THE LEAST OF THESE
Moline: Bethel Wesley
November 23, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Today, we’ll talk about one of the hardest pronouncements the loving Lord makes to the people of God. What our Lord does and says in Matthew 25:31-46 can make one love him or hate him. Imagine the magnificent scene of the Last Judgment. Dressed in robes of splendor, our Lord comes in glory. All the angels are with him, i.e., heavenly hosts attend from the four corners of earth and heaven. Hailed as the Savior of the world, Christus Victor, Jesus sits upon his throne. Present before the Master, the nations of the world gather. Absent from his language but present still are your loved ones, you and me. A tension filled separation between the sheep and goats occurs.
Then our Lord pronounces the unexpected Word sheep love to hear, “Come ye blessed of my Father and receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Other nations or people are not as fortunate, namely the goats. An unexpected word of judgment comes from Christ, “Depart from me you who are cursed into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” It’s not rocket science. A child can understand what God wants to know about us at the Last Judgment. And what is that? Did we (nations and individuals) or did we not respond to human need in persons our Lord defines as the Least of These? Two notions play out in our text: first, doing something for the Least of These is okay and second, doing something for The Least of these is not okay. Bottom line, helping the Least of These brings eternal life.
Doing something for the Least of These is okay. Not really; its Jesus’ priority. Requests to feed the hungry for Thanksgiving and Christmas are in our mailboxes right now. People ask; so we respond with a check, a turkey, maybe a cook and serve. Warming centers for the homeless, food and clothes pantries receive our financial support and voluntarism. Just this week, the Cabinet visited the Kumler Outreach Center in Springfield, Illinois. There, needy families received food, clothing, household items and a caring community of volunteers free of charge. In your churches and public facilities, many of you are involved in these kinds of ministries. Never ignore the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, sick and imprisoned.
As an annual conference, we’ve focused on God’s mission throughout the world. We’ve sent money and missionaries to change the landscape of our brothers and sisters in Africa. For example, we’ve built parsonages, churches, schools, hospitals and sanitation facilities in Liberia. To inspire our African counterparts, work teams of clergy and laity have placed themselves at the service of their Liberian colleagues. At the 2014 Last Annual Conference, we completed our denominational campaign to raise $2.3 million dollars. We raised $2.7 million dollars! Joining other church and secular groups from around the world, we’re convinced by faith that a world without malaria is a definite possibility. Thousands of bed nets are protecting thousands of families who can’t afford $10 to buy one to fend off the deadly bite of mosquitos. Now IGRC has taken on a one million dollar project to endow nearly eight scholarships for African students unable to afford a college education.
Just think, a native of Moline, the late Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell conceived the idea of Africa University when he was assigned to the so-called Dark Continent from 1896 to 1916. There, Hartzell dreamed of college-aged students from all over Africa coming to present day Zimbabwe to get an education. Twenty years ago, the dream was fulfilled; enabled by a God determined to have us serve The Least of These beyond our borders. To be sure, God’s people are found everywhere, Iraq and Iran not just our land or the Holy Land. We are called to be a Matthew 25 church. And the world is our parish.
Last year, I was reminded of the times when our desire to help The Least of These is second to none. IGRC showed up and showed out. Sunday, November 17, 2013, killer tornados ravaged various parts of Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. People came out of the woodwork to help victims cope. As the Bishop sat in a meeting at Crossroads Church on Tuesday, November 19th, I saw tons of volunteers feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing housing for the homeless, prayer and a host of services. There we coordinated our disaster response with agencies like the Salvation Army. Be reminded that the Least of These pose theological questions we can’t answer completely. “How could a loving God allow such a disaster to happen?” I don’t know. I had the same response to man who came into Church’s Chicken 20 years ago at 35th and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He screamed this question at the top of his lungs, “God, why did you make me black?” I don’t know. Surely this question will be raised by a sheep or goat at the Last Judgment. “How could a loving Lord send a portion of his children into the eternal fire of Hades with Satan and his angels?” I don’t know.
What I do know about such tragedy and God existentially came out of childhood memories of a family experience in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Our house caught on fire. Nobody was badly hurt or burned. But the house sustained enough damage to make it uninhabitable. We lost family memories, documented in letters, pictures, and legal papers. All of my report cards, school pictures and other precious artifacts were lost never to return. In a twinkle of an eye, seven children and two adults needed places to stay, food to eat, beds for sleeping and clothes for wearing while our house was being repaired. Five or six families opened their homes to us. We were separated but cared for by loving families. To cope, I repressed the most painful memories long sent to a mental Siberia in my mind. Yet, out of that old memory of that devastating fire came the revelation of a loving God bringing my family and me through the nightmare of a disaster using the work and witness of five or six families. “What you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Never forget that our future in the age to come is dependent on out witness to the Least of These.
