We do not always get it wrong. It just appears that way too many times. And to hear some people talk, we are tempted to believe it. Yet, it is not true. Reflecting on the gospel text for last Sunday (Matthew 25:31-46), I considered all the missed opportunities for serving the least of these. Then I considered the highlight reel (in my own mind) of my years in ministry when we got it right. While I am inclined to dwell on these triumphs of grace, I know better.
Why We Get It Wrong
We equate success with faithfulness. Success is the result of divine blessing, so we are led to believe. It is the cultural message in America. Americans equate success with heroism, gaining wealth, and being the leader of the pack. In churches, growth means the same as it does in business. The numbers (or metrics) are about income, numbers of attendees, and too often sales. Our thinking has been shaded in terms of red or black accounting ink.
It is easy to put one’s nose in the air and claim to be superior to such thinking. But there is another way of measuring success. Good graces. It is nice when a congregation has a good reputation in a community. Relying on keeping the reputation, however, can do as much harm. Do we really want the respect of the respectable? If we do then we are tempted to publicly take popular positions on many issues on which we are uninformed. We are apt to compromise our moral sense of justice for what amounts to a pat on the back from the right people.
Sheep, Goats, and Wrong Division
There are many reasons farmers and shepherds have for separating sheep from goats. The reason that resonates with this text is sheep follow their shepherd. The righteous and the unrighteous in this parable are drawn from every nation. Human beings are divided in more ways than one. Many church leaders are keenly aware that multiple denominations within the Church falls short of Jesus’ prayer for unity. However, one good thing about the present situation is the varied opportunity for actions. One denomination or many may do a wrong action. But, there will be some who do the right thing.
I live near a former Quaker community that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is safe to say the majority of churches in the area thought slavery was a “biblical institution.” There were some who disagreed. But few abolitionists were willing to take the direct action of helping escaped slaves in violation of civil authorities. Lots of theological reasoning and deliberation is produced. Some conclusions lead to bad actions while others lead to good ones. It is hard to tell some times who is listening to the voice of the shepherd. But the fruit of the action eventually shows.
The value of faithfulness cannot be overstated. Wesleyan theology is known for the “quadrilateral” – Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is less known for counseling that people must follow the light that is given them which leads to sanctification and perfection in love. We do not want to make the mistake of thinking our perfection is in good deeds. And this is the main reason we should think very carefully and prayerfully about our desires for success and good graces. This is much like what St. Paul had to learn when he thought he was best suited to witness to his fellow Jews, faithfulness to Jesus requires overcoming these desires.