Judgment of the nations
31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
Thoughts on the passage:
There was an experiment done on selective attention involving people passing a basketball and a person in a gorilla costume. The experiment was simple, people are asked to count how many times two basketballs are passed back and forth among the six participants. It is hard to do because the people are moving and with two balls there is a lot to focus on. About twenty seconds into this, a person in a gorilla suit walks right through the people passing the basketball, pauses to beat its chest and then continues off the camera. Through it all the people keep passing the basketballs. That is not the odd thing. The odd thing is that a number of people watching the video never see the gorilla. Their attention is so selectively focused on the basketball that their brains ignore the gorilla.
One of the greatest challenges when it comes to loving the stranger is the reality that our brains, our hearts, our lives, are so focused on other things, like our jobs, our families, our churches, and a host of other things, that we can miss the strangers in our midst. Just like the people watching the video who missed the gorilla and the people in our gospel lesson who did not see Christ, we too are left wondering where the strangers are in our lives. I think loving the stranger is the hardest thing to do because we do not see them. Loving our enemy is hard, but we know who our enemy is even if it is by the harm they are causing us. The stranger is unknown to us, and it is hard to love something we know nothing about. It is hard to love something we do not see.
What makes someone a stranger to us? Usually it is because we do not know them, but often there are other things that separate us from the stranger and keep us from getting to know them. The stranger often is someone who is, or at least appears, different to us. They might not share our skin color, our gender, or our sexual orientation. They might come from a different part of the country or even the world. They might be a part of a different social class than us. All of these are superficial differences, but they have the same effect, they separate us and drive us apart.
Jesus does not want us to be apart. Jesus wants us all to be a part of God’s beloved community. He did not come to earth to show just a few of us how to live or to save a couple of us. Jesus lived, died, and rose again for the salvation of everyone. In Christ the distinctions that we cling to vanish. Paul teaches the Galatians, and us, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. This lesson is reinforced in the scripture today. It stresses in the least, the last, the left out we will also find Christ.
I once heard about a nun who only referred to people using the “we” pronoun. She felt that our very language creates a separation and a distinction that drives us a part. Think about it. The very use of words like “them” and “they” creates a distinction because opposite them is us. In our language we have made a distinction that God does not make. It is just another reminder of the ways that we make it harder for ourselves to love the stranger.
Only thinking about people terms of “we” and “us” is hard. It is hard because of the habits we have formed but it is also hard because it forces us to see the strangers in our midst and to recognize ourselves in them. It forces us to take those differences that we experience in the world and to make them unimportant. It changes how we think and act. People who look different, act different, vote different than us are a still a part of us.
When we talk about helping homeless people, what comes to your mind? How many of you think about the guy, sitting on the side of an off ramp in downtown Minneapolis with a sign asking for help? Those are the homeless we do see. The homeless we do not see are the ones who are working a job, or maybe two, and still cannot afford rent and food for their families and so are living in the car or bouncing between couches of their family and friends. Those are the ones we do not see. All of them are strangers to us. All of them are children of God. In all of them we will find Christ.
The United Methodist Church has been struggling for over forty years to come to an agreement around our beliefs about human sexuality. In 1972 we put language into our Book of Discipline stating that we believed that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching. Ever since then we have been fighting with each other about whether to remove that language or make it stronger. Who is the stranger here? For some of us, it might be people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or something else. We find it hard to understand them because their experiences are different from ours. For others the stranger is the person who does not read the scriptures the same way we do. The stranger might be United Methodists in the Congo or California or Alabama or the Philippines. These people experience God and scriptures in different ways than we do. They live different lives and they can seem like strangers. All of these people might be strangers to us, be we are called by God to see Christ in each one of them.
I am not going to tell you what to think or believe when it comes to matters of sexuality. I have my thoughts that are grounded in how I read the scriptures. I also believe that many of you might have different beliefs that are grounded in how you read the scriptures. I do not think that what we need now is more divisions and disagreements. We live in a time of divisions. More and more we find that our opinions are shaped less by solid facts and more by our political preferences and views. We all like to think that we are smarter than that, but study after study finds that we are not. We cling to the ideas and views of people like us and we become increasingly isolated from those who are different.
I believe that God is calling us to get rid of those differences. I believe that God is not only commanding us to do it, God is imploring us to do it. We need to open our eyes to see those people who are not like us but are still children of God. We need to see their hurts, their needs, and to help them, because in them we will find Christ. We need to love the stranger because we are the stranger, and God loves us.
Questions to Ponder:
What comes to your mind when you hear the word stranger?
Who are the people you struggle to love in your life?
What can we do to open our eyes to see those people we have missed because of our own blinders and distractions?
Open our eyes God that we might see you in our midst. Help us to recognize you both in the presence of our friends but also in the strangers we pass by and sometimes never even notice. Give us the courage to reach across the divisions we create that in those who seem so unlike us, we might also find you. Amen