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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Matthew 25:31-46 SUNDAY NOVEMBER 23, 2008

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40And the king will answer them, '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.' 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

I imagine that most of us have never heard of Cliff Hillegass. Growing up during the dustbowl of the 1930’s Cliff financed his way through college holding down two paper routes and helping care for his family’ Jersey cows. He worked for a book company and in 1958 took off and ran with idea that was becoming popular in Canada, a study aid to help students better understand the finer points of literature, thus Cliffsnotes was born. For the past 47 years, Cliffsnotes have been synonymous with the ultimate shortcut. Just give me the Cliffs notes version we tell someone who is just getting wound up with a long story. Taking the Cliffsnotes approach is just perfect for people who already have too few hours in the day.

Today I want to share with you the ultimate Cliffnotes approach to building up our faith. The ultimate Cliffnotes approach to having such a robust spirituality that nothing and I mean nothing can diminish it. How to become a sheep instead of a goat in not two, not five, but three easy lessons.
And we all want to be a sheep, right?
At the great divide, when the goats are all plucked out, we want to be shown the great velvet ropes that lead us sheep to the eternal pastures of heaven.

We read: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

I have done all the work for you. Here it is. Everyone break out your pencils and pens – ready…you're sure? Well, first I have this bridge that I want to sell you in Brooklyn. No? How about some swampland in Florida?

There is no Cliffnotes approach for being a sheep. No short cuts to a robust spirituality. No easy faith. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

So we hear a Gospel text like today’s and we say to ourselves – fine, if there are no shortcuts (and I know that some might be tempted to check the Cliffnotes section of Barnes and Noble next time one wanders in for a good read and a latte just to make sure)

Assuming that I am not just blowing smoke (and I can't even blow a bubble with a mouth full of chewing gum) , what is then required of us – what do sheep do in order to be sheep and not goats? If we want to be counted as sheep then we better live like sheep and do things that sheep do. So we look to the parable in today’s Gospel and we learn that sheep…feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit those in prison. So, we might say to ourselves, if I do those things then I can count on moving on to that great sheep pen in the sky, right?

Somebody out there is thinking – stop right there Pastor – that sounds exactly like earning our salvation. We can’t do that. No way!
Salvation comes as a gift. As pure grace!

(If you were that person, pat yourself on the back. You are truly a Lutheran at heart.)

For Luther (and we Lutherans) God's unmerited gift of grace in and through Christ Jesus has freed us from the futile (and impossible!) life of trying to earn God's favor so that we might serve both God and neighbor. We have been freed for something, for the life of a sheep. A life that includes feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming, visiting and clothing. That is the good that we do, right?

Richard Jensen, writing about this text, keyed me in to something that I think we need to hear. He points out that the sheep are utterly surprised that the things they did served the will of God. They were completely surprised that those things that they did were anything special. “But when Lord,” they say, “when did we do those things for you?”

The very people who take this text to heart don't even know that they are serving anyone, especially Christ. They have come to so embody the Christian life, freed by God's grace, that serving and loving neighbor is as natural as breathing. They have become as Paul writes in Ephesians "imitators of Christ" and they don’t even know it!

This parable isn't meant for us to figure out if we have been sheep or goats and plan for the afterlife accordingly, but rather offers for us a glimpse of what life lived as children of Kingdom should be. It can be an uncomfortable and messy life, can't it? I think of Mother Theresa lovingly collecting up the neglected and rejected dying on the streets of Calcutta during their final days and hours and caring for them along with her sisters. Instead of dying in the gutter amid refuse and mud, they had clean beds. Instead of dying in filth, they were bathed and had their hair washed and combed. Instead of dying alone, they died among those who loved them because for Mother Theresa and her sisters, THEY WERE CHRIST.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “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.

They didn’t seem to be thinking about what they did, now did they? They just did it.
For them it was as natural as breathing. For them, the living out of their faith was as natural as breathing.

Take a breath. We don’t have to think about it much. It just happens. The diaphragm drops down filling out lungs with air and then the air is forced back out.

When we see Christ in all, we are transformed - the encounter becomes a holy moment and our lives one holy moment after another until our life, itself, is truly sanctified, lived continually in the presence of our risen Lord and Savior. As Luther says in his "Introduction to Romans" speaking of our life of faith, our faith does not even ask if there are good works to be done, but is already and always at the doing of them. That is truly embodying the Christian life. That is truly imitating Christ.

And it requires more humility than we could ever muster without the Holy Spirit stepping in and offering us a hand.

And it requires turning over the sovereignty of our life to Christ, which none of us would do without the Holy Spirit's constant strength; which none of us could do without the Holy Spirit’s call to us for confession, repentance and forgiveness.

Being a sheep means not thinking about being a sheep, but rather looking into the eyes of another human being and seeing Christ staring back at you A thirsty Christ. A hungry Christ. A naked Christ. Would we feed him? Give him a drink? Clothe him?
Would we, indeed.

More on Sunday!

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