Apr 16, 2007

Sermon Title: "Poverty: So What?"

Nicholas Weber
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place, April 2007 Round

Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”1

This morning, we consider what it means to be a church to the fallen, broken world that we live in. No elaborate proofs or logical arguments are needed; we need only go to the local homeless shelter or walk down one of the streets of the city to see that this earth is broken in some fundamental way. Let us consider the Church’s role in the fight against poverty, the Church’s treasure, and what should be done with this treasure. In order to better understand what the Church’s response should be to the penniless and destitute, let us look at our Gospel lesson. On the face of it, the reading doesn’t seem to point to Good News at all. We are informed of our duties by Jesus: feed the poor, give water to the thirsty, be welcoming and hospitable, and visit those in prison. He threatens us with the prospect of eternal damnation if we do not do these things. Where is the Gospel in that? Put aside your indignation at the difficulty of these saying for a moment. Instead, try to look at this passage from the perspective of someone who is hungry, thirsty, in need of shelter or is in prison. Isn’t this section good news to them? Is it not the promise of care and compassion to the needy by the followers of Christ? Indeed, this passage is good news to those in need. Not only that, it is good news to those of us blessed in our own lives with the resources to help others. The gospel lesson shows us who are blessed how to be a blessing to others. In order to further understand the role of scripture, the Church, and the members of the Church in the eradication of poverty and its causes, let us look at a branch of theology dedicated to this task: liberation theology.

My brief history of liberation theology is indebted to the article on the subject in the New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology. Liberation theology started in Latin America in the 1960s. It came about as a result of many factors: the defeat of democratic governments in military coups, raised hopes for a better economic future, the decline of Roman Catholicism, and the increased social awareness caused by Vatican II among Roman Catholic priests, monks and nuns.2 The term was first coined by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Roman Catholic theologian in his article “Toward a Theology of Liberation,” printed in 1968.3 This is the point at which liberation theology began to be defined and have an impact on the lives of those in Latin America.

You might say, “That’s great, but what is liberation theology?” It is “. . . a theology whose main thrust is precisely to understand and nurture [the struggle of the poor against oppression] in light of the Christian faith, and to illuminate and deepen the Christian faith with the challenges of that specific life experience.”4 In other words, when viewing the world this way, “real life” informs theological reflection and vice versa. As Luther says, “It is by living, no – more – by dying and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian, not by knowing, reading, or speculating.”5 With this outlook, thinking about God and the church does not happen in a vacuum. A Christian’s visit to a home, workplace or business should shape his or her reflection in the study and reading of the Bible. This duty of theological reflection is not excluded to clergy: it is the calling of every Christian in their respective communities. So, liberation theology in a nutshell: the theology that uses a lens of what is liberating to view the Bible, theology and history. It doesn’t come about by sitting in a study, reading about it, but rather by reaching out to those in pain and suffering. Liberation theology has done great things by reminding the church that it exists not to exist, but to serve.

For all the good it has done, liberation theology has a fatal flaw. Gutiérrez illuminates it with his words, “. . . charity has been fruitfully rediscovered as the center of the Christian life.”6 Here we must depart from liberation theology: charity should not be the center of the Christian life, or the life of the church.

The life of Christ refutes the idea that the aim of the Christian life is to escape or be liberated from earthly suffering, the idea of liberation theology. The God-man who called his followers to “take up their crosses and follow”7 is clearly not promising liberation from oppressive rulers and powers: he promises the opposite! The coming of Palm Sunday also points us away from the conclusions of liberation theology: the crowds looked for a political leader to free them from the oppression of the Romans. Instead, they got a sovereign on a donkey, a king on a cross.

Nor can we recruit Paul to support our ideas of flight from earthly troubles. He writes, “. . . everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .”8 This is hardly a promise of freedom from earthly suffering. Nor can we recruit the martyrs to our cause: they did not try to slowly reform the Roman Empire to be more congenial to their religion; rather they embraced the persecution and paid the ultimate price.

We cannot pretend that we can liberate the world on our own, either. Despite how many programs we start or how many people we feed, we still fall short. As Paul says in our second lesson, “For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.”9 By this we see that we cannot do good works on our own, we need God to come and save us from our sins.

All this begs the question, “What should the center of life be?” According to the 62nd of Luther’s 95 theses, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”10 Therefore, the center of life both in the church and in an individual Christian’s life must be that treasure – the gospel found in Jesus Christ.

What, then, does the gospel of Jesus Christ mean? It means that with all our faults, our oppression of others, our passivity in helping those who are suffering, we have forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not by what we do, but by what Christ has already done for us. Our first lesson points to this with the words:

For this is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy, dark day. I will bring them out from among the peoples and gather them from foreign countries; I will bring them to their own land.11

This shows us God’s care for His people, that he retrieves them from the places they were scattered and nurtures them. In the same way, God cares for and nurtures us, and rescues us from sin through Christ.

Thus we see the shortcomings of liberation theology and the true treasure of the church. Here is the good news: by what Jesus has already done, we have eternal life and can begin the walk of discipleship with Christ.

However, by tossing in our lot with Jesus, we become involved in taking up our crosses and following him. These crosses involve some difficult things: being called to share the good news with those who might not wish to hear, suffering for that good news, and serving others (the poor and those oppressed).

To some, it might seem like I have just played a mean trick. You might say, “You’re right back where you were before you went off on that Gospel rant!” On the contrary, it is very important that we put gospel, not works (even the good work of eradicating poverty and advocating for the oppressed) at the center of life. It is like a car: if we toss out the engine, we can’t power the wheels. However, if we keep the engine, we can have the wheels as well. The gospel of Jesus is the engine of church: by it we are powered.

