The Least of These

“The Least of These”

Matthew 25:37-40 (25:37) – November 22, 2020

            As you and I have been living through these past months of upheaval, uncertainty and pandemic, it might seem like the end of the world is quickly approaching. Does it seem like that to you? Perhaps our Lord Jesus will come very soon, as a king on His throne. (If He does, amen!)

This parable is from the last sermon that Jesus preaches, in the middle of the Passion Week. Jesus knows His time is very short. I suspect He is really impatient with His followers. So, Jesus talks straight – as straight to His friends as ever He could. Many people think these words of Jesus are harsh. God is going to judge humanity like a mean taskmaster or stern overlord. At least, that is what we might think if we look at a surface view.

Let’s set the stage. In this parable, we have a king on his throne, at the end of all things. At the end of ages. Many people are powerfully fearful of the mighty king on his throne, and consider this the eternal judgement at the end of all things.

These words of Jesus do not tell us that the biggest thing in the world is to give away tens of thousands of dollars. Or, to make sure each of us writes our important name in the pages of history. No! Jesus tells us no such thing! What does Jesus really want us to do, anyhow?

Amazingly enough, Jesus does not demand His followers to do anything especially mighty, or courageous, or daring. No! Instead, Jesus mentions simple things. Helpful, straightforward things. Things just about anyone can do. Can you give a hungry person a meal, or a thirsty person a drink? Can you welcome the stranger – any stranger, no matter who? What about cheering the sick or visiting the prisoner in jail?

Jesus talks about giving simple help to the people we might meet every day. People on street corners, or shaking a cup downtown. Neighbors hiding in their cold, dark apartments or weary from searching for work. Friends suffering from food insecurity, living in food or medical deserts in the inner city, or a new refugee family settling here, from a war-torn country far away.

About 20 years ago, I attended a larger church in a nearby suburb. This church had a ministry to take children of incarcerated women to visit their moms in prison, downstate. Since I have a commercial driver’s license, I started driving the church bus to transport the children and their adult relatives. Grandmas, aunties, sometimes grandpas. These extended families had very little money, and it was almost impossible for these children to see their moms unless they had some help – like from this church, sending the church bus downstate nine or ten times a year.

I drove these children for many hours on Saturdays to see their moms. I considered it one of the most worthwhile ministries that I have ever been involved with. Ever.     

            Commentator David Lose asks the penetrating question: “in this time of isolation and division and unrest and wondering how we’re going to get by and whether there’s anything we can do… might we during all this remind our people of the promise – and it is a promise – that Jesus is really and truly available to us in the real and concrete needs of those around us and that God takes all of this so very seriously, blessing our efforts and meeting our deepest needs when we reach out to those who are struggling.[1]

“What our Gospel writer is proposing here should not be understood as some kind of works righteousness. These are works of neighbourly love done – or not done – not with the intention of putting oneself right with God, or earning God’s favour, but done – or not done – because of the person’s fundamental attitude towards the world. They are, in the language of Reformation theology, not works intended to earn justification, but the fruits of justification, the outpouring of the believer’s love of God.” [2]

            This is Jesus, telling us to do acts of neighborly love – often! And, reminding us that it is our internal attitude, the inside part, that is truly important before God.

To those with ears to hear, let them hear!

            May we join in the prayer of Teresa of Avila (1515-82):“Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

            No matter where they were born, no matter what faith tradition they follow, no matter what side of the tracks these friends happened to be born on, these diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic brothers and sisters have already been welcomed by God. Can we do any less?

            May we find joy in offering a cup of cold water to anyone who is thirsty, visiting those in prison, extending a hand to those who need it, always doing what we can for “the least of these,” our true brothers and sisters in Christ. Alleluia, amen!


[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2020/11/christ-the-king-a-the-third-sacrament/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

[2] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/71202/22-November_Christ-the-King-V2.pdf

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Through God’s Strength!

“Through God’s Strength!” – September 19, 2020

Philippians 4:12-20 (4:12-14)

When people have food, shelter, employment, and money, it’s easy to be content and happy. Isn’t it? Or, is it easy to be poor, hungry, unemployed and homeless? What would the apostle Paul’s answer to that question be?

This is our last sermon from Philippians. We are looking again at the apostle Paul, in prison, in a really awful situation. Shackled to a Roman soldier, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, in a cold, dank, drafty stone cell.

