Not What We Expected

(Matthew 25:31-46)

Not long after I first started here at Douglass, almost 10 years ago now, I got a call from Gary King asking me if I’d be open to performing a wedding for his and Anne’s daughter, Leslie, and her fiancé, Mo. I said, “Sure.”

The wedding was held out at Yew Dell gardens. Lovely venue. Everything was beautiful.

When I pulled into the parking lot on the day of the wedding, I was conscious of not wanting to be late. There were these orange traffic cones spread out all over the place. And I couldn’t get where I needed to go, so I drove around the orange traffic cones.

Turns out, they were there for a reason, because some guys ran over and stepped in front of the van. Huffing from running to catch me, the guy who looked to be the boss said, “Hey! What are you doing?”

Thinking it perfectly obvious what I was doing, I said, “I’m parking.”

This didn’t go any way toward putting him in a better mood. Incredulous, he barked, “Did you not see the orange cones?”

I said, “Well, they’re a really bright shade of orange, so of course I saw them. That’s why I drove around them, instead of over the top of them.”

That was clearly not the answer he was looking for. He got a real sour look on his face, and said, “What? Are you with the band or something?”

I said, “I wish. No, actually, I’m the celebrant.”

This guy is really annoyed with me by this time, thinking I’ve made up some crazy story to get out of getting yelled at by the parking lot attendant supervisor. So, he sort of puts up his hands, waiting for a better answer than the one I’d just given him.

“I’m the preacher—the one celebrating the wedding.”

His posture shifted like an eighth-grader when the principal walks in the room and kids are hanging from the light fixtures, chasing each other around with rubber bands and paper clips. “I apologize. Right this way, sir.” And he escorted me to the front of the parking lot.

In my first experience at seminary, my final year at Emmanuel School of Religion, I gave my senior sermon in chapel a couple of weeks before graduation. Looking much like I do now, and having as my principle means of transportation a motorcycle, apparently, I apparently didn’t give off a pastoral vibe. Because the president of the seminary came up to me afterward, shook my hand and said, “What are you going to do when you graduate?”

I said, “I didn’t ever imagine I would, but I’m actually thinking about going into ministry.”

He hesitated before saying, “Youth ministry? You want to work with young people?”

I said, “No. I think I’d like to preach.”

He cocked his head and looked at me for a moment, up and down, and said, “Huh.” And turned around and walked off.

Did that ever happen to you? I don’t mean being mistaken for the bass player in a garage band. I mean, you picture the world one way, and it turns out different—and not just like an adjustably small amount of different … . but big, 180 degree, totally-opposite-of-what-you-were-thinking different? Like everything you thought you knew turns out to be—if not completely wrong, then certainly off by more than a few clicks.

Like that perfectly fetching haircut you had in your high school yearbook was a tribute to your timeless fashion sense—a look that you figured would remain in vogue in perpetuity? And then you have kids come along and tell you that you looked more like Shaggy running out of a broom closet in Scooby Doo and The Tar Monster than Fred driving the Mystery Machine with Daphne hanging on his every word.

Or you’re a kid and you go to Baskin Robbins and they have ice cream … with bubble gum in it—and you think, “This is definitely the pinnacle of gustatory delight?” It’s got ice cream … and bubble gum? Come on. That’s like the 1992 Olympic Dream Team of food for a kid. Then you grow up, and it becomes clear that there are perhaps more sophisticated ice cream options, and you can’t figure out how you ever thought bubble gum ice cream was a plausible option for human consumption?

Or you grew up thinking that government service was at least nominally about “service,” and then along comes this merry band of self-dealing yahoos, and you wonder, “How could I have been so utterly mistaken?”

You were pretty sure the world worked one way, only to find out later that it worked in a completely different way.

And it’s not just with haircuts, ice cream, and naïve views of government either. People often have the same experience of God. They imagine God as huge … and powerful … and “out there”—enjoying long bouts of being prayed and sung to, and surrounded by things like majesty and awe.

And while I think God is to be found in those things, I now believe there’s more.

Last week, while I was in Mexico, a few of us went once again into the Cathedral downtown. It was built in the sixteenth century. It’s gilded with gold all over the place. High ceilings. Beautiful statuary. Lots of polished wood. Pretty amazing.

