Justice and Relationships (Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46)

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This is the sixth sermon of a six message series written by Pastor Jack Van de Hoef based on the book Live Just.ly by World Renew and Micah Challenge. Click here to learn more and order your copy of the book. This sermon was originally given February 26, 2017; Bethel CRC, Brockville, ON

Let me start this message this morning with a reminder that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by the measure of good works that we can add up. Our life of trust in Jesus is not a balance sheet where we add up all the good and the bad and see if we come out on top. It is not a comparison chart where we measure ourselves up to others to see who has done more or less and therefore who is better.

We are saved by grace. Unconditional. Undeserved. Unlimited. Overflowing. Complete and total forgiveness of sin. Absolute welcome into the kingdom. Not based on what we have done but totally and completely because of what Jesus has done: he died on the cross for our sins and rose again to give us victory. Praise God!

Next week Sunday we are invited to celebrate this amazing relationship and to be nourished in our faith through the celebration of Communion. The invitation to come says that we do not come to the table as though we were righteous in ourselves. We are confident that the Saviour accepts us at his table when we come in humble faith, with sorrow for our sins, and with a will to follow him as he commands.

Now, why this reminder of something we know so well and hear so often? Because when we talk about justice and when we read this parable of the sheep and goats, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of asking ourselves, “Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right things?”

It’s so easy to look at our lives and start checking off the boxes: “Yup, I helped a hungry person. Yup, I donated clothes to Thrifty’s or the Salvation Army. Yup, I was kind to a stranger and paid for their coffee. Yup, I’ve visited people in the hospital and brought a meal to my neighbour after she came home from the hospital. Hmm, the prison one...haven’t done much there, but hopefully all the other stuff will make up for it. But is it enough?”

Or maybe we look at the checklist and check only a few boxes: “Yup, I gave to the Food Bank. Nope, didn’t do that one or the next one. Could have done more on the other one. Uhoh. I’m in trouble.” This whole series on faith and justice has not been intended to guilt us into doing more. It challenges us to reflect on the great commandment and the great commission, with which we began. What does it mean to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength? What does it mean to love our neighbour as ourselves? What does it mean to go and make disciples of all nations? How do we do this? Why do we do this?

We don’t obey any of these commands to earn favour with God. That’s ours, by God’s grace. We don’t love God or neighbour or share the gospel so that we can stand before the throne on Judgment Day and say, “See what I did!”

We love because he first loved us. We love because that’s the expression of new life, of being born again. Love is living our God’s grace.

The love that we show is not some big miracle or publicly impressive example of profound love. Jesus talks about the little things, little ministries in life in this parable. Food and drink, clothing and hospitality are minimum human needs. Visiting hurting people in their confinement, when they are not in productive circulation or attractive or strategic, is a ministry recognized as a commitment to Christ.

Providing food and shelter, making visits are all basic and mundane and unflashy services. These ministries are within the reach of every one of us. We can do this. All of these ministries are given the highest honours by Jesus.

The services mentioned here are illustrations, not a complete list. There are as many human needs as there are human beings. Every person we meet is dying for a drop of love. Basic help for each person’s need is what Jesus celebrates here. Jesus deflects his disciples’ goals from great plans for personal success and redirects them to little deeds in other people’s service.

As you did it to one. Surely one needy person isn’t all that important in a world of needy persons! Jesus says, think again. As well, it is not just a single person helped, it is “the least significant” person.

This could be the person we might think unworthy of getting help. This may be the person who always needs help; they continue to ask or require assistance. This includes the repeat offender, who gets caught again. Or the alcoholic who makes another promise.

This is the elderly person with Alzheimer’s, who tells the same story again, and again. This is the unborn child, who has not yet had a chance to breathe the air we breathe.

When we talk about justice and relationships in the context of this parable, we are talking about real people who are hungry and thirsty and don’t have a proper winter coat. We are talking about real people who have no friends to join for coffee, no one visiting them or caring for them when they are sick, no one sending them a card in jail.

These are people with a name and a face, not a generic crowd.

If you are reading the TODAY devotional from Back to God Ministries International this month, then tomorrow (Monday, February 27) you will read this parable again. You will read about “the least of these.” Jesus does not mean these are lesser people, as if they are not as important as others. Whatever we do for someone in need, we do it for him. It’s not up to us to judge people who are “the least of these.” Our task is simply to reach out and show Jesus’ love. Our prayer is to ask the Lord to open our eyes to see his face in the faces of people who are down and out, disadvantaged, or challenged in other ways.

As we have been learning about justice and the mission of God in the world, our task and prayer is also to go beyond a simple act of charity for “the least of these.” We are called to ask questions of why they are hungry, why they have no clothes, why they cannot afford to pay their hydro bills, why they are considering an abortion, why the family is contemplating medical assistance in dying.

To be able to consider those questions, we must have a relationship where we have built trust and understanding of a person’s situation. We cannot merely sit in a pew or in a committee room in church and draw conclusions about why “they” are doing what “they” are doing, and what “they” should do. We have to show that we care by giving food or clothes or a visit, and then show interest to learn their name and to learn more about their circumstances. Then we may have to “get our hands dirty” and do something with them.

When we do this, we will meet Jesus. When we do this, we will bring the presence of Jesus into the lives of “the least of these.”

But how often do we find ourselves in, what I want to call, an “echo chamber”? This term has been used recently in the news in talking about the effects of social media on what we hear or read about what’s going on in the world. If our information is found online through Google searches or Facebook links, we will probably be fed a narrow interpretation of the news. That’s because of something called “personalization algorithms” that are created by those who own Facebook, Twitter, and Google, so that you are fed information based on what you have been searching or reading. You are fed “more of the same.”

This can lead to an avoidance of those who are different, or even an ignorance of those who are different. If we don’t read or listen to other voices than those we agree with, how will we understand them?

This same “echo chamber” idea can apply to our relationships. Sunia Gibbs, in the study guide “Live Just.ly” asks, “Who are we with? If we ignore or avoid the vulnerable around us, how can we be motivated to act with them for deliverance. If our eyes only see people exactly like us, if we just work really hard to purchase shiny new objects, or if all our energy is spent striving for higher positions of power or fame, we have given in to the values of the world around us instead of becoming more and more responsive to the Spirit of God, who reminds us of our abundance and compels us to go deeper and more generously into our communities.

“We demonstrate our love through our relationships with one another. And this love must be more than the words we speak but also the actions we take to relieve one another’s burdens.

“May our relationships with one another radiate and demonstrate the abundant and generous love of God” (Live Just.ly, pp. 86-87).

Shaine Claiborne is quoted saying, “Things get messy when people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity” (Live Just.ly, p. 80).

At the beginning of this series I introduced a new acronym, IFTOP, “It’s For The Other Person.” As if justice and mission is not my thing. But we have been reminded that living out justice and mission is actually who we are. Those who know Jesus will give and share and be advocates and live generously in relationships with “the least of these.”

We will meet Jesus as we live justly. We will show Jesus to others as we live justly. Remember, these are the words of Jesus, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Live the grace of Jesus, justly.

Amen.

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