Sermon: Becoming a Matthew 25 congregation

I was asked to preach the sermon in my church, Burlington Presbyterian, this past week. Since I’m way behind on the blog posts, I figured I’d give you this writing instead!

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Be better. Do better. Be healthier. Waste less. Save more money, time, calories, trees. Just take ten minutes a day for exercise, financial planning, meditation, rinsing your recycling, stretching, dental hygiene or vigorous exercise. Call your elected representatives, write a letter, watch the debate, be informed. Cook more at home, from locally-sourced, sustainable food sources that are healthy and tasty and your whole family will eat. All your kids really need from you is your time and attention. But don’t forget that you need to do your job too – show up on time, work hard, pursue career growth, put in the extra effort. Go the extra mile. And no matter what, make sure you get enough sleep.

I don’t know about you folks, but I’m absolutely exhausted at the end of the day – or sometimes even the beginning – by the list of things I should be doing. It often seems like there’s no aspect of my life where I don’t get constant messages on how I need to improve. It’s hard to know where to focus. Is flossing more important than composting? What if I’m trying to save money, but healthy foods are more expensive? What if being an informed voter makes it hard for me to sustain my mental heath?

When Trina asked me to do the sermon today, I knew I wanted to talk about the verses of the Bible that best describe what I believe God’s people should be doing in the world. Those of you who know me have heard this Matthew 25 passage before. It’s so clear and actionable: see a person suffering and help them. When we do that, we serve God in the purest way. I imagined a sermon where I would lay out Jesus commands here and inspire us all to answer the call of the Presbyterian Church to commit to being a Matthew 25 congregation. You know, to work just a little harder. And then I remembered that you are probably just about as tired as I am.

And this from the Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest!”

I would still like for us to respond to our denominational calling to be a Matthew 25 church, but instead of asking you to do more I thought I’d take a moment to talk about what we already do. This group of faithful people you see around you has already dedicated their life, sweat and love to responding to Jesus calling, and here’s how.

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.
This might be the most central mission of the Burlington Presbyterian Church, from our smallest to largest moments. At coffee hour, so many Sundays, you will find food prepared for you by loving hands. Next week, we’re looking for volunteers to feed our Presbytery visitors. They love coming here because they know they’ll eat well. All of us know that on Mondays, Farmer Dave uses our playground as a distribution point for the fresh, healthy, sustainable produce he grows. You probably also know that the extras from the farm share go to the Burlington Food Pantry. But did you know that the refrigerators the food pantry uses to store that food were donated by BPC for just that purpose? Not only that, but among our members are those who have dedicated their working and volunteering lives to that pantry, to ensure that our neighbors are not only not hungry, but fed with nourishing food.

When we together stand before God, he will recognize our cooking.

I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
In our world of seemingly endless, nearly free, perfectly safe tap water, this almost feels like an anachronism. But so much of the world doesn’t get to turn on a tap in the kitchen and get as much clean water as they want. You may recall a year or two ago, our Sunday School classes devoted their year to raising funds for safe and sturdy water jugs for folks who have to walk to get their water for cleaning, cooking and drinking.

We also serve the thirsty in another way. Did you know that our church is home to an Alcoholic Anonymous group? In this case, we welcome those who are thirsty for something that is harming them, and provide them instead with a chance to find living water.

When we see the cup in Jesus hand, it will hold water we have given him.

I was a stranger, and you invited me in.
Almost two years ago, I joined some of our fellow church members at a dinner in Lowell. This was a refugee welcome dinner. We brought food (always!) and then broke bread with people who were coming from terrifying situations around the world. I met a man from my country of birth, Congo, who told of the murder of his family and his panicked flight from that war-torn country, followed by long months alone in a packed and arid refugee camp before coming to this cold, strange place. I’ve kept in touch with Louis since then, and helped him in small ways. We have been growing our relationship with those groups who welcome strangers like him to this, our strange land. We are as much moved and changed by this hospitality as are the people we meet.

When we meet Jesus, we will recognize him because we welcomed him into our homes.

I was naked, and you clothed me.
I checked the bulletin this morning to see if we had started putting in the Wish Tree notifications. Every year, pajamas and underwear make their way to kids through our loving generosity.

When Jesus judges us, he will be wearing socks we have given him.

I was sick, and you looked after me.
Have you ever gotten a casserole or frozen meal when you had surgery, or were laid up? Chances are good if you’ve been here any length of time and let the deacons know you weren’t doing well, you have. I once contemplated whether I could convince the Deniers that my cold was serious enough to merit some of their beef barley soup (food again!). We have also done things like brought communion to folks who were unable to leave their homes, spent time in hospitals waiting and watching, and helped with household chores that were hard on aching joints. Many of these things are done very quietly, with great dignity. We have held blood drives, and opened our veins. Members of this church have even, on a few remarkable occasions, given of their very bodies in organ donation.

Jesus will recognize us from his sickbed.

I was in prison, and you came to visit me.
This is the hardest one for me. It is so in keeping with God’s call that just when you’re feeling good about what you’ve already done, there is one more thing that you still need to do. I have thought a lot about this – about the rules of American prisons that make it almost impossible for people to visit, about the well known dangers and risks of working with incarcerated felons, about how foreign and scary and strange this work is. I’ve also thought about how Jesus does not distinguish that these are innocent, safe people we should visit. I have some ideas on things we might do. But I’ll throw this one back to you. What do we already do? What can we do?

