The day began with a preparation for a memorial service. Having come through the Thanksgiving day excess and avoiding the cult of consumerism on black Friday, I now got to preside over a service for a woman who had lived a good long life. Her sons were grateful for her life, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren said thank you and we’ll miss you. Friends and neighbors came to say thank you and God bless you. It was a good time.
I know that sounds odd to many folks. Rhys often stumbles over what to say when I head out to do a funeral. “Have good time,” doesn’t sound quite right. He’s settled on “I hope it goes well.” Which is pretty good really. Except this one was good. I got to meet some family members I didn’t know, and while there was sadness in the loss, none of them wished her to continue in the frail and declining body she inhabited, and living alone after her beloved husband died was hard too. So it was good. Good to celebrate a life and a legacy. Good to be with family who loved and lived in peace with one another.
Yesterday my family and I went to see my dad in the facility where he resides. They recently moved him to a higher level of care. He was still unsettled by the move, you could tell. Wasn’t sure why he was there, wondered when he would get to go home, was sure one of his other sons had just been there. In fact I think he thought it was my brother’s home and he was just there wondering where everyone went. He just drove there in his little car, he said, and now he’s there. I told him my brother was coming Saturday. I know, Dad said, mom told me. Maybe she did. If anyone could communicate across the barrier of life and death it would be my mom. Especially when she had something my dad needed to know.
It’s a hard visit to make, I’ll confess. Hard to see what he is and remember what he was. Hard to not be able to give him what he wants, even though what he wants he can’t do any more. Hard not to find the little thing that will clear his mind, that will give him peace that seems to elude him these days. Yet, though it was hard, it was also good. Good to be there for a while. To show him two of his grandchildren, one all the way from Boston. What are you doing there, he asked my daughter. I live there now, she replied. Oh, all that way? Yeah.
We fussed with things, cleaned up, threw out, piled up stuff he didn’t need in the new room which was a little smaller than the one he left. I was preoccupied with the stuff, sometimes. Because stuff is easier to deal with. But there were moments. Silent ones sometimes, talking ones sometimes. Moments where something else was going on. Something deeper, more significant. Something good. I almost missed them, I confess that too. I was too worried about what was going on to really be present in the moment. But there were times. When something ... no, when Someone showed up in the midst of us.
Matthew 25:31-46 "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."
The blessing here is the question that is asked of the Lord in glory. Did you notice the question? You probably noticed it from the goats. We’d expect goats to ask such a question. They are goats after all. Jesus tells them what they didn’t do, how they neglected Him in His time of great need. When He was hungry, when He was thirsty. They didn’t help, they didn’t offer, they didn’t pitch in, or show up. But they ask, “when was it that we saw you and didn’t help?” The implication being had they known it was going to be on the test they would have studied. Had they known those needy ones were someone important they would have jumped up to help out.
Of course, we expect such goat-ish behavior from the goats. But then, hang on a minute. Didn’t their question sound familiar by the time we got to it? Hadn’t it been asked before? It was baa baa-ed by the sheep, even before the goats were confronted. Really? The sheep didn’t know either? “When was it that we saw you...?” What was it? Tell us. We must has missed it, we must have missed it in our busyness to help. In our attention to the job at hand, we didn’t realize the gravity of the moment. We thought we were just helping. We thought we were just serving. We didn’t realize that we were worshiping too.
There are those who don’t like this story. They are afraid that it might lead to works righteousness. Which means it might give us the idea that we can earn our place in the Kingdom we long for. If we do good works, if we labor long and hard, then God will reward us and give us entry into the gates of heaven. And I have to agree, it does sound like that.
There are those who go to great lengths to tell us that we can’t earn our salvation, That it comes as a gift from God, by grace through faith. And that any sense that we can pile up enough good works to earn it is not just misguided it is dangerous, it is heresy. And this I agree with too. It is a dangerous mode of thinking that says my fate is in my hands, when in fact it is always in God’s hands. And God’s hands are big enough to, well, He’s got the whole world in those hands. Remember? And we can trust in that.
So, do we nod and wink at Matthew’s story as misguided somehow? Or a mystery beyond our understanding? Because it sounds like works righteousness. Or it would sound like that, if it weren’t for the question. When was it that we saw you? When was it that we were helping you? When was it that you were present in a difficult moment of caring or a joyous moment of thanksgiving? When was it? That question is what keeps this story from being about earning my way into God’s kingdom. Because evidently the sheep weren’t doing what they were doing in order to get into heaven. They were doing it because they learned to love somewhere. They learned to care somewhere. They learned to give and love and serve somewhere. They were doing it, in other words because they were already a part of the kingdom. It was a response to salvation not a means to earn it or be worthy of it.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He gave them two. Love God and love neighbor. You can’t, He is saying, separate them. You can’t love God and not love neighbor, it just doesn’t work that way. Grace received has to be grace shared, it’s what makes it grace. Jesus was saying to the sheep, you have shown that you received grace because you lived it out in your everyday life. So, welcome home.
When was it? And His answer was “whenever.” Whenever you did it to them, you did it to me. Whenever you loved, you loved me. Whenever you cared, you cared for me. When it was easy and good, it was easy and good with me. When it was hard and painful, it was hard and painful with me. When was it? Whenever. He is there.