Lord’s supper. We don’t have to quote a Bible verse, or show our sunday school attendance record.
All we have to do is these things:
Feed the hungry.
Give water to the thirsty,
Clothe those who need clothing.
Welcome the stranger.
Visit the sick and those in prison
It’s not asking for something that takes incredible skill, or courage, or massive amounts of time. Or cooperation. Or politic power.
He doesn’t say, “End world poverty” “Design a water distribution system that meets the criteria of equity and fairness.” “Heal the sick.” “Free the prisoner.” Just feed those who are hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Give clothes to those who need them. Be nice to the new person in the neighborhood. Simple, doable things that fit into anyone’s life.
And the world is full of hungry, thirsty, needy, strange, sick people. You don’t have to look very far to find someone who needs your compassion, who needs your help. Maybe the new mom down the street, maybe the child who doesn’t seem to have a coat. maybe the mumblin, confused person on . . . The question isn’t “what should I do, but where should I start?”
It’s like we’re in the group of soldiers who set up camp in a forest at night. They weren’t sure exactly where the enemy was, so they sent out a scout to find the location for their morning escape. He was gone a long time, and when he came back, they gathered around. “Great news!” he said, “We’re surrounded! We can attack anywhere.”
There are opportunities everywhere to be loving, helpful, kind and generous people. To serve Christ the King by serving the his brothers and sisters and ours. Praise the Ruler of All - the Good Shepherd - our Soul’s Teacher! We know the questions, we know the answers! We need not fear the final exam. PS It’s already started.