A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Stewardship Series 2 ~ Matthew 25:31-46
Today’s scripture reading is from near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, so it’s kind of like a summation, or a completion of all of Jesus’ teaching. In the past I’ve called this “graduate level Christianity” because it really requires us to leave behind all sorts of preconceived notions about how faith or religion are supposed to work and truly accept the vision of faithfulness that Jesus offers. He uses a lot of words, but essentially I think he’s saying “a transformed heart is faithful even when no one’s looking.”
In human interaction we find it completely natural and obvious that if I do something nice or helpful for you that you will think better of me or reward me. And if you have a lot of power then I’ll probably try to be even nicer to you, or curry even more favour with you because it will help me with my reward in the long run. That’s human nature – it’s a transactional economy – like buying goods for cash we like to buy favour with our positive actions toward someone.
A transactional economy certainly has its place, but it is even more certainly NOT God’s economy.
God fundamentally does NOT operate on transactions. God’s economy is about grace and love freely given, received by humans, internalized, and then channelled into loving action toward others.
BUT, and it’s a great big but, God is not on the other side keeping score of how well we do with our received gifts. God just keeps giving them.
And that’s confusing because that’s not how humans work. But that’s how God works.
That’s why it’s so hard for us to really understand God’s ‘grace and love’ economy. And what we’ve done as a religion is to try our best to force our human transactional economy onto Jesus’ lips, when in reality he says no such things. But because we’re looking for it we sometimes misread our stuff onto Jesus.
Take today’s scripture reading for example. It’s graduate level teaching because beginners can’t get past the first verses without getting it wrong.
Here’s how Matthew 25:31-33 starts:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
It sounds like Jesus is talking about some final judgement and ultimate damnation here but that’s just not true. Yes, he paints a metaphor that looks like judgement – and, of course, any time you say thing A is better than thing B you’re making a judgement – but it’s not an end of the world scenario he’s describing.
What do you think his purpose is here?
Well, it isn’t to scare you into worrying about your next-life address.
He’s trying to transform hearts and influence action right now.
The thing the sheep get is to receive the kingdom – and we know that the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is not something that awaits us upon death – it’s something that’s already here, now, surrounding us and awaiting us but we don’t realize it.
So he’s cast us all as sheep and goats to get us thinking.
We know the sheep do it right and the goats get it wrong, so we’ll be listening hard for what we sheep should do!
The sheep get the kingdom because, Matthew 25:35-36
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
And instantly our human transactional brains go “Yes! I did it right! Jesus needed help and I helped him! I earned my way into the kingdom!”
And then it hits us.
“Wait a minute. I never saw Jesus hungry or thirsty, and I never invited him in, nor gave him clothes, and I certainly didn’t take care of a sick Jesus or a Jesus in prison.
Oh no! What if he has me confused with someone else?!?!? Maybe I’m a goat!?!”
And Jesus replies that it isn’t just about him, but anyone. And when no one was looking and you were helping someone who couldn’t give you anything in return, or help you back, that’s when you were living in love.
Here’s the graduate level part – you weren’t earning anything or scoring any points when no one was looking. But because you learned to respond to God’s love through sharing God’s love, your heart learned to notice and see the kingdom all around you.
Because you were enacting it – your love was revealing it.
Like one of those coffee mugs whose design changes when you pour hot liquid in – as you live God’s love (as you pour out God’s love) the kingdom is revealed.
And what about those poor goats? They’re so stuck in the transactional economy that they can’t realize where they fell short. They bitterly complain about being excluded from the kingdom because they are positive that every time they saw Jesus (or anyone remotely important enough) in need that they made a point of helping! And everybody knew they helped too! And so when Jesus says “you didn’t help me” they go ballistic – “You were never in need so you can’t blame us!!!”
And Jesus shakes his head, does a sad face-palm, and tries to teach them
(v.45) ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Whenever you DIDN’T help someone out there, no matter who they were and no matter who was watching, it was like you were not helping me to my face.
And the problem with that is that you only help to score points, and that isn’t an expression of love.
It’s an expression of self-centredness and greed.”
A transformed heart is faithful even when no one’s looking.
And then verse 46 confuses us because it sends the goats off to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life – which again sounds like heaven and hell stuff, but it really isn’t.
Remember, the eternal is that character and state of connection and communion with God that makes the time feel timeless.
The righteous – the sheep, the ones who ‘get it’ – experience eternal life right now, not because they’ve earned it but because they’ve allowed God’s love to melt their stony hearts and it has been revealed to them.
Meanwhile, those poor goats are given eternal punishment – which isn’t sulfur and fire but more like that emptiness you feel when you know there’s something great out there but you just can’t reach it and you’ve fallen short, so you feel kinda bad.
There’s enough hell on earth right now, we don’t need a physical place to understand feeling separated from God.
