Today, we’re going to look at finishing the race – finishing strong. We’ll look at Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats, and consider the real-life testimonials of people who are running the race as best they know how.
I recently read the story of an evangelical Christian who opened up a coffee shop in the middle of a city, smack in the middle of the arts scene. It was in between shops he didn’t like and shops he wouldn’t shop in, but he hoped to bring in big-name Christian musicians and speakers. Previously, the building had hosted the biggest in-your-face art event of the year, every year.
You think you know where this is going, but I’ll bet you that you’re wrong.
One of the art organizers approached the new owner on the street to see how work on the building was going and mentioned that they’d obviously be looking in a different area. The man said that they were welcome to come and hold the event there again, much to the art organizer’s surprise.
The owner of the building went on to say that he’d provide the food and wine for the event, and that night, he dressed in a tuxedo, met the attendees at the door, and served everyone who came.
The end result was that neighbors and business people in the area came to see him as someone they could count on, even if they didn’t believe what he believed, because he showed them they mattered. That he wasn’t offended, that he even liked them.
What if running your race meant that everyone who ran into you knew that they were loved?
In our Scripture today, it says that Jesus will come and sit on the throne, and that Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats.
Now as a caveat, it’s the shepherd, Jesus, doing this. It’s Jesus the shepherd who knows and loves the sheep and the goats who does the separating. It’s not the sheep or the goats who do it.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we always got that in church? That we don’t get to decide what God lets in or keeps out? If we remembered that we were sheep, and not the shepherd?
In the Second World War, a group of soldiers was fighting in the rural countryside of France. During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial. They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.
A priest, his bent-over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. His face, deeply wrinkled and tan, was the home of two fierce eyes that flashed with wisdom and passion.
“Our friend was killed in battle,” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.”
Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can bury only those of the same faith here.”
Weary after many months of wars, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.”
Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence. They finished after nightfall.
The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the gravesite. Tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church. They asked the priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.”
A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went out early this morning and I moved the fence.”–Mike Yaconelli, “Messy Spirituality”
In our Scripture today, Jesus moves the fence. Jesus re-establishes the boundaries for the race in a way that changes everything.
At first, it might not seem like it: he tells the sheep that they can come in, that they fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, invited him in when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was imprisoned.
Chris Hughes calls this the “Five-Fingered Gospel” (combining food and drink). To feed, to receive, to clothe, to cure, and to visit. Hughes says this is what Christians are called to do. That when we do these things we usher in the kingdom of God, that we finish the race.
But the beauty of Jesus’ parable is that the righteous, those Jesus welcomes in say that they don’t know when they fed, received, clothed, cured, or visited. They don’t remember seeing Jesus and doing those things for him because they don’t remember seeing him.
Jesus has just invited them into the kingdom of heaven and they are arguing that they are not worthy. They don’t have a frame of reference to see Jesus as someone they have already interacted with. These people, the righteous, were so focused on loving right now, that they missed looking ahead.
They were in the race, they were focused on finishing, they were not skipping to what came next, the reward.
And Jesus, the King, will say: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Man, if that doesn’t make you feel a little bit awesome, then I don’t know what will. Jesus is saying that when we serve other people, we serve the God of the whole, amazing, wonderful, powerful, universe. BAM!
Jesus doesn’t say, “you fools! couldn’t you recognize me?” No, he says, “Come in, because you faithfully loved others. Because you recognized their need and you fulfilled it.”
But here, here I get a little weak in the knees, and I think there’s some acid burning up the back of my throat, because I know what’s coming.
Here’s the flip side. Jesus turns to those on his left and says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
And those people didn’t even know they were blowing by Jesus – on the way to work, out of their house in the morning, past them in the parking lot in church, up from the bus stop back to the house.
There is a story of a monastery that had fallen upon sad times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.–The Rabbi’s Gift
It says in Matthew that those turned to the left will say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ And Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There’s no mention in either side of the story about:
– whether the people had money for food or drink and spent it on a cellphone bill or alcohol instead;
-whether the people had been evicted from their homes because they were disorganized and failed to pay their bills;
-whether or not they were sick because they failed to practice proper hygiene and healthcare;
-whether or not they were imprisoned as some fault of their own bad choices or innocent and falsely accused.
None of those things mattered to Jesus in his parable.
Friends, if we are going to run this race, we’ve got to kick our preconceptions to the curb. We’ve got to remember that God is God and that we are not.
If we want to see heaven, if we want to see the kingdom of God come upon the earth, then we must live like the kingdom of God so that we are fit for it.
It seems best summed up by Brennan Manning, the broken, barefoot ragamuffin of a theologian who loved like he lived:
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
A few years ago Tony flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.
He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?”
Well, Tony isn’t so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, “I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”
As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.”
His wife comes out. “That’s terrific,” she says. “You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her.”
So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he’ll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. Now she’s sobbing and crying. Harry, who’s not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”
But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”
“Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest.”
She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.
So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”
And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”
When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.” — Tony Campolo