Martin Luther once defined this paradox with the following: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”12 In other words, our freedom in the gospel is to be used as an occasion to serve. Luther points out that we should not live for ourselves, but for all people. As Christ served others, so are Christians called to serve. Acts of service should be a natural and joyful response to what God has done for us, not to earn our salvation.

Indeed, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Weight of Glory, each human is an eternal being. This concern with eternity must lead the church and its members to preach the news of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ to others.

Looking at Psalm 100 in this light, we can see that we are made by God, and do not make ourselves. This fact must urge us to care for all people as ones made and shaped by God, not self-made people whom we can ignore. Our life must also point to God with our joyful praise.

By this view, we can now regain the witness of Paul: he lived for Christ and because he lived for Christ, he lived for others. He was not afraid to exhort Philemon to free Onesimus from earthly slavery.13 He also called the Corinthians to give money for the poor in Jerusalem.14 James confronted the hypocrisy of Christians who welcomed the rich warmly, but treated the poor badly with these words:

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor!15

This shows us that we are called to not only serve the poor, but we are also called by God to treat them as brothers and sisters, not as lesser people. Thus, by our Christian freedom, we are called to love and serve others.

So now we seem to be back where we started with our Gospel lesson. Now that we have seen why we are called to serve the poor, we can better respond to Jesus’ call to love and serve others and to also defend them from the difficulties and oppressions they might face. On this day when we consider poverty and service, let us thank God for his gift of saving us from the spiritual poverty of sin and consider how we might use our riches to serve the needs of others. Amen.

1 Psalm 19:14
2 Otto Maduro, “Liberation Theology – Latin American,” in New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Donald Musser and Joseph Price (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 301.
3 Ibid, 299.
4 Ibid, 300.
5 Qtd. in Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 7.
6 Gustavo Gutiérrez, "Theology: A Critical Reflection," in A Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 6.
7 Mark 8:34
8 2 Timothy 3:12
9 Romans 7:18-20.
10 Luther, qtd in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. Timothy Lull, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 44.
11 Ezekiel 34:11-13.
12 Martin Luther, Three Treatises, 2nd rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1970), 377.
13 Philemon
14 1 Corinthians 16:1-4
15 James 2:1-6

Sermon Title: "Black Sunday"

Judy K. Mai
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Second Place, April 2007 Round

Good morning. Welcome to our first annual “Black Sunday” worship service. Today is about recognizing the sin that is in us and around us and deciding to try and do something about it. From the time we are born, we live with the effects of other people’s sin and then with the effects of our own sin. We see pettiness and prejudice, greed and selfishness in others, and if we are honest, we see it in ourselves too.

This is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time that we have set aside to be really truthful with ourselves and with God. Now is the time to stop pretending that we are better than we really are. God already knows our shortcomings. If we are going to be completely honest, we have to admit that we have failed God miserably. In our first lesson for today, Ezekiel describes God’s justice in terms of sheep and goats in a pasture. Where do we fit in to this analogy? It is unfortunate, but I suspect that we are the strong animals that have taken more than our fair share of the pasture and are polluting the rest. This passage frightens me because it makes me think of things like world hunger, global warming and acid rain. What are we going to say when the Lord asks, “Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?”

As Lutherans, it is pretty easy to get too comfortable in our spirituality. We have been taught since Sunday school that we are all sinners and all saints at the same time. We know God loves us and forgives our sins. We read John 3:16 “For God so loved the World that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him won’t perish, but have eternal life.” St. Paul’s word to the Ephesians is the foundation of our Lutheran faith. It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—not from yourselves, it is a gift from God. It’s not by works, so none of us can boast.” We Lutherans know that we are saved and that it isn’t because of anything we have done.

The sad truth is that we know we couldn’t even come close to saving ourselves if we had to. Every time I read the second lesson for today, I marvel at how well it describes me. I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I can’t do it. Has that ever happened to you? You set out to be a good person, to avoid a certain behavior and you end up doing it anyway. I tell myself I am not going to gossip and that I am going to be charitable and patient. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I find that I have not been anything like the person I set out to be. If I am honest with myself, this makes me very uncomfortable.

Today’s Gospel lesson should make us all uncomfortable. It is one of the saddest stories in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. You have a group of people who think they are righteous. The second coming—the end of the world as we know it happens. These people expect to be welcomed into Heaven with open arms and Jesus does not even recognize them as his sheep. He says I was hungry, thirsty, alone, sick, naked and in prison and you didn’t lift a finger to help me. Of course they think it is a mistake, because they never saw Jesus in trouble. He tells them, just as you ignored the least of these—the most unfortunate members of society—you ignored me.

I think this passage should make us more than uncomfortable. It makes me ashamed. Think about it—Jesus is the starving orphan in Malawi. He is the single mother on food stamps who is in line in front of you at the grocery store. Jesus is the homeless man huddled beneath the Hudson Bridge. The bridge that I drive under every time I go to Luther Seminary. Jesus is a member of that family who camps at the park all summer because they don’t have a home. Raise your hand if you did all these things in the past month: fed the hungry, welcomed a stranger, gave someone clothing, took care of someone who was sick, and visited someone in prison. (Pause.) I didn’t either. We are goats. In the story, the goats went away into eternal punishment.

We know we deserve punishment for letting the world get like it is. There is so much poverty. Last week Pastor talked about the feeding stations that our church is trying to help support in Malawi. I know he talked about it already, but I just can’t get over the fact that sometimes they can only afford to feed people once a week. I hope the work our synod is doing can help. We certainly deserve punishment when there is a whole continent with not enough to eat and one of our nation’s biggest health problems is obesity. How could we not deserve a punishment for that?