Let’s ask ourselves the other question. Are there places, times and/or events where the people of God disagree with God? The answer is yes. By word and deed they declare that doing something for the Least of These is not okay? If their position never changes, it puts them at risk in the light of our text for today.
I had just been appointed District Superintendent of the Aurora District in Northern Illinois Conference on July 1, 1990. August 28, 1990, a tornado hammered Plainfield, Illinois. It killed 29 people, injured 353 physically and raised the fear and anxiety of thousands in the surrounding area. Two of my churches found themselves in the heart of the disaster response. Plainfield: First and Plainfield: Sharon. Everybody went into the trauma mode especially the single clergywoman at Plainfied: Sharon. She worked tirelessly. Sleep deprived, over worked and overwhelmed by unabated human need, she got sick. We made her take a break. After a break, she returned to that work and ministry in the pariah. Illness attacked her again. Eventually, we reappointed her elsewhere.
Compassion fatigue and/or burnout took her down as it did to caregivers who worked Katrina, 9/11 and the caregivers resurrecting Plainfield after the tornado. On the internet, Rachel Remen offered a definition of burnout/compassion fatigue that helps us see why some persons would resist ministering to the Least of These for long periods of time.
“We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve. We burn out because we’re allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss (empathy) that we have no room left to care.”
Pray for the lay and clergy, doctors and lawyers, husbands and wives, Bishops and Superintendents, principals and teachers, cops and judges, politicians and the electorate, all the sides in Ferguson, Missouri, relatives caring for relatives so that “have become so filled with loss (empathy) that they have no room left to care.” “No room left to care” is dangerous for the future in Ferguson, Missouri and our future with God. Ministering to the Least of These brings eternal life though pulling back to restore the spirit is wise, inevitable and in keeping with regular Sabbaths.
Another group of people reject serving the Least of These because
it is too expensive. The Twelve do not want to feed the crowd of 5000 because they do not have the money. 200 denarii would not go very far. Yet, our Lord commands his disciples to “give them something to eat.” But feeding them requires a blessing of five loaves and two fish and a miracle by the Son of God. The rich young ruler had enough shekels to feed 5000. But he has a problem. God asks the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and give to the poor and come follow him. Try as he might, the rich young ruler could not see making himself poor in order to make a lot of people well off with his money. Some commentators might suggest that Judas demonstrated self- centeredness worse than the rich young ruler or Ebenezer Scrooge. To be clear, Judas made a compelling argument about the expensive oil Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus. Why hadn’t Mary sold it for 300 denarii and given the proceeds to the poor? She could have used a cheaper brand of oil. However, Mary wanted the best for her Lord. John 12:6 revealed Judas’ true motive. He wasn’t interested in helping the poor. Judas was a thief, plain and simple. Despite our financial situation everybody can “help somebody as they pass along, cheer somebody with a word or a song, show somebody that their traveling so their living will not be in vain.” Should one believe the internet ad by Warren Buffett, do what he says and help the Least of These even more. “Anyone with $40 can become a millionaire,” says the billionaire.
Last but not least, another group of believers reject doing something for the Least of These because they feel caught between God and Uncle Sam. The immigration question mirrors the trap the Pharisees set for Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Put differently, is it lawful to help undocumented workers/immigrants or not? Was it lawful when the President announced that undocumented immigrants who lived in the US more than five years and have children who are U.S citizens will be able to stay here for three years? But they have to risk coming out of the shadows and get things right. Am I trying to trap you with a controversial question?
According to certain polls and predominant opinions in America, most people have sided with not helping them. Seemingly, most Americans want undocumented workers deported. Over and against this strong national opinion, the word of Jesus comes into view from the Last Judgment, “And when was it that we saw you as a stranger and welcomed you?” asked the sheep. “What you did to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” Jesus said. “And when did we see you a stranger and did not welcome you, asked the goats?” “What you did not do to the least of these my brethren you did not do to me, said Jesus?” What will you and I do when we see undocumented workers stripped and beaten on the Jericho Roads in Moline and Springfield, Illinois when we know they need help? Will we mirror the behavior of participants in the Good Samaritan story? Some of us will walk by as did the priest and the Levite. Others will stop and give aid to persons as did the Good Samaritan. Uncle Sam considers these persons persona non grata.
The end result of the Last Judgment Passage is plain for all to see and heed, the Bishop included. Judgment and grace will come from the same Jesus we know and love at this very moment. Should we not continue our transformation from persons and nations who devote ourselves to the caring of others versus ourselves? Such is the example of the Good Samaritan who showed us the essence of being a neighbor; such is the example of John the Baptist who required that the baptized to share one of their extra coats with the needy, reject over taxation and extortion of their fellow man; such is the example of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol who set aside his love for money and gave himself to creating life and that more abundantly for The Least of These. Amen.