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.