The poverty in the world is over-whelming. Even the poverty in our own nation seems insurmountable. There are 36 million people living in poverty in the United States. Sometimes it is too hard to imagine doing something that would help to solve such a huge problem. Sometimes it is easy to push this problem to the backs of our minds because we don’t see it everyday. Maybe it would be a small start if we concentrated on our own county—the people we see all the time. There are 971 families in St. Croix County that earn less than 15,000 a year. Many of these families have an adult working full-time. If you are a minimum wage earner and you work 40 hours a week without taking a single vacation day, you make only $13,520 a year. I don’t know what the answer is, but something is wrong when a person can work hard every day and still not be able to pay their rent and feed their children.

Living in poverty in Wisconsin is not the same as being hungry in Malawi. Hunger in Africa is rampant. This means that in some areas there is nothing to eat. Here in Wisconsin, to be poor means you often don’t know where your next meal is coming from. People who study hunger call this being “food insecure.” It is a terrible thing. 407 of these families have children under the age of 5. I cringe when I imagine my own 3 year old daughter, Olivia, in this situation. What would I do if she asked for something to eat and I didn’t have anything to give her? What if I couldn’t keep a roof over her head and we had to live in a car or under the Hudson Bridge?

We do so little to help the less fortunate in our society and it is the main thing that Jesus asks of us. You can’t be a Christian and not be concerned about the poor. There are several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God's response to injustice. Our black wristbands and our black box are a small response to this call to help the poor. The donations for our wrist bands will go to support Salvation Army’s Grace Place. Grace Place takes in people who have no where else to go. The staff there also works to help people not to become homeless in the first place. They provide emergency assistance to keep people from getting evicted from the homes they have. They also work to teach people the life skills they need to help them achieve independence and self-sufficiency.

The black box we have in the narthex will be used to collect food for the Five Loaves Food Pantry. It will help those 971 families in our area that can’t always make ends meet. These are modest efforts and they won’t be enough. At least we will be doing something. We will wear our wristbands for all of Lent to help us remember the poor and to be more honest about our own shortcomings. We don’t want Jesus to say He doesn’t recognize us when He comes again.

We are right to worry when we hear the Gospel lesson because we know we are goats and not sheep most of the time. The good news is that we have a God who can turn goats into sheep. We have been adopted into God’s family. St. Paul writes that we are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

You can’t stop being a child of God, no matter how bad you mess up. That is another thing that your wristband should remind you of when you wear it from now until Easter. Just as we heard in the psalm for today, God’s love endures forever. He made us and we are his. Nothing changes that.

My preaching professor, Mike Rogness, once told a story about love and adoption. He lived in Germany in the 1960’s. One of the things he did there was work as a chaplain for the military. He became very close to a group of other Americans who worshiped together. This group included a married couple who were in the process of trying to adopt a child when they had been sent to Germany. The chaplain suggested they try and adopt a child in Germany. The couple took his advice and in a very short time, they received a little boy. He was seven years old and his name was Frederick. Frederick had been moved from one foster home to another and the authorities were very pleased to have someone offer him a permanent home.

The couple was happy to have him, but there was one problem. Frederick did not speak any English and the couple did not speak any German. Every Sunday the chaplain would come over for lunch and translate for them. It must have been hard to save up all their questions for a week. One day after church, the chaplain saw the boy waving to him from the window of his parents’ station wagon. He motioned for the chaplain to come over because he had something to tell him. The boy was grinning from ear to ear, so the chaplain expected to hear some sort of good news. Frederick said, “My father spanked me,” and he kept smiling. Of course the chaplain thought this was a really odd reaction for the boy to have after getting spanked and he was anxious to get the whole story.

At lunch he found out that Frederick had been trying very hard to be good, but that he had done something he wasn’t supposed to and his father spanked him. Frederick ran to his room, threw himself on the bed and cried inconsolably. His father didn’t understand his reaction because what Frederick had done was not very serious and his father had not swatted him very hard. When Frederick was finally able to talk he explained, in what little English he had picked up, that at all his foster homes, he had been sent away forever when he had misbehaved. He was crying because he thought he would be sent away again. The father put his arms around Frederick and explained in what little German he had, that Frederick was his son forever and that no matter how often he misbehaved he would always love him.

Fortunately, that is how it is for us. Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are adopted into God’s family and our behavior doesn’t change that. We do God’s will in response to that amazing love, not out of fear of punishment. St. Paul said it best, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…..Amen.

Sermon Title: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Nicholas R. Hopman
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Third Place, April 2007 Round

Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 100
Romans 7:15-25
Matthew 25:31-46

God once spoke through his prophet Hosea saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus twice quotes Hosea’s most famous declaration (Matt. 9:13, 12:7). This distinction between mercy and sacrifice, points to the distinction between law and gospel. It creates a type of religion that is foreign to the world and its thinking. God’s desire is not to hold us in subjugation as lesser beings than the almighty. God does not want to selfishly glory in sacrifices offered to him.

Instead God wants mercy. He himself has mercy on us. What is all of creation, but God’s mercy? In Luther’s Small Catechism, he explains that God has made us and all creatures; he has given us and preserves all our powers. Why has God done all this? “Out of pure fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without my merit or worthiness.” All of creation is God’s free gift, God’s mercy to us. God likes to create. He likes to have mercy. God gains glory for himself not through sacrifice or religious ritual, but through having mercy on his creatures. God is jealous because he wants his creatures’ faith all for himself. But this jealousy is for our own good. Mercy comes through faith in the merciful one.

God’s mercy is so plentiful and abundant that it should spill out of you onto your neighbors. Mercy is the end of law and ethics. The law demands that we respect our neighbors and help them to an extent, but when the gospel comes God’s mercy is out of control. Christ did not stop at giving ten percent of his money to charity. He didn’t even stop with his healing miracles. He gave his life in order to have mercy. He who knew no sin became sin that we might becomes the righteousness of God (2nd Cor. 5:21).