For the past eight weeks, we have considered Paul and his words to his friends from Philippi. He wrote this thank-you letter to the Philippians congregation, and it was one of the most joy-filled letters we have, included in the New Testament.

Do you know how much it means for a friend to send a message, an email, a card or letter, especially when you are downhearted and close to giving up hope? That is what Paul’s former congregation in Philippi did. They showed “a love and concern that led them to help Paul. The most significant gifts often cost us very little—sometimes nothing, except a few moments to say a friendly word or the make a telephone call or send an email, the stamp to post a letter or a card. What matters is that someone has been remembered with affection and concern.” [1]

Paul says he knows what it’s like to be poor, and he knows what it’s like to have abundance, in verse 12. I know there are many in the United States who may consider themselves to be poor, but I wonder whether you realize quite what Paul was talking about here.

We could drill down to find out more about economic, educational and societal poverty worldwide. For example, according to the United Nations latest report on poverty in 2019, 23 percent of the world population – that’s 1.3 billion people – lived in abject poverty worldwide. Just to give you an idea of how little money we are talking about, that is living on approximately $1 a day, or less.

Paul did not mean just economic poverty. He also was talking about poverty of spirit, poverty of emotional wherewithal, poverty of humility and ability to persevere.

We all know something about that. Who has not felt the pinch of poverty of spirit in the past six months? In the past six months, who has not had their emotions shredded raw, like raw vegetables on a kitchen grater? Never mind about humility, who has felt their ability to persevere stretched very, very thin? I know I have. And, I suspect I am not the only one, by far.

 Paul could have been in despair, being in prison, charged with a capital crime. He was facing possible death. Yet, he wrote one of the most joy-filled letters in the New Testament. What was his secret? How did Paul keep his chin up?

He tells us, right here. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Yeah, right, Paul! Easy for you to say!

As one of my favorite commentators J. Vernon McGee says, “Many of us think that if things are going right and if we are in the right place, then we will be contented. That means that we depend on the circumstances of life for our contentment….But Paul had learned to be content regardless of his state. There were times when he had nothing, and he was content. There were times when God had given him an abundance, and he had learned how to abound.” [2]

Paul “is able to meet the circumstances of life head-on in the strength of Christ. Paul does not depend on his own strength or ability, rather he relies on the sustaining help of Jesus.” [3] Our Lord Jesus will sustain us with his strength. Alleluia!

Paul does not share his dire circumstances in order to twist the arms of his friends to send him more money. No! He thanks his Philippian friends for both their financial gift as well as their messenger, Epaphroditus, and this letter is so, so much more than just a simple thank-you card. Paul also communicates the fact that – over his years of serving the Lord – he has learned to be content, no matter what. Either contentment with hunger, as Jesus did in the wilderness, or “contentment with abundance, without being caught up with the desire for more. He has learned to rejoice in the lean times and does not feel compelled to change his circumstances. He leaves that to God.” [4]

This sounds like it flies in the face of everything we might hear from those television evangelists who preach the health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. But, isn’t it consistent with what many people in the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – experience on a daily basis? Paul tells us right here that it is not the outer trappings of wealth and plenty, or the circumstances of life that count to God. No, it is the internal attitude, the Godly mindset, the inside job that truly counts.

Praise God that our internal attitude is what God finds truly valuable. May we all, like Paul, be filled to overflowing, well-supplied with the strength of Christ Jesus our Lord.   


[1] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 548.

[2] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible, Vol. V (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983), 326.

[3]  “The Power that Christ Gives,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources   http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28aee.html

[4] From the series: To Live Is Christ: A Study of the Book of Philippians

https://bible.org/seriespage/13-give-and-take-phil-410-20

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Joy in Humility

“Joy in Humility” – August 16, 2020

Phil 2-5 same mind

Philippians 2:3-11 (2:3-5)

When you see a child dressing up like their mom, dad, older brother or sister, or other trusted adult, what immediately pops into your mind? What I immediately think of is that this dear child is dressing up as a beloved older person because they really want to be that person! It’s not just wearing Mom’s or Grandma’s high heeled shoes. Whether it’s dressing up in a nurse’s scrubs, a mechanic’s coveralls or a scientist’s lab coat, that child is trying their hardest to be just like that grown-up.

