You Did So Unto Me – Sermon for November 22, 2020 from Pastor John

Sermon for November 22, 2020


     There was a story on NPR about a man, a single father taking care of four children, worried about running out of money. It is a familiar story in these troubled times. Because of the pandemic, he lost his job. He is dependent on an extension of unemployment benefits which are due to end in December. So far congress is deadlocked on passage of further assistance for those in need. He told his children that he does not intend to be mean when he tells them not to leave lights on when they leave a room. He wants the lowest utility bill possible. When he prepares a meal he reminds them to eat what is set before them because there are no other choices. He worries about paying the rent when the unemployment extension ends. But then the story had an update. An estranged relative stepped up to help him with rental payments. The story said ‘estranged’ but offered no details. Apparently this single dad and his relative were not getting along or even speaking to each other. But the estrangement ended because of an emergency. Because of the real possibility of future homelessness, a relative decided to put away the resentment and reach out. The gospel lesson today gave another reason to reach out to others in a time of crisis. May we see Christ in our neighbor in need.

All through the month of November the Sunday gospel lessons have been parables reminding us to be ready when for the Son of Man’s return. We were told by Jesus to be prepared for no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man comes. The Son of Man is a title for Jesus and it comes from the book of Daniel. The setting is a vision meant to comfort and strengthen people of faith beleaguered by terrible tyrants. The Son of Man was given by God “dominion, glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never b e destroyed.” In today’s gospel Jesus told a parable no longer warning us to be ready when the Son of man or Jesus comes in glory, for he has arrived. All the nations will be gathered before Jesus truly the ruler of all. Jesus will judge the living and the dead. There will be a separation of the peoples, just like the shepherd’s work of separating the sheep from the goats. What is powerful in this parable is the criteria for judgment. Jesus is not reading off a long indictment of sins people have committed. The Bible says the record of sins have been erased because of the cross. The record of sins has been nailed to the cross meaning Jesus, the sinless one, took on the judgment for sinners. By his death on the cross we know Jesus came to this world not looking to condemn but to seek and save sinners by grace. The judgment scene in today’s parable was based on whether or not we lived out this grace, this gift of salvation with lives of compassion. We are called to follow Jesus, the Servant-King, the Compassionate one whom we heard in the gospel of Matthew say “Come to me, all who are weary and fatigued with worry and fear, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We must be yoked to Jesus by faith, the life-line to his faithfulness and learn from him the responsibility of mercy. Jesus taught us not only to love our neighbors, those we may like, but also our enemies.

So the King said to those on his right, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will respond, “When did we see you Lord, hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick or in prison?” Jesus the King will answer, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The righteous will hear the beautiful invitation, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But in this parable we hear the tragic part of judgment; those who are told to depart, they are accursed because they did not minister to Jesus when he was in dire straits. They will protest and say when did we see you hungry, sick, a stranger or in prison? The King told them, “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do so to me.”

There was a story in the latest Vilas County News about a family in Phelps whose home was a total loss because of a flood. They had no flood insurance which is usually unnecessary in this area. Financial help has come through a GoFundMe page that was set up for them. The couple who lost their home responded, “This has been an excellent example of how not only communities can come together to help each other, but also how the compassion and giving of perfect strangers is still very real in this ever-changing world we live in.” Perfect strangers gave money to them because of an emergency. I wonder if some also saw in the couple the face of Jesus who bears their distress. The couple was very thankful for real compassion in an ever-changing world. I was struck by the phrase “ever-changing world”. There are changes that are disturbing: are we becoming a more divided people with politics determining our judgment of others instead of seeing the face of Jesus? Are we becoming more vicious with our words instead of comforting? Do we understand justice to mean help for people “just like us” and refuse to understand fellow citizens with their signs like “Black Lives Matter”? Black Lives Matters is an appeal to our conscience to know that people who feel discarded and discriminated are precious human beings. Black Lives Matter means this: Your life matters to Jesus, no matter your color, economic status, addiction struggle, covid test result, or where you are from. Remember this parable said Jesus gathered all the nations before him. In the midst of an ever-changing world the church, that is you and me, our brothers and sisters in Christ, must ever be faithful to the one who never changes, Jesus Christ, who has no preference for political parties, no preference for skin color, no preference for how rich or poor we are. The Confirmation class was studying a unit on daily prayer. We went to Luther’s Catechism and found prayers he wrote as examples for us, prayers when you get up on the morning, prayers at mealtime, and prayers before going to bed. Did you know Luther suggests not only a prayer before you eat, but also after you eat? So after we eat a Thanksgiving Meal we shouldn’t just get up from the table and plop ourselves on the couch. Luther quoted the Psalms, “Give Thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good, for God’s mercy endures forever. God provides food for the cattle and for young ravens when they cry. God is not impressed by the might of the horse and has no pleasure in the speed of a runner, but finds pleasure in those who fear the Lord, in those who await God’s steadfast love.” As we go on with our day may we remember what pleases God: those who fear or trust the Lord, and those who wait on God’s steadfast love. Be careful what voices you listen to in this world. Some voices are anything but an encouragement to love. Thankfully we are not left to ourselves for discernment and direction. The first reading told us that God feeds us with justice. The one who seeks the lost and binds up the wounded soul calls us to a special searching for those who bullied about with negative and hurtful words. And those who feel they are better and have the right to bully are actually lost and need the healing love of God as well. The second lesson gave the church the assurance that Jesus is the Head of the Church, and we must listen to him, and he fills the church with his steadfast love. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid the “least of these in our midst.”

Someone has suggested that our celebration of Thanksgiving is all wrong. We should set aside one day to complain, and use the other days of the year as opportunity to be thankful for God’s blessings. As humans we do have our complaints, but overall we listen to Jesus, our Servant King, our Compassionate Sovereign who guides us by saying, “as you did so to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did so unto me.