Jesus hung out with the “least of these”---and it always came as a great surprise to his friends in the faith. I’m reminded of a short story in Mark’s Gospel--Chapter 2:13-17---where we read:
13-14 Then Jesus went again to walk alongside the lake. Again a crowd came to him, and he taught them. Strolling along, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, at his work collecting taxes. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” He came.
15-16 Later Jesus and his disciples were at home having supper with a collection of disreputable guests. Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become followers. The religion scholars and Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company and lit into his disciples: “What kind of example is this, acting cozy with the riffraff?”
17 Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.”
The point is, we belong to a God who hangs out with rubbish, with trash—and desires that we hang out with the rubbish, too! (Note: these are our words, not God’s words. In Mark, it’s the scholars and the Pharisees that refer to people as riffraff.) Amazingly, God is found in HUMAN NEED as opposed to SELF SATISFACTION. That includes our need as well as the need of our neighbor. God is where the desperation is! And this is GOOD NEWS, right? Who in this room hasn’t experienced desperation?
Another way we might connect with Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats is to insert the word HUMBLE for the word sheep, and the word ENTITLED for the goats. Jesus is in fact describing every person’s options—do I use my life to pursue God (a life of sacrificial love), or do I use my life to pursue my own passions and desires (a life of entitlement)? Jesus teaches us that the best life is one that’s lived with God at the center. The story of the Humble Sheep and the Entitled Goats teaches us that if we want to encounter God, we need to create time and resources to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit persons who are in prison.
This puts the Greatest Commandment at the center of our life—love of God, love of neighbor—and pushes our own personal agenda to the margin.
As someone pointed out to me a couple of months ago, the higher one’s income the more distance one creates with the poor. Our cities are designed so that those persons in the middle-income and higher-income brackets never have to see the deplorable conditions in which our poorest citizens live. In my hometown of Paris, Kentucky, our African American citizens live in a section of town that’s called Ruckerville; the flood plain. Our housekeeper Alberta lived in Ruckerville, and if I accompanied my father taking Alberta to her home at the end of the day, I was always sadden by the small, dark clapboard homes with plastic on the windows and overgrown yards. As a Caucasian citizen, I never had to drive to Ruckerville for ANY needs: gas, food, clothing OR entertainment. But my friends in Ruckerville had to drive past the homes of the wealthier citizens to meet all of their needs. What did my friends feel? That’s not God—that’s something else. God, we understand, sent Jesus INTO the world to love, to embrace, to find “power with” all that God had created—not to offer the world a distanced or cold heart, a judgmental heart, a “power over” heart. How does the Gospel of John express God’s desire? Turning to John 3:16-17 we read: “16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This sets us up for a little conversation about what sin is. Returning to Mark’s Gospel, to be sin-sick is, among other things, to be UNFREE (unable to be generous or compassionate) and off balance (self-centered instead of God-centered). It’s to chase our heart’s desires, our passions—to need or attach ourselves to whatever our desires and passions try to convince us we need—a drink, a job or a role, expansive financial holdings, work, work, work, and more work, and so on and so forth. ..And to reduce God’s passion to whisper: “stay close to me; keep company with the riffraff.”
One weekday, early in October, I stopped in Qdoba for lunch. Have you been there? Oh my, the line at noon! In front of me was a well-dressed business man—a stranger. Behind me was a small group of high school students. I was watching the high school students—they were quite funny. When I got to the cash register the attendant said to me, “The man ahead of you paid for your lunch.”
He didn’t do that because he knew me, he did that because he knew God—and God wants him to be free of his attachment to money so he could be free to attach himself to God.
Anyone can make money and save money, but not everyone can give it to total strangers.
Jesus points out the obvious to us today--if you and I are true seekers of God, then we must learn where to look for God…and we probably are going to be very, very surprised where God lives! God is with the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the cold, the sick, and the imprisoned—the desperate. God is not too good for the human condition. And we, the church, like Jesus, are called to make ourselves available to the human condition as well. We are to help God save the world one meal for the hungry, one visit to a person in prison at a time. And, we are to be on our guard for evil—the temptation to be “too good” for our most desperate neighbors.
I like the way Leo Tolstoy interprets Matthew’s story of the Sheep and the Goats in his little story called Popa Panov. (See LINK to view.)
Question: Where does this story challenge you? Where does it give you hope?
Prayer: Kind God, thank you for inviting us into your work. We all can sit with someone who is sick, and in prison. We all can find homeless people beds, we all can find hungry people meals. Your work is so beautiful, and so simple. If we’ve made faith too complicated, forgive us. If we’ve forgotten our neighbor’s desperation, humble us. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. Amen.
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church, Billings, on November 23, 2014.)