|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on November 23, 2020 at 9:35 AM|
OK- so how many of you have a list going in your minds right now? How many of you are starting to count up the times you’ve cared for those who were sick or given water to folks asking for it in the heat of the summer? And how many of you are remembering all the times when you ignored your neighbor when they asked for food or thought it was too much work to write to someone in prison? And now, how many of you have both lists in your head right now and are trying to see which list is longer?
That’s what this story from Jesus does! It makes us joyful for the things we’ve done to serve our neighbors. It makes us rejoice because we have somehow been able to serve Jesus himself and are called blessed ones! But it also makes us feel uneasy about all that we have failed to do, because Jesus says there is punishment in that.
So what do we do with that? With those competing lists in our heads. With hearing Jesus tell us that we are consequences for how we treat our neighbors?
We’ve got a few options. We could add up all the good stuff we’ve done to make sure we end up on the blessed side. Because all of us have absolutely fed those who are hungry or welcomed those who didn’t find a place or visited the sick at some point. Maybe even a whole mess of times. And we could conveniently forget the other column of things we failed to do. So we could ignore Jesus’ words about judgement.
Or we could admit our mistakes, but also say bad things about the folks who Jesus defends and celebrates. We could argue that caring for your neighbors shouldn’t cover over all the other things folks have done. Because those folks who feed and visit others aren’t always perfect people and Jesus shouldn’t bless them without taking into account all the other stuff they did. We could make Jesus think like we think and make him play by our rules of fairness.
Then again, we could also explain why what Jesus said is not really practical in our world, because too much mercy makes people behave badly. And we could tell Jesus he needs to live by the world’s reality.
Or we could choose to do the hardest thing of all. We could just listen to Jesus and learn from him. We could just hear this judgement for what it is- not an angry condemnation that says that we are worthless or terrible people. But instead words of truth spoken to us so that we have a chance to live better. A chance to be changed.
And maybe that becomes easier when we hear these words as our neighbors might hear them. Our neighbors who might hear them as a word of grace. That’s been helping me this week as I’ve been thinking of PeeWee, one of the founders of North Ave. Mission who died suddenly last Sunday. I’ve had the joy of being a part of that community that Vicar Atticus is helping lead since May.
PeeWee was a force of nature in that community. She had faced addiction issues, she had done things she wasn’t proud of, but as a leader in North Ave., she was living into who God made her to be. She was the one who welcomed the stranger- whether you were there for food or there to volunteer. She was the one that brought people in and connected them and made them family. She was constantly feeding those who were hungry with anything she had and she started “Aunt PeeWee’s Closet” to give away clothes every Monday. She was the one that had joy and energy and love no matter what- even if she was fighting with you.
And as much as I feel this passage as judgement because of the many times I should have cared for my neighbor better, I think that PeeWee would have heard this as grace. She would have been able to hear these words as joy in a life that was far from perfect. And I rejoice like heck because of that. My sister would hear words of hope and life from Jesus in these words. She would hear God say to her, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” She would hear that her works of mercy mattered- not just to the family she created- but to God. She would hear the blessed truth that showing mercy because you can, and because other folks need it, is to know the heart of God.
And because I rejoice with PeeWee and her example of mercy, it lets my heart open a little wider. It lets me put my defensiveness down for a minute. And it lets me hear the simple truth. To show mercy is to serve Christ. And to serve Christ is to find life.
This morning, we hear Jesus say- following me isn’t just about avoiding bad choices in life. Or about making sure you do enough good to the right people. Or about saying the right prayers or believing the right things. Following me is about mercy. Receiving my mercy for you and passing it on to everyone who needs it.
That doesn’t mean that those other things we do don’t matter. Turning toward God in the choices we make and the worship we offer always matters. But the words we hear today are a reminder that mercy toward our neighbor is always a God-like thing. Always. And mercy is not wasted. Ever. Even when it doesn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever.
We’ll still have moments where we need to speak hard truths and hold others accountable. Jesus makes that pretty clear by speaking these hard words to us in the first place to remind us how much our neighbors matter to him. So justice still matters deeply. But in a world that is too often harsh and cruel and isolating, Jesus reminds us that simple acts of mercy matter. Because the ones we show mercy to matter deeply. And they bear the face of God.
And you know that, Amazing Grace. It is who you are together. It is how you live the gospel in this neighborhood where God has placed you. You are a people that share mercy. Not because people deserve it. But because God gives it. And we all need it.
Every time I hear this passage, it makes me realize all that I can do that I haven’t. It makes me want to go to the store to buy food to feed my neighbor. It makes me want to write to those in prison by sending letters to our siblings in Christ in the Community of St. Dysmas. It makes me want to reach out to those who have been told they don’t belong and make sure they are welcomed in. Hearing these words from my king Jesus makes me want to be like one of those folks that are told they are blessed by God.
And if they’re making you a little uneasy like that, too, that’s ok. That’s what they are supposed to do. That’s Holy Spirit working through them. And the Holy Spirit isn’t always comfortable! But it is good, so good.
It reminds us of the beauty and blessing in following Jesus’ way. It convicts us when our hearts and minds may be a little distracted or weary or overwhelmed and brings us back to the central things. And thanks be to God, that Spirit encourages us and cheers us on when all our work for Jesus seems like it’s not enough and it’s not doing any good. That Spirit sings the truth back to us- our mercy matters. God sees. God rejoices. God opens the doors to the kingdom to us and covers us with blessing.
So instead of trying to defend ourselves or explain these words away, let them do their job. Let them open your heart up a little wider. Let them encourage you do the thing for your neighbor you’ve been putting off or that you think is too much work. Let Jesus’ words make you a little less careful in deciding who gets your mercy. Be like God in letting it spill over to everyone. Not because they deserve it. But because they bear the face of God. Because they need mercy and grace just as much as we do.