Parable of the Sheep and Goats
September 20, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
“I lift mine eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist. “From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who makes heaven and earth.”
Where do you go to meet Jesus? Where is God most visibly, dramatically present?
For the Psalmists spiritual space was vertical space. God is above, enthroned in majesty. We’re below, in the depths, crying out for God’s presence. Moses, Elijah, Jesus all went to the high places to pray. Even today we build steeples and spires on our churches, lifting our eyes to heaven, giving God a divine pathway to earth.
Even when we can’t pilgrimage to the holy mountains of Jerusalem or Sinai we still seek God in the away spaces. Holy space is tranquil space. A remote monastery or retreat center, the woods, the beach, our gardens, the special chair where we do our morning devotions as the sun floods the window. The solid buildings of our churches, designed to be places of calm away from the business of our world.
Where do you go to meet Jesus?
Rich Mullins, wanting to get closer to Jesus, went to the Navaho nation. Rich, whose song Sometimes by Step we just sang, was part of the Nashville Christian music scene in the 1980’s are early 1990’s. He had hit songs, albums, world tours. And then he left, taking a job as a school music teacher in a place so poor it makes southern Columbiana county seem like Beverly Hills. In interviews he’d often be asked about his work as a missionary. "I’m not a missionary," he’d correct. "I just thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Navajos than in Nashville.”
Where do we go to find Jesus? As we dig into the parable of the sheep and goats we start with a bomb shell of spiritual location. God, whom we’d been trained to seek in the high places, is also in the low places, the very places we call god forsaken. God’s in the depths from which God’s people cry. Christ is in the oncology waiting rooms, the nursing homes nobody wants to wind up in, the shelters with only mats on the floor, our overfilled prisons. Not only are the poor blessed, they are Jesus himself. They are God with us.
I remember one youth group who came to The Bowery Mission, the homeless shelter I worked with in New York City. They were from a mini-mega church somewhere in the mid-West. They’d spent months preparing for their trip, preparing songs, skits and testimonies so they could bring the gospel to heathen New York City. They performed at the noon chapel service before going on with their whirlwind urban ministry itinerary. The congregation listened politely, applauded appropriately, before going on to their lunch.
These kids had come from wherever they were from to bring Jesus to the depths, totally missing God’s reality. Jesus was already there. There in the guy who had a mental health breakdown during the service, so well managed by the staff the kids never noticed. There in the growling stomach of the day laborer who’d been so faint on the job site his foreman had sent him over for lunch. There in the rude Chinese lady who came every day. There in the addict who’d prayed to Jesus for deliverance, been sober for 24 hours but was already fingering the drugs in his pocket. Jesus was already there, waiting for them, and they’d missed him.
Rich Mullins went to the Navajo nation because he knew Jesus would be present in its people. Jesus would be there, there in the Hogans without electricity, there among families just trying to make it, there among activists trying to protect their land from exploitation, there among the staggering rates of addiction, diabetes, heart disease, suicide and the other epidemics of American poverty. He knew Jesus would be there in a way he wasn’t present in the white, evangelical, mega-church driven, worshiptainment culture of 1980’s Nashville.
How would our lives, our faith, our churches change if we sought Jesus in the depths? How would our actions, our attitudes change if instead of seeing prisons as god-forsaken we saw then as filled with the presence of Christ? What if, instead of feeling sorry for our neighbors who are hurting we sought to help them as if we were helping Jesus? What if the waiting room of our oncologist, the day room of the nursing home, the house down the street everyone knows about and everyone keeps away, became holy places to us because there in the depths, among the hurt and the pain, our savior reigns?
The other day, a stranger, upon learning I was a pastor, decided he wanted to talk religion. He was a devout Christian, a brother in Christ who tried to live out his faith. There are limits to what we can do, he told me as part of a long conversation. We can’t be Jesus to everyone. At the end of the day we can only be responsible for ourselves. Others need to be responsible for themselves. If they are too broken, too sinful, to accept that responsibility we should just let them die and receive the judgment they deserve.
I can see my new friend now, standing before the glorious throne of the Son of Man. Lord, he is saying, when did I see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick or in prison? And Jesus will say, just as you did not do to the least of these, you did not do it to me. I can see my new friend now, and my heart breaks.
How would your life change if, when you went to the oncologist, you expected to see Jesus in the waiting room? How would your life change if the Elkton prison became, for you, a place of pilgrimage? How would your life change if your neighbor – the one you’re tired of helping, the one who is always difficult, or a pain or who keeps a junk car in the driveway and never mows the lawn, became Christ to you? How would your life change if the face of your neighbor was the face of Jesus?