The good news for goats is that God’s love never stops flowing so the melting is still possible!
And the good news for sheep is that God’s kingdom is revealed as we participate in God’s Way, or God’s mission.
And that’s what we’re focusing on during this series.
Our word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin missio meaning to send. So a mission is something we’re sent to do.
Who? Who is sent?
How about apostles? – that doesn’t just mean the dudes who hung out with Jesus, apostle is the Greek word meaning one who is sent forth to do the mission.
Great, now we’re rolling.
We know someone’s being sent to do something and we know we’re the ones being sent.
To do the mission.
Ok, so then, what is the mission?
How do we know what we’re supposed to do?
Well, honestly, we just know.
We know it deep in our bones.
The mission is to express God’s love for the good of the world.
You can find all sorts of books on mission, and get into all kinds of debates about what God’s mission is, or what Jesus’ mission is, or what it means to be missional, but I think it’s pretty simple.
Love, love, love! Love God, Love People, Love One Another! That’s our mission.
Mission is meant to be our expression of gratitude. It’s the deep joy of God’s loving presence known and flowing forth in action.
Mission is never to score points.
Never to earn favour.
Never to impress.
Never just out of duty.
It’s a response!
Only and always mission must come from a deeply held love that needs outward expression to come to fulfillment.
The logical next question is “what shape might our mission take?”
Jesus gave all sorts of clear examples. In today’s reading from Matthew 25 he talks about providing food and drink, hospitality (welcome), clothing, care, and compassion.
In other words, one way to express our mission is to say that it’s about meeting needs, offering hospitable welcome, and compassionately caring.
But don’t get too hung up on the specifics.
A wider way to say it is that mission is any time you express love, compassion, and hospitality toward someone for the sole purpose of sharing God’s love and joyfulness.
In other words, whatever we do in faith, through Faith, and by faith, is mission.
Personally, your mission may take all sorts of shapes. That’s up to you to prayerfully figure out. Some of it will be expressed here, but most of it will be expressed when you’re out there on your own, doing your thing, doing it in love.
And here at Faith United we are brimming with missional opportunities in all kinds of shapes.
There’s all the things we do inside this place that serve people – Family Fun Night, Community Care Lunches, space for foot care clinics, music groups, scouting and guiding, community groups, summer camps, euchre, yoga, and on and on.
There’s all the things we do through our Church Work In Durham team – supporting Bethesda House, Joanne House, Denise House, The Refuge, Gate 3:16, Back Door Mission, Luke’s Place, Children’s Aid, PFLAG, Aids Durham, Footprints for Autism, and on and on.
There’s our significant contribution toward supporting the United Church Mission and Service fund to the tune of around $30,000 a year.
There’s our annual Advent water campaign where we fundraise to dig wells in Africa and Haiti, and support water projects in Canadian Indigenous communities.
There’s our teams of people who do Meals On Wheels, and St. Vincent’s Kitchen, and of course our teams of folks who cater meals and events here and the endless hours of kitchen work and dishes, and gardening, and yard care, and the wilderness trail, and Coldest Night of the Year, and on and on and on.
I know that I’ve left a bunch of things out.
That’s kind of my point.
This place, you people, are overflowing with God’s love and it is gushing out in expressions of gratitude in all of those ways I named and all the ones I missed – and all of that stuff, all of that beautiful, amazing, wonderful, life-changing, world-healing, faithful stuff…is our mission.
And we do not do one moment of it for recognition, or self-promotion, and we definitely don’t do it to score points, because we’re not goats – we’re sheep – and we do it, you do it, because you are filled with the Holy Spirit and God’s love bubbles up and flows through you in all those incredibly awesome shapes.
At the end of church worship services the minister usually gives a Benediction and a Commissioning. Benediction means a good word, like a blessing.
And commissioning means to send forth the people inspired to live God’s Way.
But think about the word – commissioning.
It’s not just a mission, it’s a “co”-mission – as in we are all doing this mission together – as the body of Christ in this time and in this place.
We are co-missioners of Jesus’ way.
And each and every one of us is called to this co-missioning.
We are called to participate – BOTH through our time and energy and gifts and prayers and personal presence, AND through our financial resources.
We’ll talk more about finances in the next couple of weeks, but I needed to say the word to remind us that participating in mission also takes the shape of money.
We are indeed co-missioners – and we live our mission here in this church, here in this community of Courtice and Clarington and Durham, and beyond these physical places we live our mission through supporting bigger endeavours all over Canada and the world with our finances through our Mission and Service Fund.
And all of it, every single bit of it, is our heartfelt expression of gratitude and love for the gifts of God that pour into us, fill us, and then flow through us transforming not only ourselves but the world.
Please don’t worry one minute about whether you’re a sheep or a goat – love, love, love will take care of that for you.
So go forth, and be co-missioners!
Go forth and love.