What does this mean for how we live our lives? For us who through Christ have become the righteousness of God? There’s nothing left for us to do but have mercy. I suppose that you could say that we live our lives by an ethic of mercy. But ethics are all bound up in trying to do the right thing to keep ourselves pure and sinless. Christ had mercy by becoming sin. Because of Christ, we no longer have to worry about ethics, but are free to have mercy. We are free to get ourselves dirty in the sinful world and have mercy on sinners. We are free as Luther said to become “little Christs” for our neighbors.

This overflowing mercy is what Christ is describing in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. He is describing the fruit of faith. Faith is created by Christ’s mercy, and it overflows onto the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. This is the religion that Christ desires us to practice.

As God once said speaking through Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. (Amos 5:21-22)” God does not desire ceremonial religion. Of course, we no longer offer burnt offerings to God, but do you think that God feels any differently about our so-called Eucharistic offerings of praise? Does he love our solemn assembling for worship or does he hate it?

I am convinced that many people think that one becomes holy in God’s eyes by giving him an hour on Sunday mornings. We see this as a great act of sacrifice. We fit in an hour for God amidst our hectic schedules.

This is a false understanding of worship and faith. We come to worship not to make ourselves holy or increase our holiness. We do not come to offer sacrifices to God. We come to worship because we are sinners and we need to be forgiven.

Worship then is not a sacrifice of a small part of our lives to God. Worship engulfs our lives. The mercy, which we receive from God in his word and sacrament, spills out of worship into the world.

The doctrine of vocation was at the heart of the Wittenberg Reformation. Luther claimed that we serve God through our vocations in the world. We serve God by serving our neighbor, just as much as the clergy serves God by giving away God’s word to his creatures. So for Luther all vocations were given by God, and serving your neighbor by giving her food or water was just as holy as serving her by preaching the word to her.

This is why Luther raged against medieval monasticism. He claimed that becoming a monk or a nun was to become the servant of the devil rather than God. This was not because celibacy is always wrong, or because living together with others in a communal environment is wrong. Luther did not like monasticism because the theology of his day taught that it was more holy to be a monk or a nun than a husband or a wife. Furthermore, monasticism was seen as a way of withdrawing oneself from the sinful world to have more perfect communion with God. Luther abhorred monasticism because monks and nuns did not serve their neighbors, but ran away from them and avoided them.

Christ’s words in Matthew twenty-five shatter medieval theology. They show us that if we want to be close to God, if we want to be close to Christ, we must feed the least of his brothers. One comes into contact with God in the sinful world by having mercy on those with whom Christ identifies.

No doubt there will be many seemingly religious people who on the judgment day will be cast into the eternal fire by Christ. They will be people who thought they were serving Jesus just fine. They think by showing up to church once a week, or by giving a few alms, that they have gained favor with Jesus. But Jesus wants us to practice our religion; he wants us to serve our neighbors all the time. He wants us to do this especially out in the world where we meet the naked, the sick, the starving, and the dying. Jesus does not want a religion of so-called family values. He does not want us to condemn those who have struggled to care for themselves. He wants mercy.

But you poor people, those of you who are sick or poor and cannot take care of yourselves, have no fear. Perhaps your neighbors might neglect you, but God himself won’t. God usually acts through creatures. He usually raises up a woman or a man to care for those of you who are troubled. But through his prophet Ezekiel God has promised that a day is coming when he will care for you himself. Listen to his promises to you:
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 13-15)

Listen to what he says to you who are lost and broken in this world, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. (Ezekiel 34:16)” God is even strong enough to overcome our sin. He sends Christ to be the good Shepard to the poor and the sick, even when sinners neglect them. You are the ones with whom Christ identifies (Matt. 25).

It is tempting to try to deny Christ’s words in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. It is tempting to claim that he somehow does not mean what he says. But Jesus means it when he talks about the eternal fire and sending some people there on the judgment day to suffer eternal punishment. If there is going to be any hope for us, who sin and do not always feed the hungry and care for the sick (Romans 7) it is not in denying Christ’s words, but through Christ’s words and sticking to what he actually says.

The amazing thing about what Christ tells us about the day when he will come in glory is that those who are sent to the eternal fire and those who inherit his kingdom are surprised. They are both surprised that they have either served or not served Christ. Christ is not telling a parable here. He does not say, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this…(Matt. 25:1)” as he says at the beginning of the parable in the first half of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. Instead Christ begins this story by saying, “when.” “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. All the nations will be gathered before him…(Matt. 25: 31-32)” Christ is telling us how things will be. We will actually be surprised on the judgment day when Christ rewards us for serving our neighbors and punishes us for neglecting them.

In order to understand what Christ is doing in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, we have to go back to the beginning and understand the original sin. Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had words from God. God told them to eat from all the trees in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told them that eating from that tree would be bad for them. God said to them, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die, (Gen. 3:3)” but then the serpent comes and tells Eve that God has an ulterior motive. He says that God’s words do not simply mean what they say, but that God does not want them to eat from the tree because they will become like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. So Adam and Eve believe the serpent. They look beyond God’s words and we sinners have been doing that ever since. We look behind God’s words for a deeper motive. A motive that is not for us, but is against us. We reject God’s mercy, and desire to have a wrathful God, whom, rather than trust, we can attempt to defeat with our actions and become like God.

The same thing has happened with our understanding of the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew twenty-five. Christ is telling us how things will be, but we think he has ulterior motives. We take him to be giving us cliff notes on the final judgment, giving us the answers so we can study them before the final test. But if Christ were merely telling us what to do or how we can get ourselves into heaven, if he were merely giving us new ethics to live by, then no one would be surprised on the judgment day. If Christ were replacing the system of religious sacrifice with a system of ethics based on caring for our neighbors, then you and I would know before the judgment day how well we have been feeding the poor and clothing the naked. We would know that we are serving Christ when we do such things. Those who do not serve the poor would be prepared and ready to suffer the eternal fire.

