The year was 1986. I was in middle school, and I heard a lot about the Three R’s. Reading. ‘Riting. And ‘Rrithmetic. The Three R’s were the basics that you were supposed to learn in school. Now, because I was a bit of a sarcastic kid, I wondered aloud when we were going to get to spelling, because two of those three words didn’t really start with an R. That point was not much appreciated, as I was told to focus on those basics if I wanted to get ahead in life, to have an impact, to make a difference.
The year was 1996. I was a college student, and I learned a new Three R’s: Recycle. Reuse. Reduce. These were the days of Captain Planet, of the book Fifty Simple Things That You Can Do to Save the Earth. Mainstream culture was catching onto the fact that we were having an impact on the environment by the way that we lived, and it was not a good one. And if we were going to make a difference, there were some simple things that we could do to save the planet.
The year is now 2016. The world is very different today, but we are still looking for clear and simple ways to make a difference in the world around us. In the world of the Church, where I spend most of my time, there is a lot of anxiety about what has happened to the Church of our youth. The days where we could throw up a church sign and organize a few programs and have a decent worship service, and people would flock into the doors – are over. Attendance and participation and giving are down to new lows in the Church. At particular concern are young people. The numbers for those under 35 are the lowest. But there are significant trends that we need to pay attention to concerning young people and church.
But those young people who are coming tend to be saying the same thing: we want to make a difference.
And churches that they are attending tend to be doing the same thing: working hard to make a difference.
And so, that is what we plan to talk about over the coming weeks. A new “Three R’s” about what it takes to make a difference, as a church and as Christians. Because gone are the days where people come to church because of some long belief statement, or where they can go to hear the culture wars being fought, where they can count on someone to stand up and rail against those people who were messing up the country or their way of life. They don’t want to hear that anymore.
People want to go to church to make a difference.
The good news is that Jesus told us the same thing 2,000 years ago. The year was 86. Just 86. And the followers of Jesus were trying to figure out whether or not Jesus was coming back, and what they were supposed to do in the meantime. Along comes the author of the Gospel of Matthew, providing an answer to both questions at once.
This passage in Matthew is a specific genre, sometimes called an apocalyptic parable. Apocalyptic teaching was meant to explain what is going to happen in the end times or in the final judgment. And parables are metaphorical teachings meant to convey a profound truth. This story is both. It is a parable about the final judgment, and as such, it answers both of these questions at once:
Yes, Jesus will come back.
And yes, he has a list of things he wants us to do in the meantime.
Which brings us to our first R: Relieve. Those who follow the list that Jesus wants us to follow as we wait for his return are, in short, relieving the suffering of others. They feed the hungry. Visit those in prison. Clothe those in need. Welcome the outsider. Those who do offer such relief are in line with the ways of the Kingdom and will receive eternal reward. Those who do not offer such relief are not in line with the Kingdom and will receive eternal punishment.
Now, the metaphor he uses in this agrarian context is the separation of sheep and goats. Not something we deal with a bunch these days, at least most of us. But if Jesus were to tell the story today, he might use an extended metaphor closer to home. Imagine that you are the parents of teenagers, and you decide that it is time to leave them at home alone – for an hour or a night or a weekend, depending on their age. You probably will leave them with a list of things that need to be done, and not done. And when you return, you will probably ask “have you done what you were supposed to?”
Now, one of the things that parents hate the most, at least in this case, is the phrase, “no, but…” Because we know an excuse is coming. “No, I didn’t do my homework, but… No, I didn’t take out the trash, but…”
Jesus is teaching here, “I will be back, and when I return, I don’t want to hear a ‘no, but…’” No, I didn’t visit that guy in prison, but he is a mean looking guy, and a murder and a rapist and doesn’t deserve it. No, I didn’t feed the hungry, but they are just lazy and having too many kids and collecting a government check. No, I didn’t welcome the stranger, but what if they are terrorists?! Jesus has no time for “no, but…” Our message is clear. Relieve suffering. No excuses.
In fact, he goes one step beyond his normal message about the least of these. Usually, Jesus says to care for the least of these because they are God’s creation. But here, Jesus takes it one more step further. Do it, because that person is me.
That death row inmate covered in tattoos? That’s Jesus.
That single mom that you call a welfare queen? That’s Jesus.
That Muslim family in the turban and burka? That’s Jesus.
But we go through all kinds of complex justifications for avoiding our responsibility to relieve the suffering of others. One that I hear sometimes actually comes from the same neighborhood in Matthew as the passage about the sheep and the goats.
