(you can click above to listen to the sermon being preached)
There were particular books that donned the shelves and coffee tables in pretty much every Christian home in the 70s and 80s. There was, of course, Joni – the autobiography of Joni Erikson, the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and a book called My Utmost for His Highest. Parenthetically, I went on Twitter recently asking what I should title my latest book and my very favorite suggestion was, My Lowest for His Highest…but anyway… Another book that was on every Christian coffee table when I was growing up was titled “How Should We Then Live” which was a brilliant title since basically it felt like that was the main question being answered in church. Being Christian was – more than anything – a lifestyle – one that demanded great discipline and restraint. The good thing was that it was pretty easy to know how you should then live because you could rely on the preacher to let you know the law – what to do and not do so that you would be righteous and God would bless you- what to do and not do so that you would be a sheep at Jesus’ right hand and not a goat at his left – and if you started doing the wrong things, there was a group of old straight white men, called the elders who would discipline you. So things were pretty clear. Participating in this Sheep-Behavior Management Program meant that you were to dress a certain way, vote a certain way, talk a certain way and avoid certain things: gambling, dancing, smoking, drinking, swearing and above all else, sexual impurity…that is to say, all the fun stuff. I would argue that the absolute obsession with sexuality – that moral boogey man hiding behind every corner and every zipper – often created more unhealthy sexual behavior than it prevented, but that’s just my opinion. Anyhow, given that we were taught to read the Bible literally – I find it fascinating that the list I was provided for what Christians should do –never seemed to include feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Which I why I love our Gospel text for today, the story of Jesus sitting as judge over everyone and deciding who was righteous based on their social justice agenda – I mean obviously that means that Jesus shares my opinions about social policy and that like me, Jesus also hates mean-spirited, greedy, people who don’t care about the poor. All of which feels amazing … until I really think about it. Because the righteous shine of the times I have given to the poor and fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger wears off pretty quickly as soon as I recall all the times I have failed to care for those in need, all the times I’ve chosen while stopped at a red light, to look at my iphone rather than look into the eyes of the hungry person needing help just 3 feet from my passenger’s side window. When the truth of that hits me, then regardless of my bumper stickers or the Facebook groups I am a member of or how I happen to vote, the truth is, if the law I must keep in order to be righteous is one of perfect charity and hospitality and selflessness, then I am basically just as screwed and if the law I were to keep in order to be righteous were the complete avoidance of profanity. So then where is the good news in this text about sheep and goats? I mean, that’s my struggle each time I stand in this pulpit – as a preacher I scour the text for promises I can claim for you and for me. I dig and dig for what seems like good news. But so often all we can hear from a text like this is demand and judgment and not promise and good news. And I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating, that what passes for preaching in so much of the church is the following formula: Here’s the problem, and here’s what you can do about it. But I have never heard that as good news in my entire life. I’ve tried fixing my problems or the world’s problems and it’s rarely felt like it worked. I’ve tried the salvation and self-justification check-list and it’s never saved me. Not once. That’s not to say that serving others and making changes and taking action in our lives and in the world is not important, of course it is- you don’t need a sermon to tell you that feeding the hungry is good…it’s just that we should never confuse being good with the Gospel. Because to do so is to confuse the result with the cause. Because here’s the thing: good news is not about procedures it’s about promises. See, the ones in the story who fed the hungry and clothed the poor and welcomed the stranger did not do these things in order to inherit the kingdom…there were totally surprised when Jesus said that when they did this to the least of these they did it to him. Because, righteousness was not a motive, it was a result. Their righteousness did not originate from their desire to be good. It resulted from their being declared to be good. I only say that because there’s this one part of the sheep and goats story that in all the years of my life, I never saw before (which leads me to suspect that it was secretly added this week without me noticing) Here’s the part that was clearly added recently: Jesus calls those who clothed and fed and welcomed and visited those in need – he calls them “those blessed by the Father” The verse says the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom” and this week I started to wonder if maybe that blessing came first in their lives and that is what made them righteous. Maybe their righteousness did not originate from their desire to be good. Maybe it resulted from their being declared to be good. They were told, you are God’s, they were told, God blesses you, not based on your righteousness, but based on God’s righteousness. God has made this decision…and there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t earn it or make yourself worthy of something God has already decided about you. And maybe, just maybe, as a result, they quite naturally served the neighbor. This is what we call Christian Freedom. And for some reason Christian Freedom is so seldom spoken of in the church but I’m here to tell you , it is real and it matters. Martin Luther describes it (in a typical paradoxically Lutheran way): A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, and subject to all. Meaning, the hard won freedom that Christ our King has gained for us has made us free from any tyranny of self-justification and salvation to-do lists, it has freed us from being named or claimed by any powers and principalities other than God, be they the US economy or the expectations of our families or the fear of death, or the bondage of our brain chemistry. We are free because we have been blessed by God. And knowing you are blessed by the Father changes the way you serve the neighbor. I wonder if perhaps those poor goats did not serve the neighbor because they were told they were accursed. Perhaps they did not feel worthy to serve. I mean the text says the sheep were blessed by the Father but it doesn’t say the goats were cursed by the Father, it just says they were accursed. Perhaps rather than being told of the blessing – rather than being told of the righteousness that they have because God has decided this about them, they were told that they were cursed – they were filthy, mistakes that had to do everything in their power to become righteous sheep, – they must have the right gender, the right orientation, the right lifestyle, the right world view, the right personality, the right piety etc. They were never free. They were only accursed – in bondage to messages other than God’s. So how should we then live? Well, if there is something for which we are responsible it is to remind each other of our freedom, and the blessedness we have from God. To do so it to live as those who know that the Dow Jones is not King. The expectations of others are not King. Our Body Mass Index is not King. To live as those blessed by God is to know that Christ is King and his law is love. To live as those whom God loves is to serve the other in that same love. I see this in you. For you are the blessed of God. Amen.