Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sermon: If not now, when?

Sermon for Gaepo Methodist Church English Worship (4th May, 2013
Based on a reflection on Matthew 25:31-46

Twenty years ago, I worked as a producer and director in our local television station in Fiji. I lived with two other young men who also worked at the station, one a journalist, the other a video editor. As young people in the media and entertainment industry, we would often have parties in our 3-bedroom house on the weekend.  At one of our little events, someone gave me a gift of some posters…  they were for Palestinian statehood… for the Palestinian people to have their own state.

One particular one had a picture of a little girl looking through barbed wire, her eyes filled with tears. The slogan or message in all of the posters was the same. It was a question… If not now, when?

This question was also asked by John Wesley, when he reflected on today’s scripture reading.

When he first formed the Holy Club in Oxford, Wesley used to fear God’s judgment. The Holy Club included feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and poor as essential elements of their work.

But Wesley’s motivation was wrong. He thought that by doing this good work he would be saved.

However, after his spiritual experience of May 24th 1738, when his heart was “strangely warmed” as he experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit for the first time and understood that he was saved by God’s free grace – because of God’s love for everyone – something changed.

Wesley continued to serve the least among 18th century England. He allowed women to be class leaders and preachers. He fought against social abuse and slavery. But what really changed was that he was no longer serving the least so that he would be saved. He no longer believed in salvation by works. He now served the least because he was saved and because he was sure that God loved all of us.  He acted out of compassion for the least. In the first Methodist societies were communities of the least.

To engage in a work of mercy is to be a disciple of Christ, or to treat another as if the person were Christ. For Matthew tells us throughout his Gospel that the Christian must translate his or her faith into the work of discipleship. There is no option… whether the work is “saving” or not, a Christian must manifest his or her faith in an initiative to build up the kingdom of God.

The interesting thing about this is that Jesus is clearly saying that the ultimate mark of an authentic Christian is not his creed, or his faith, or his Bible knowledge, but the concern which he shows to those who are in need. The practical demonstration of love is the final proof.

It is a serious matter to realize that Jesus identifies himself with those in need. If you help them, he says, you are really helping me; and if you ignore them you are ignoring me. He flings the cloak of relationship around them and calls them "my brethren." “My brothers, my sisters”.

There is a famous painting by the artist Fritz Eichenberg, titled “Christ of the Breadlines.” In this painting Jesus is not feeding the hungry, he is standing among the hungry. He identifies Himself with the least and the lost. That is where he wants our attention to also go.


And note also that in the bible reading today, Jesus does not ask anyone to present his case or argue his cause. He asks no questions nor requests any evidence. He simply extends to this one group the invitation, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom." Then he explains the basis of his choice. He has simply noted that when they had opportunity to help someone in need, they did it. Nothing more is required.

The sheep who inherit the kingdom are those who have responded to these needs in love, concern, and ministry. They have probably done so at considerable cost or risk to themselves. But no matter, they did what they could. They are surprised to be rewarded.

With the goats it is the opposite story. And let us remember that these are people who honestly think they are sheep! They can point with pride to a moment when they made a profession of belief, they are, perhaps, church members in good standing, but by their lack of response to the pleas for help that come to them from every side they stand revealed as goats-false sheep-who never were sheep at all.

But the goats are equally surprised. They, too, are caught off guard by this basis of judgment:
"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?"

It is the times which they have forgotten that he uses for judgment, and not the times they remember.
It is the times they looked the other way when some begging hand reached out.
The times they were busy with other demands when word came of the sick and the dying.
The times when they refused, through shame or pride, to visit some poor wretch in prison lest they be associated with him. Their eyes were averted as they walked around the stricken man lying by the wayside.
They turned deaf ears to pleas when they could have helped. But these incidents have long been forgotten.
They are quite honest when they say in astonishment, "Lord, when?"

As sinners, we are supposed to be the least in the Kingdom of God. But God has lifted us up, out of God’s great love we are forgiven through Jesus and feed, clothed, welcomed, healed an liberated.

We are call to share this experience with the least here on earth.

Who are the least? To whom do you give the least of your time and attention?

The Pacific islands are thought to be paradise – lovely sandy beaches, blue sky, crystal clear sea.. sometimes when I am home,  feel that I am in the island of Eden.

But it is not the case. We have serious political problems in Fiji. No constitution, no democratic government.


Many  feel that they are the least.

But there are others who are the least.

One of the four churches I looked after was the mother church of the Indian Methodist Church. Fiji’s President, Prime Minister and many famous people have come they for worship every now and then.

But one of the four churches is in a slum area.

Not many from the other churches want to go there. They are in the community of faith. But they have the feeling of being the least. Is that good? No, it isn’t. Their cry is to be treated like everyone else. Their cry is, “If not now, When?”

Yet even though they are the least, there are others they can look at and call the least.

Those, for example in West Papua, a place that was invaded by Indonesian military 50 years ago and was made a province of Indonesia. It’s like thinking what it would be like if the north had won the Korean war…. Indonesia takes all the natural resources of West Papua, the soldiers abuse the local people and kill anyone who even talks about independence. Their cry is also, “If not now, When?”

Even in a time of tension between North and South Korea, those who live here are challenged by this story by Jesus to not only think of the least in Gangnam-gu, in Seoul, or in South Korea, but to think about the least in the North. The least in terms of material needs, the least politically, and the least in spiritual food and clothes.

Jesus calls us to act out of our love for God and God’s people, our love for those we know and for the stranger.

We a called to feed, clothe, welcome and visit.  We are called to provide material, spiritual and emotional care for the least. To open our hearts so that they can see, not us, but Jesus who is alive in our hearts.

We a called to not be so busy with our own lives that we cannot make time for the least.

We are called not to ask “when?” We are called to say, “Now”.

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