If I were to imagine meeting God, it would look something like that. Standing before God on judgment day, I picture lots of awe and majesty, plenty of gold and high ceilings. When I hear about “Jesus coming in his glory,” that’s the kind of thing I see in my mind. Lots of trumpets, and light, and strange looking beasts. An enormous gilded throne, befitting God’s glory.

But in this parable Matthew has a little bit different view of what the glory of God will look like. There’s a throne in Matthew’s version—but he doesn’t make much of it, apart from calling it the “throne of his glory.”

And that’s a little confusing, because I have a pretty good sense of what “glory” looks like. But Jesus’ idea of glory looks very little like my own.

What do I mean?

In the Gospel of Matthew, this particular parable of the sheep and the goats … actually more like an apocalyptic vision than a parable … is Jesus’ last formal teaching to the disciples, before the wheels of injustice start turning. Matthew follows this parable by saying:

“When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”

All of which is to say, according to Matthew’s timeline, Jesus tells this parable of the sheep and the goats in which he’s seated on the “throne of glory,” just a matter of a couple of days before he’s going to ascend to glory on the cross—which, if we’re being honest, has very little to do with trumpets or gold or light. Indeed, in the middle of Jesus’ glorification on the cross all the lights went out—the sun went dark.

So, maybe the idea of the Son of Man coming in glory has less to do with an apocalyptic blockbuster at some point way off in the future; maybe the glory of the Son of Man has more to do with God’s determination in Jesus to live among us, and know the lives we live. The incarnation—God becoming human—is the most profound act of empathy—God, literally, committing to live a life in our skin.

And if God does that for us, shouldn’t our lives be an attempt to imitate that empathy for others, to see not just ourselves in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner … but the face of Jesus himself?

What has troubled me, perhaps as much as anything, about our current cultural moment is not just the lack of empathy among so many, but the idea that empathy might even be something anyone should even care about. For more than a year now, vast numbers of our neighbors have lived in fear of what the powers and principalities might do to them. People who claim to follow Jesus, the one who identified with the very people who feel threatened in this environment, have a responsibility to see in those people the face of Jesus.

And that’s the surprise of this parable: When Jesus shows up, it’s definitely not what we expected. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, shouldn’t the heavens be torn apart, and the sound of mighty winds fill the air—shouldn’t God come among us with awe and majesty?

Alas, when the Son of Man comes in glory, what we see are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner—because that’s where Jesus has chosen to hang out. Indeed, if Matthew has it right, that’s who Jesus is.

I find it worth noting here that the basis upon which judgment is passed lacks a few things religious people generally trot out as the things Godʼs most concerned about.

Like what? What does Jesus not mention as determinative conditions upon which God will pass final judgment? The usuals. You know, sexual pecadillos, murder, stealing, rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals—the biggies.

Instead, Jesus says that weʼll be judged on how we treat those who arenʼt in a position to look out for themselves. True abomination to God is abusing or ignoring those who, because of their lack of resources, cannot protect, cannot take care of, cannot speak for themselves.

Jesus sounds like the prophet Amos, who announced Godʼs anger hundreds of years before Jesus showed up on the scene:

“I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6b–7a).

Why does God so identify with these, the powerless? Because of Jesus. Remember, this parable is told just a couple of days before his death. Jesus will soon take on powerlessness in its ultimate form, by surrendering himself into the hands of the powerful.

The temptation of this parable, however, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, is that it “seduces [us] into believing that we are working to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison without knowing anyone who is hungry, naked, thirsty, a stranger, sick, or in prison” (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, 212).

In other words, the parable of the sheep and the goats emphasizes our work of mercy among the powerless, not so that we might secure for ourselves some kind of favor from God that would otherwise be withheld from us, but because we long to know Jesus. That is to say, I take it that the meaning of this parable is something like, “If you want to know Jesus at all, then youʼd better get out and get to know those who are on the margins—not just because thatʼs where Jesus is, but because thatʼs who he is.”

It’s easy to think of God as distant, as residing “out there” somewhere—surrounded by the hosts of heaven, removed from the muck and grime, the disappointment and desperation that so often surrounds us. But the very people it’s so easy to ignore, the people who always seem to get the short end of the policy stick when it comes to our politics, the people who struggle to be seen, who cry out to be heard … if we’re ever truly to find Jesus, it will be among them.

It’s not what we expected … but with the world as it is, it’s definitely what we need.

—Amen.

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