Instead Christ says that both the goats and the sheep will be surprised. This is because Christ is talking about the good works, which spring forth out of faith. Faith’s works are spontaneous and they are not motivated by fear of punishment or hopes of reward. Faith serves the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers simply because that is what faith does. Faith does not serve the poor because it is using them to serve Christ and get into heaven. Faith serves the poor for their own sake. That is why the faithful, even having read Matthew twenty-five, will be surprised on the judgment day when they learn that through serving their poor neighbors, they have been serving Christ.

God’s love is what Luther called “a lost love (eine verlorende Liebe).” He makes it rain on the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45). He gives his love away even though we abuse it. This love is often “lost” on us, but God gives it away anyways. So it is for those in whom God’s love creates faith. Believers give away themselves without any consideration of the objects of their love saying “thank you,” without consideration of the judgment day. The damned might very well spend more time worrying about ethics and the law than the faithful. They might have value systems and belief systems that say serving the poor is all that matters and Christ and faith are irrelevant, but this will only lead to their surprise on the judgment day. When you use the poor to establish your own righteousness and show the world that you alone are caring or wise, you are not treating the suffering the way Christ wants them treated. Faith alone does the works that Christ describes it doing in Matthew twenty-five.

Matthew twenty-five has often been taken to directly contradict what Paul says about the righteousness of faith. It has been taken to reassert works of the law as the way to righteousness. But faith alone serves the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers. Christ is not describing works of the law, but works of mercy. The faithful will be rewarded for these good works, but the reward does not motivate the works. Your neighbors’ needs motivate your works, just as our need motivated Christ to come down and die for us. Faith is the great miracle that, as Christ says in another place in Matthew, gives alms with the right hand while the left hand does not know what the right is doing (Matt. 6:3). This is why you faithful sheep will be surprised on the judgment day.

We always try to turn righteousness into a system. This can be a system of sacrifice, or worship, or charity. We like to do this so that we can then try to beat the system. How often do I need to go to church to be saved? How much money do I need to give to church? How much is enough to give to charity? Is helping out at the homeless shelter once a month enough to satisfy Jesus demands in Matthew twenty-five? But Christ is not installing one more system. He wants overflowing mercy. He wants you to give your lives away for the poor and the suffering. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:39)” This kind of sacrifice and love can only come from faith.

So where does faith belong? What do we have to believe in? We have the one who told us about the judgment day. We have the one speaking in Matthew twenty-five. This Jesus, whom we have often let go hungry, by not feeding the least of his hungry brothers, was crucified. By whom? By you, by me. On the cross he was naked and we gave him no clothing, thirsty and we gave him no drink, sick unto death and we watched him die. Considering all this, listen to what he had to say about you while he was hanging on his cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” Even this sin Christ forgave.

He is the same one who taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (Matt. 6:12)” About this petition he said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14-15)”

So too you who have been hungry and have been betrayed by those who should have feed you as Christ was betrayed, have mercy. Forgive those who trespass against you. You will be greatly rewarded in heaven because you have the greatest opportunity to have mercy. Do not let your fellow sinful goats descend into hell because their sins have not been forgiven. Forgive, as your Father in heaven has forgiven you.

And you who have the means to care for the sick and cloth the naked, you know who you are. Have mercy. Do what you should. Have mercy on the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers just as he has had mercy on you. Have mercy as he has had mercy on us, the worst of sinners. No doubt, you will find out like the apostle Paul that you fail in serving your neighbors. You will find out that you “do not do the good” you “want, but the evil” you “do not want is what” you “do. (Romans 7:19)” Sin is so strong and deep that even you saints will be sinners till you die and are raised. It will often look to you like all you do is sin, but even in your sinning and failures you will be serving your neighbors and Christ in them, even though you do not realize it (Matt. 25).

But before you go out into the world, take a moment to pause from your labors. Take a rest from serving the poor. Take a break from your thirst and sickness. Take a break from forgiving sin. Take a rest from giving mercy and come receive mercy. Come receive the mercy that gives you something to believe in. Come receive the mercy that creates the faith to do the good works Jesus describes. Come receive the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

Rejoice in Christ’s sacrament. In the forgiveness of sins he takes goats and makes us into his holy sheep (Psalm 100:3).

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Sermon Title: “My sheep hear my voice,“”

Steven Broers
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Fourth Place, April 2007 Round

“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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.“ Here is God, portrayed as Donald Trump, separating his hopeful employees into two groups and getting ready his firing finger. The problem is we don’t know when the final episode will be playing. When will we know who is fired from the kingdom of God and who is not?

Or does this text remind you of another T.V. show? American Idol? American Idol has three judges that give their opinions from week to week, but, really, the viewers who are text messaging and making the phone calls actually make the choices. And we like it that way; in fact, we love it! We don’t really care who actually wins, we just like to make the comparisons. Sinners like to sit in the judgment seat. We watch, compare and decide. So when Jesus starts talking about separating the sheep from the goats you can bet on one thing . . . Everyone has got their own opinion about who’s gonna make it and who’s not.

Who are the sheep and who are the goats? Is that the question on your mind? Well, that is not the question brought out in this text. The primary issue is not who is a sheep or what is a sheep but when do you find out? When will this event take place? When? That’s the big question, and it is even more important to find out that answer than to find out whether you are a sheep or a goat.