Six verses after the apocalyptic parable of the sheep and the goats, a woman comes to him with an expensive jar of perfume and anoints Jesus, pouring it on his head. It is an act of worship of Jesus as Lord. The disciples though look at this worshipful act, and turn up their noses at her, huffing that she her act is a waste of money. After all, they had just heard Jesus’ words about caring for the hungry and the poor and now this woman wastes all of this money for one quick act of worship. We have just read the same parable, and so we might expect that Jesus will agree with them. But his response is a little unexpected. He defends the woman, responding to the disciples, “you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Now, I have heard that phrase repeated often and again in Christian circles. Oftentimes it gets used reasoning for why we should not help the poor. “Why do the food pantry, Justice Matters, Family Promise, all of these programs…after all, we are always going to have the poor, so why bother?” goes the excuse.
But let me exegete this passage a little, and give some clarification. Jesus was not making a point about how we ought to care for the poor. He was making a point about worship. In the most conservative interpretation of this passage, he is saying, “in this and only in this case, the woman is right to not give to the poor, because I am only here a short time and she recognizes that this is her shot to do this specific act of worship.” If you prefer a more dynamic or contextual interpretation, then you could extrapolate that Jesus is saying that other acts of worship – or even all acts of worship – and not just this woman’s will be by nature impractical and inefficient, but they are still worth it.
But again, these are points about worship. Not about caring for the poor. So, anytime you use this phrase, “you will always have the poor with you…” you better be a) defending the fact that we should spend money and resources on worship, or b) defending your right to buy an alabaster jar of perfume to anoint Jesus.
Any other use of this phrase is irresponsible and unbiblical. So be careful when you use the 25th and 26th chapters of Matthew in order to avoid your responsibility to relive the suffering of the poor. When Jesus speaks about worship in Chapter 26, he says it is important and worth our resources. Likewise, when he speaks about caring for the poor in Chapter 25, he says it is important and worth our resources. The reason why Jesus is not being inconsistent here is that he is talking about two different things.
In short, Jesus never says that we should not devote our resources to helping the poor. To the contrary, he says all the time that we should: Blessed are the poor; theirs is the Kingdom of God; Sell your possessions and give to the poor. And now, in his final teaching before his final week, he provides an exclamation point: care for the least of these – feed them, clothe them, visit them, welcome them – and your salvation depends on it.
So, how do we do this? What does this ministry of relief look like in our context? Thankfully, you can cover most of the situations on this list this week.
When you walk out of the sanctuary, you can sign up for Family Promise. We host in a couple of weeks. For those of you who may not know about this ministry of relief, the premise is simple. Families who would otherwise be homeless are housed in churches as they work and save up to get their own place to live. On the board in the back, you can sign up to provide food to the hungry by hosting a meal here in our church. Or by signing up to spend the night or host during the evening, you are helping to provide a safe and quiet place for a family who simply would not have one otherwise. You can bring relief to those who need it.
Today, before you go home, you can help out at LINK, our local nutrition kitchen. You can serve food to those who are hungry, those who might be eating their only meal of the day because we provide it for them. You can go down to First Christian, ask Wendy what you can do to help, and jump into the line. You can bring relief to those who need it.
This week, you can plan to participate in a conversation that is happening across various churches in our community. It is a conversation about how to help host international refugees fleeing persecution or war overseas. The meeting will not be for a few weeks, but this week I can connect you to the right people and start the process. You can welcome the stranger, here in our own community. You can bring relief to those who need it.
Finally, this week, I have another opportunity for you. Some of you will remember Marcello, a tall African American young man that we baptized here a couple of years ago. You have not seen Marcello in a couple of years, because he has not been in town. In fact, he has been an inmate in a federal correctional facility, due to drug charges stemming from the years before he recommitted his life to Christ and was baptized. He has given me permission to share his story, in fact he has asked for me to share with his congregation so that we can pray for him. He will likely be in prison for the next several years, and he has acknowledged to me that he has made mistakes and his sentence is fair. He is not very close by, but is able to receive letters and welcomes the encouragement. This week, if you would like to write to Marcello, I invite you to contact me and I will give you his information. Perhaps you cannot visit him in prison, but you can come pretty close. You can bring relief to one who needs it.
Here are just a few examples. I imagine that you know more. Jesus doesn’t want our excuses. He wants us to be his hands and feet. It will make a difference to our souls. And to those who desperately yearn for the peace of Christ in their lives. Let us be that relief. Let’s make a difference – together.