I hope that by the time we stand before our God, we will have served him here, too.

I believe we are, already, a church following Jesus’ calling in Matthew 25. I’m quite sure that I have missed many of our ministries that serve these purposes, and even more that don’t fit comfortably in the bounds of these commissions. I am proud and joyful to be a part of that with you. I would also invite you to go to the link in the resources section at the bottom of the bulletin, and read through what our greater church is thinking about.

In the deepest sense, however, I wanted to tell you that you are beloved, faithful, hardworking servants of God. I know that you make me proud, and I suspect you make him proud too. As the words of our first hymn say, “Well done, well done.”

You got to come down from the mountaintop

My church is in the process of preparing to partner with a new minister, after our Reverand of 34 years retired this spring. I was asked if I’d be willing to do a service this summer as we get ready to call an interim minister, and of course I said yes. The following are my notes for the sermon. The actual delivery varied slightly.

Summerland

Last week I picked up my son Grey from a week at Camp Wilmot, a Presbyterian run summer camp in the wilds of New Hampshire. Burlington Presbyterian has a long history at Camp Wilmot, but it’s been many years since we’ve sent a contingent. How many of you here have been to Camp Wilmot? How many here have heard of it? It was a great experience for Grey, and I’m hopeful next year the BPC contingent will be even bigger?

We got the packing list for the week at camp a few weeks before the first day. It started with a copy of the Bible and ended with bug spray and sunscreen. Reading it over, it was pretty much identical to the packing lists I’d had for summer camp in my day! As we were getting Grey ready to go, we called my brother and sister, my mom and dad, to talk about our experiences at Christian summer camps. All this summer camp talk got me reminiscing about some of my favorite experiences.

When I was teenager, the Presbytery of Olympia had two summer camps to choose from. There was Sound View, on the scenic shores of the Puget Sound, and there was Buck Creek nestled up against Mt. Rainier National Park. My sister went sailing and cycling at Sound View, but my heart was given to Buck Creek. One of the most exciting camp offerings was a backpacking camp. I went four years in a row.

The second year may have been the best. We hiked the East Side of the Wonderland Trail surrounding Mt. Rainier. I remember climbing the high paths to Summerland, on the sunrise side of one of the world’s iconically beautiful mountains. Summerland is an alpine meadow, full of lupine, columbine, heather and buzzing bees. The winds that blow there come directly off the glaciers a few hundred feet distance and down to the desert country that grows the apples and cherries we all love. We campers were jubilant in our conquest of the mountain. We prayed together, read the scripture together, sang by the laboriously brought guitar, and saw more stars in that perfect night than I’d ever known had existed. My heart was unbearably full of the glory of God. In that beautiful place, and beautiful time, I could feel the Holy Spirit as a joy. I almost cried at the thought of ever coming down – and it wasn’t because the climb can be tough on the knees.

I remember asking one of the counselors why it had to be this way. Why was it so hard, and so rare, to feel the joy of the spirit? Why did we have to go back down to the “real world”? Why couldn’t we just stay here?

That wise counselor brought me back to the story of the Transfiguration, which is as follows:


Matthew 17:1-13

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Jesus didn’t have summer camp, but as he went through Israel he climbed his own high mountain – distant and remote. As I imagine this story, it was also beautiful. In that high and lovely place, he also experienced God’s touch in a remarkable way. Moses and Elijah! There, and talking with Jesus! The voice of God speaking praise of Jesus’ work! And Peter had the exact same thought I’d had – this is awesome. Why can’t we just stay here and keep doing this.

But Jesus did not stay on that holy mountain. Instead, he went down to Jerusalem and started the hardest work of his ministry – being obedient to God even to a painful, criminal’s mocking and execution. He had his mountaintop moment, and then he came back to earth to do the things that need doing.

This story has stayed with over the ensuing decades for three reasons.

Now that I’m on the teaching end of the equation, I’m astonished and impressed by Keith’s command of the Bible. He had such a perfect scripture to answer my question in a profound and meaningful way. Clearly it was memorable, for me to be talking about the impact of that lesson 20 years later. It is a reminder to all of us that continuing to study and learn God’s word might mean that we have that word ready to go when our children ask us a hard question.

The second is that we are needed in this prosaic, dirty, sometimes unlovely and difficult world because we have work to do here. Jesus healed, taught, prophesied and sacrificed himself. We are also called to God’s work in the thick air of the cities. As Amy Grant sang in the playlist of my youth, “But you got to come down from the mountaintop to the people in the valley below, or they’ll never know that they can go to the mountain of the Lord.”

The third part, the one I hold on to most tightly, is that you also have to go up to the mountaintop in the first place. Jesus took time for work, but he also took time to rest and to be available to listen to God’s word. I yearn for summer camp, and wish I could go back and reclaim some of those mountaintop moments. I think it is hard for us, as grown people with responsibilities and expectations, to put ourselves somewhere quiet and beautiful to think and pray and listen to God’s call. I find it very difficult. And I find it very hard to carry the passion of the Holy Spirit with me without those moments. Our church does try to find ways to encourage it – we’ve done retreats, and our services sometimes create mountaintop moments. We should all work to create those moments – both for ourselves and for those around us.

As for me? I’m hoping that next week I’ll be on those same trails on Mt. Rainier, in the sunset-shadow of mighty Tahoma where I once felt the Holy Spirit move. And I hope I find a way to open my heart to feel it again.