But, doesn’t it matter whether you are a sheep or a goat? Well, yes, it matters a great deal. However, I do not believe any of you are truly worried about this matter at the present moment. Why not? Because you figure you’ve still got time. Time to repent. Time to make a change. Time to start doing the things a sheep does and give up the goatly life.

No doubt you’ve already made a list of the things you could’ve done and should’ve done to those who were hungry and thirsty, sick and in prison. You probably have another list of what you could do and should do from now on. Whether or not you ever find an opportunity to exchange your guilt into something worthwhile, perhaps God will be happy enough that you at least feel bad and want to change. And, of course, when Jesus Christ returns, perhaps you will have made enough changes in your life to make the cut.

Sometimes we believe our lives are like a season of American Idol or like the goal of life is to win a job with Donald Trump. We just want to survive to the next week so we can keep playing the game. As long as we are not the worst at any particular time we’ll still make the cut. We’ve always got a chance to improve. There is always next week. As long as we don’t really mess up, we’ll be fine. There is always that word “When” to fall back on. When is not now. “When” is sometime in the future. A future that is bound to wait for us as long as it takes so we can learn how to be sheep.

Once we have suspended time with the word, “When”, we can put our energy into what we are really interested in: Who? Who are the sheep and who are the goats? We start describing what a sheep and a goat look like. Based on today’s reading, the sheep have clothed the naked, the goats have not. The sheep have fed the hungry, the goats have not. The sheep has visited the sick, the goats have not. But when you hear that God is separating the sheep from the goats, do you really care about the naked, the hungry or the sick? No. You want to do whatever it takes to make the cut. You just want to be God’s choice, or better yet, you want to force his hand so that he’ll have no other decision than to choose you.

So maybe you’ve decided to make a change in your life. Maybe you’ve decided to start acting the way a sheep acts. Perhaps you will begin donating more food and money to the food shelter and feed the hungry. Perhaps you will stand up on behalf of a sexually abused relative and clothe the naked. Perhaps you will volunteer at an AIDS clinic and care for the sick. Perhaps you will swallow your fears and visit those in prison. Amen. Those are all very noble acts of compassion for your fellow neighbor, but is it enough? Enough to make you a sheep?

What about when you looked past someone holding a sign asking for food? Will God look past that? What about the racism we are a part of in America, where people of color are abused and oppressed? Will God speak out against our silence? What about the pesticides used on our farms that poison the water table for those around us? Will God forget those who we have harmed? Make your own list. I’ll make mine as well. As much good as we can do, we have done much worse before and we won’t be stopping until we reach our graves. Like it or not, we act like goats.

The question is not “What is a sheep?” but, “How is a sheep created or made?” Have you made your list? A list of the things you are going to do? Do you think that you can make yourself a sheep by doing those things? If you bark like a dog and eat kibbles and bits, will you soon grow a tail and paws? If you are a goat, and you start acting like a sheep, will you become a sheep? Wooly coat and all? Do you think that this will really work? If not, then you’ll have to trust in another power. A power that has the ability and the desire to create a sheep where there was no sheep before.

In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord God, says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” We want God to choose us because we have chosen to be the best sheep in town with the purest woolen coats and a life full of good works. Well, how’s this for a surprise: You who are fat and strong! You who appear to be the very best sheep of them all! Hear this: You will be destroyed.

“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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.“ This text is not read to encourage you to be a sheep or to be a particular kind of sheep. You don’t need to go on a diet for God or increase your giving to the church. God wants none of that. God wants everything! It’s not about being a sheep or a goat. It’s not about what you are in yourself. Salvation is about what you are in relationship to God. What does God think of you? What are his intentions toward you? Are you blessed or are you cursed? Will he put you on the left or on the right? And when are you going to find out his answer?

I declare to you today that you are a goat. You are fat. You are strong. You will be destroyed. There are no more episodes or immunity idols. When you bring the best that you’ve got before God he sees all that you have is completely worthless. You cannot act like a sheep, because you are a goat! You have run out of time. There is no more room for improvement. God has made his choice. You are not the judge. You are judged lacking. You are judged sinful. In relationship to God, you are dead.

Hear these words of Paul in Romans chapter 7, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And for you, more importantly, who will rescue you from yourself? Who will rescue you from this body of death? What is to be done with the dead you?

God has chosen you in your death. Jesus Christ has come to separate the sheep from the goats and he has found that all his sheep are lost. He looks to his left and sees a pile of corpses, dead goats, strewn like dung across the fields of his beautiful green earth. No one has fed them. No one has given them anything to drink. His beloved sons and daughters lie naked and sick, imprisoned in their own sin. You have believed the biggest lie of all. You were blind and ignorant of the truth. You believed you were a sheep, fat and strong. In fact, you are a goat, sick and dying. A helpless goat before the eternal wrath of God.

What will God do with a dead goat like you? Make a sheep out of you. Give you a new life out of the nothing you are. When? Right now. At this very moment. Your sins are forgiven on account of Jesus Christ. Your death is killed by the good shepherd himself. There is no more time for improvement because Jesus Christ is all in all. You are under his care now. “My sheep hear my voice,“ your Savior declares, “I know them and they follow me, I give them eternal life and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Your time is up and now there is only eternal life for you.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Amen.

Sermon Title: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did also for me.”

Katya Ouchakof
M.Div. Student, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
Honorable Mention, April 2007 Round

Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did also for me.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

For many summers in my life, I have been blessed enough to spend time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This is a national wilderness area on the border between Minnesota and Canada, composed of many lakes and rivers, dotted with granite boulders, and connected with vast stretches of evergreen trees. The primary method of transportation through the wilderness is the canoe.