As we consider the Scripture reading read to us today, we might think of something like this – imitating our beloved grown-ups. But, can you and I actually do what Paul suggests here? Paul, you are making a huge leap, expecting us little, insignificant humans to be like – have a mindset like – think the same way as our Lord Jesus! That is asking for the moon! Isn’t it?

That is what Paul says in verse 5, yes. Let’s go back further. He says a similar thing in verses 3 and 4: our attitude – on the inside! – is supposed to change. Radically!

We are not just to play dress-up, we are not supposed to simply put on a nurse’s uniform or a firefighter’s coat. Paul calls each of us to be humble. Paul wants us to pay attention to our insides! It’s an internal job, where each of us changes our attitude to one of humility.

What is humility, anyhow? If we examine the cultural backdrop of Paul’s words more closely, humility had a very different connotation in the first century. Humility – the act of being humble was not considered in a positive light, at all! The widespread, worldly view of being humble went along with being a menial, a servant, even a slave.

However … that was not the way the Bible looked at this way of thinking. No, some religious groups viewed being humble as “the appropriate attitude both toward God and toward other members of the community.” [1] Plus, the apostle Paul here reminds the Philippian believers to consider others before we think about ourselves; to recognize the abilities, rights and achievements of others! This is exactly how Paul describes Jesus Christ several verses later.

Paul tells his friends – and by extension, us! – that we are to have the same attitude and same mindset as our Lord! That completely blows me away. Wow. Double wow!

Lots of situations, differences and conflicts can pull people away from the Lord. We can see these happening all around us, on a regular basis. Some of these feelings, emotions and situations are so powerful! Not only pulling us away from each other, but also away from the Lord. It is so difficult to focus, to have our mindset and attitude the same as our Lord Jesus!

Paul’s words “seem carefully chosen, no doubt to make a lasting impression on his readers. He then evokes by contrast some of the root causes of division and finally returns to the image of having a ‘same mind’. Only now, this mind is not theirs but Christ’s.” [2]

Paul was not just speaking to an individual here. The word “you” Paul uses (every time!) is a plural “you!” This attitude, this mindset is for the whole group of the Philippian believers. Paul did not mean for his friends, the believers in Philippi, to be solo Christians. No Lone Rangers! It’s possible to lean on each other when some get tired. We all depend on each other. We seek to be Christians together, and to have a mindset like Christ, together!

One of my favorite expressions is “What would Jesus do?” What would our Lord do in a situation like this? How would He react? How would He treat others? Would Jesus be selfish? Would Jesus be mean? Would Jesus snub people or be disrespectful to others? I think we all know the answer: certainly not!

Paul does not stop here. These next verses are among the most significant and moving descriptions of our Lord Jesus Christ in the whole New Testament. Paul goes back in time, to the time before the human Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and he talks about the pre-incarnate, eternal Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. The Eternal Son, the Word that was in the beginning, voluntarily gave up all Godhood. Jesus became the Word made flesh, setting aside the form of God. Jesus emptied Himself and became a helpless human baby.

Jesus humbled Himself! Just as Paul tells us to do! We are to strive to have the attitude, the mindset of our Lord Jesus Christ!

But, wait! That is not all. Not by a long shot! After Jesus became obedient to God, even to the point of death on a cross for our sins, God highly exalted Him! Jesus was—is given the name that is above every name! At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God!

Do we believe that? What does that mean to you? To me? What does it really mean? Are you – am I ready to bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord? Are we to strive to have the mindset and attitude of Jesus? Conventional, worldly attitudes scoff at this humility. What, be a servant? Where does this guy Paul get off, telling me to act like a slave, a menial, and not do anything for myself? That’s plain silly! That’s stupid, even!

Except, that is EXACTLY what Paul is saying here. We are not to act selfishly, have out-of-line ambition, or act in a conceited way. Again, “what would Jesus do?” Jesus would have concern for all people! Jesus would serve and love and care for all people, whether He is humble or exalted. No matter who, no matter where, no matter what!  

Let us strive to have the mindset and attitude of our Lord Jesus. Remember to check: “What would Jesus do?” And then, go! Have an attitude like Jesus, to the glory of God.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[I would like to express deep appreciation for Dr. Hooker’s invaluable commentary on chapter 2 of “The Letter to the Philippians.” (Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000). I have used several concepts she wrote about in sections 2:1-4 and 2:5-11. Thanks so much for contributing to my personal understanding of this foundational passage for the study of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.]

[1] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 499.

[2] https://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2009-10-01

“Living As Friends,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2009.