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Angels Unaware

Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

*****

There’s this story in the book of Genesis where Abraham and his family are at their camp, when all of the sudden he looks up and sees 3 strangers approaching him. What would you do, if you were sitting in your living room on a quiet evening, and all of the sudden, 3 strangers started walking up to your door? Would you open the door and invite them in? Would you pretend not to be home? Would you think about calling the police? Would you crack the door but maybe leave the chain locked? There is a vulnerability that we feel when we find ourselves face to face with a stranger at a moment when we hadn’t planned on it.

In that moment, Abraham showed these three strangers hospitality. He invited them into his camp and had water drawn and food prepared. Which was a good choice because it turned out these were messengers from the Lord, messengers who were revealing God to Abraham, and after he’d fed them they gave him good news: you are still blessed by God and you will have a child.

Looking back to this story, the writer of the book of Hebrews advised the early church: Do not neglect to show hospitality to the stranger, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware. If Abraham is the father of faith, the hospitality he shows is at the heart of what it means to be faithful.

Hospitality is how you show that you have eyes to see and ears to hear the hidden truth of God. Anyone you meet might just be an angel or even the Lord because the God revealed in the Bible is a God who is revealed in hiding. God comes to Abraham through messengers, comes to Jacob through a vision of a ladder, Moses in a burning bush. And in Jesus veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail incarnate deity. Veiled in flesh. The flesh of a crucified wretch, flesh still wounded, the flesh of a persecuted loser church: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? A god revealed in hiding might be hidden anywhere, can identify with anyone, which has to change the way we look at the world, the way we see our neighbors, our stance toward the Other. Because if Jesus identifies with them, it might be that I am the one who is a stranger to God.

This morning’s Scripture is the last of three parables that Jesus tells in order to call the church to a certain kind of life, where as a community we welcome the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, those whom our world calls the “least of these” because those are the people with whom Jesus identifies.

In the parable, Jesus describes a judgement scene where all the nations will be gathered before a king and they will be divided into two groups, like sheep and goats. The king speaks to the first group, saying, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And when the people asked, “When did we do those things for you?” the answer comes, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

Then to the second group, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” And when the people asked, “When did we fail to do these things?” the answer came, “Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me. In the parable, the king identifies with “the least of these,” the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner. In the Bible, God takes sides. Since the Garden, humans have been divided from one another and we have turned those divisions into hierarchies so that some people are winners and others are losers. Men, winners; women, losers; oldest brother, winner; youngest brother, loser; rich, winner; poor, loser; city-dwellers, winners; nomads, losers; free, winner; slave, loser; citizen, winner; refugee, loser. The stories of the Scriptures and the newspapers alike are crisscrossed with lines of power that create a segmented, fractured world.

God looks at these lines, these borders, these fractures, and God takes sides. God takes the side of the nomad Abraham, God takes the side of the younger brother, God takes Hagar’s side in the desert, God takes the side of the slaves, God takes the side of the Exile, God takes the side of the colony. This is what it means to say that God has chosen the Jews. God identifies with a particular people and in so doing God takes sides. God takes the side of the teenage mom shamed for being pregnant, God takes the side of the young couple who are refugees in Egypt, God identifies with the child whose parents couldn’t get a room in the shelter. God takes the side of the crucified. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do also for me.  

In our very modern societies, we usually don’t like the idea of a God who takes sides. This notion of sheep and goats is disturbing to us. Surely all live stock matters. If we could just get both sides around a table, the least of these and the most of these, we could come to some kind of reasonable compromise!