I worked at a church camp near the Boundary Waters, and most of my canoeing and camping experience has been through that organization. My camp had a “wet foot” policy for trail. This means that when we got in and out of the canoe, we would do so in water, while the canoe was still floating, so that we didn’t scrape the bottom of the canoe or puncture holes in it by sitting on rocks or tree roots. As you can imagine, sometimes it was an adventure to be stepping out into water rather than onto solid ground.

There are two things I look for when I’m about to step out of a boat into the water. First, how far down is it to the bottom? It’s much safer to step out into water eight inches deep rather than four feet down. Second, how solid is the bottom? If there is rock down there, it could be flat or sloped, stable or loose, or even slippery and covered in algae. If the bottom is sand or mud, will it be solid enough to hold my weight?

These questions are pretty easy to assess if I am in the first boat coming in to a landing. I will have clear footing and will be able to safely disembark from the canoe without toppling either myself or the boat into the water. So, coming in first, I’ll get out of the boat, unload the gear from the canoe, and carry it up to land.

The people in canoes following me have a harder time of it. They are left with the sand or mud or algae floating in the water that I stirred up. They come in and cannot see to get firm footing, and are more likely to tip their canoe, landing both themselves and their gear in the water.

In this sense, when I go canoeing, I am sometimes like the fat sheep in Ezekiel’s story. I have used the clear water for my own purpose and muddied it up for those who follow me. Maybe you can relate, having been either the one who muddies up the water or the one who comes after and is left struggling, trying to find the sure footing. I know that I can often be like the sheep who eats from the good pasture and tramples the rest, without leaving anything else for those who come after me. I focus on myself instead of the good of the whole flock.

So, I’m in trouble:

God, in the reading from Ezekiel, warns against people like me. We push the chosen ones out of the way to get the good stuff for ourselves, and God wants no more of it! The time has come for the separating of the fat sheep and the lean sheep, or for the separating of the sheep and the goats.

The Gospel reading today also addresses the separation of God’s chosen ones from those whose actions deny God. Jesus reminds us that when we do good things for other people, we are serving him. When we fail to think of others, we have fallen away from God.

It’s really a matter of attentiveness. When we are attentive to the needs of others, Jesus says, we are serving him.

When we miss seeing another’s need, we have passed up an opportunity to serve Christ.

That is to say, when we see that someone is hungry or thirsty or lonely or cold or sick or imprisoned—when we see that need, we have a duty to fulfill it. Jesus expects us to fulfill it. And our reward is eternal life.

This sounds a little bit—or a lot—like works righteousness, I know, but let’s try to ignore that fact for the moment and focus on Jesus’ words.

Jesus is describing a scene that is coming, when all the nations are lined up before him, and he lets the sheep pass on the right but sends the goats off to the left. The sheep are those people who have followed his example in serving others. The sheep are those people who have taken stories from the prophets to heart, like today’s from Ezekiel. The sheep are those people who have helped their neighbor in times of need.

The goats are the ones who haven’t done so. Notice that the goats aren’t the ones who caused the hunger or thirst or loneliness or cold or illness or imprisonment to begin with—the goats are not people who actively harmed other people. The goats are just the ones who didn’t bother to pay attention to the needs of their neighbors. They allowed suffering to continue by their apathy and inaction.

So who do I want to be?

Well, obviously I want to be the one on the right of the judge. I want to be the sheep. I want to be the one earning eternal salvation.

But my actions betray me.

For, as Paul writes,

“what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. ... For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Or, to summarize,

“I don’t understand what I’m doing!”

I try to be the good follower of Jesus, but I get in the way of myself. My own sinful nature won’t allow me to do all the good things I wish I could. I try, but my personal desires get in the way and I fall short. I waste my time on computer games instead of volunteering in the community. I forget to bring in donations when my church is having a particular drive. I spend money on luxury teas and coffees instead of the fair trade variety that many churches have available.

And I’m guessing that I’m not the only one in this situation. Usually—no, always—we humans fail to live up to our God-given potential for doing good. We sin and fall short of the glory of God. We forget to put others first, and instead focus on our own needs.

This is where the good news happens. Just when I’m about to give up and give in to sin, because I can’t seem to find a way out of my own selfish actions, Jesus comes along with my salvation. He comes, offering himself. He takes care of the debt I owe to God.

I have tried to help others and to put them before myself, but I have failed. I still get out of the boat first and muddy up the water. The difference—the good news—is that God keeps the water clear for the next boat coming in. Despite my muddying up the water, God makes sure that all the boats get in to the landing safely.

Jesus’ grace takes care of my shortcomings, and yours, and praise be to God! This is not to say that we should “sin more, that grace may abound,” but it means that when we can’t find a way out of our sinful nature, grace will shine a little light through. Grace will clear up that muddy water. Jesus himself fills in where you and I fall short.

With Jesus’ actions, our eternal salvation has been assured. I no longer have to worry about earning it. Grace, and not works, proves me righteous before God.

So we are freed! We are freed from the need to earn our way into heaven. We are freed to see the needs of our neighbors, without any guilt attached to the seeing. Because of grace, when we see that someone is hungry or thirsty or lonely or cold or sick or imprisoned, we are able to respond in joy. It is not out of guilt that we serve others, or personal ambition for eternal life. We serve others out of joyful desire to serve Christ.

We don’t need to serve! But Christ has given us the opportunity to serve him by sharing a little love with our neighbors. If we so much as offer another person a blanket or a drink of water, we are serving Jesus himself. But even before we serve, our salvation has already been secured by the grace of the Judge; by the actions of Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.


Sermon Title: The Verdict Is In

Kari Casper
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Honorable Mention, April 2007 Round

Whenever I read this Gospel text, I am reminded of the song, “What if She’s an Angel?” The verses describe events when someone could have responded to the need of another, such as raising money for a sick child or overhearing a domestic argument, but instead did nothing. The chorus of the song goes, “Maybe she’s an angel, sent here from heaven. Makin’ certain that we’re doing our best to take the time to help one another. Brother are you gonna pass that test?” Quite frankly, although the song is catchy, whenever I hear it on the radio, I move to quickly change the channel. Maybe it’s because of the uncertainty it stirs up. Maybe it’s because I am uncomfortable with the idea that the Christian life is a test, and that it is up to me to pass. It makes me think, despite my best intentions, if we really are judged based on what we do, like this song suggests, I’m not so sure I would pass the final test.

In the same way, this Gospel text is one that has reasons to make us squirm. After all, in it we meet a God of judgment who is separating all the nations gathered before him like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Goats on the left. Sheep on the right. The sheep are determined as those among the righteous but the goats are not.

Clearly, we all want to end up on the right. We want to be included among the righteous and those who are blessed with God’s favor when that final judgment comes. So as part of the competitive, driven culture that we are, we get our notepads out and start to make a list of what we need to do to guarantee our spot. Step one: Feed those who appear hungry. Step two: Give those who are thirsty something to drink. Step three: Welcome strangers. And the list goes on.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If this is our approach, sooner or later we will find ourselves in a trap, trying to determine those who are the least among us and doing everything we can to meet their needs, while at the same time never being certain that we are doing enough. Then we may wonder, “How do we know if we are doing enough, if we will indeed be included as among the righteous? Did we give food and water, shelter and clothing to all those we saw who were in need? Did we befriend and serve others as though they were Christ himself?” Eventually we will end up like a gerbil on an exercise wheel- spinning and spinning but never really getting anywhere.

The truth is, if this is how our eternal life is decided, we are all doomed. We will never be able to do enough to guarantee our salvation. Try as we might, we can’t make it on our own.

This is where the story gets us, because to all those gathered before him, Jesus’ words come as a surprise. Those determined as righteous are just as surprised at God’s verdict as those who have been determined as unrighteous. “But Lord,” they wonder aloud, “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty? When did we clothe you or visit you in prison?”

Jesus answered, “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. Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

By this response, it seems that the problem with those who were determined as unrighteous, the goats if you will, was not that they did not do enough. It was that they did not do anything at all. Of course, sometimes it is hard to decide just what, or how much to do. But frankly, more often the opposite is true. In our culture where achievement and power are prized, although we know there are needs to be met, unless we intentionally set aside time to meet them, often they get lost in the shuffle in our race to the top.

It is here that Jesus’ words meet us. He reminds us that we are not in this for ourselves. What strikes me the most is that Jesus says, “Just as you did to one of the least of these in my family, you did it to me.” Here he is, with all the nations gathered before him, telling those who think they are closest to Jesus that his family is all-inclusive. The point Jesus is getting at is not just that we are to love and serve the least among us. While that is necessary and good, it is not the whole story. The point is that we are all a part of the family of God. We are all made in God’s image. And we all belong to the body of Christ, gathered together by the Good Shepherd.

When we were in Guatemala two weeks ago on our mission trip, we had the opportunity to experience this truth first hand. One of the things about San Lucas that impressed me the most was that it is a land of many stark contrasts. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and yet there are heaps of garbage lying around because they do not have a waste removal system. Lake Atitlan is large and beautiful, yet it is 98 percent polluted. And while most of the people in San Lucas live in poverty, across the lake from this small village are huge lake homes, owned by celebrities and people from around the world who come there for vacation. Perhaps most ironically, the coffee grown there is some of the best in the world, yet they cannot even afford to drink the coffee they produce themselves.

While at first glance the Mayan people may appear to be among the least, they are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Their smiles light up their faces and they live in a very communal nature. It was a privilege to be welcomed into their town, church, and daily lives. We learned more from them than we could ever have given. And though we came from two very different worlds, we were united by the One True God. As we worshipped together one Sunday morning, the reality sunk in that we truly were united in and through Christ. Though we worshipped in different languages and lived very different lives, we were members of the same family, joined together by the One who shed his blood for us all.

Through our experiences in Guatemala, we were reminded of what is most important in life, and we realized more fully all that God has given us. Similarly, in this text, more than reminding us that it is important how we treat one another, Jesus is telling us that what is most important is to whom we belong. And he is reminding us that the gift of salvation God gives to us is for all people. God has gathered all the nations before him. His love and salvation sees and knows no boundaries. We are all a part of his family, and in it there are no distinctions between race, gender, or class.

Just a little bit later in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear this again. In the Great Commission, Jesus sends his disciples into the world with the authority given to him by his father. He tells them “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This also reminds us that the message of God’s love in word and deed is meant to be shared with others regardless of who they are or where they live.

For we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But we believe that our righteousness is based on Christ’s own righteousness. When God looks at us, rather than seeing us as the sinners that we are, he sees Christ. And when he sees Christ, he sees his Son, whom he dearly loves, and with whom he is well-pleased. God sent his Son into the world to set us free from sin, death, and the power of the devil so that in him we may truly live. He did this entirely out of love, and offers this gift of grace to all of us freely and without condition. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

Jesus is not telling us to do more, serve more, give more, or volunteer more. While these things are important, they are not the basis of our salvation and they do not determine our worth. We are saved by faith, not works, and faith comes in and through Jesus Christ, by his Holy Spirit.

At first glance, in this text, it seems that we do meet a God of judgment, who separates the sheep from the goats. But in fact, through this gift of grace in Christ Jesus, the Judge is also the Reconciler. It is this God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ into the world. And it is this God who welcomes us all into his family, free of condition, and who has done everything necessary to secure our salvation. Indeed, the final judgment has come and the verdict is in. Those who are in Christ are among the righteous. And on this basis we can be sure: we are in. Amen.