But that’s not how God works and that’s not the pattern of life that God calls the church to live. Whatsoever you do for the least of these you do also for me (and vice versa), and so the New Testament calls Christians to take up their crosses. Because we are slippery and good at deceiving ourselves, Christians have used this idea to reinforce the patterns of this world, telling those the world calls the least of these to stay put, rather than giving them the food, or clothing, or shelter, or whatever it is that is really needed. They’re already on crosses and so those who are not tell them to stay there. And then, in an even more subtle deception, the rest of us label specific moments the times when we take up our crosses: when we go to the soup kitchen, or write the check for the charity, that’s where we take up our cross and it gets us off the hook for everything else we do. But the call to take up our crosses is supposed to do exactly the opposite. The call to take up our crosses is a call to identify with the crucified, instead of protecting my position, instead of doubling down on the things in this world that make me comfortable. “Take up your cross” means on top of doing charity, do something about the very structures and systems that make people need charity in the first place.

If the world divides people up between losers and winners, God offers the losers liberation and the winners a cross, so that they can become losers and there find liberation themselves. The God who takes sides with the losers calls the winners to take up their crosses so that the world will be turned upside down and a new world without crosses might emerge.

This is the kind of people that the church is called to be. As I said last week, the weight of these parables are not supposed to fall on individuals. Jesus is calling the disciples to be a particular kind of fellowship. And because God takes sides, there are right and wrong ways to live life together. God is pleased with communities that welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, and care for the sick. But communities that turn away the stranger because they are trying to protect the purity of their own identity, that refuse food because the least of these need to be taught responsibility, that leave prisoners to abuse and rape and even death because they supposedly deserve it, these communities make God angry. God judges communities based upon the fruits of their life together. Blessed are those who take up their crosses and fight for the freedom of their neighbor; woe to those who put crosses on their neighbors and fight for freedom from them.

In the Bible, God takes sides and so churches are called to side with the least of these, too. Which means we have to be willing to ask some difficult questions about who is called the least of these in our world. In our city, in our neighborhoods. Who are the strangers, the refugees, in our world? Who is occupying most of the prison cells? Who is hungry? Who can’t quite seem to scrape by a living no matter how hard they work? When you’re sitting around at your breakfast spot with the boys, who is it OK to joke about? If we are to be a Christian community, we need to take their side. Not the side of what is profitable. Not the side of what makes people feel safe in their walled neighborhoods. Not the side of the winners. If we want to identify with Jesus, then we need to love the people with whom Jesus identifies. We need to choose sides. Some of us need to take up our crosses, and some of us need to hear, “Hey, it’s time to step down off yours.”

And this is actually a gift to everyone, those among us who are citizens, who have food, who are relatively free, too. Because a world divided into winners and losers is bad for all of us. It makes everyone miserable. And so while God does make judgements that there are right and wrong, good and bad ways to live as Christian communities, everyone is welcome to identify with those the world calls the least of these. Everyone is welcome to take up their cross, to say, “Hey I’ve been in charge forever, what do you think we should do?”

In that kind of community, there is life, what Jesus calls eternal life, life that can’t be taken away. When you live in suspicion of your neighbor, when you have to turn away strangers, refuse food to the hungry, when the prisoner is a faceless specter haunting the outside world, then the least of these constantly threaten your life. And so you have to build a world around that threat, a world pockmarked by barbed wire, where the stranger in my neighborhood is by default suspicious, where the hungry are hungry because they are lazy, where everyday objects like shoes or toothpaste are potential security threats. To reject the least of these is to succumb to fear.

But to say that God takes sides is to say that God rejects fear and throws God’s lot in with people. The answer to fear is always, always, always love. And not just love as a vague concept or a sentimental feeling. But love that moves, that rearranges the furniture, love that gets angry to see the beloved mistreated. In God’s way of doing things, “Those whom the world says are not beloved are beloved of God.” The least of these are desired most by God. And so as communities treat the least of these in their midst and at their borders, so to do they treat God, which means that the love of God is always near to us in the need of our neighbor. And so their need is our need and ours is theirs and every stranger who walks into our doors or interrupts me by my car presents a chance to become entwined with one another in the very love of God, a chance to welcome angels unaware. May it be such Christians. May we be such a church. May we work for such a world. Amen.

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