I'll call him Fred. No one really knew his name or cared to know him. He was homeless even though he had a small room in an old building that had at one time been Secretary of State William Seward's property. Now it was home to several bums as the locals referred to them. I can't remember how our family got hooked up with Fred but we did and he came over for meals and even for Thanksgiving dinner one year. He mumbled a lot and he smelled and he never talked about himself or stayed long. I would visit him from time to time in his room. That was how I found him dead. One day I knocked and knocked and not getting any response I went to get the building caretaker who opened his door. We found him on his bed. Dead for a week was the best guess but no one spent much time investigating. The city paid for a pauper's grave and I gathered a few people from our church to attend a graveside service and we buried him with dignity and the gospel. I never had any idea where he came from, or what his life had been like, or who his family was.
His story came to mind as I was preparing a sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. It has always been a favorite yet unsettling text. The interpretation of it hinges on how you understand two phrases. The first is "all the nations" in verse 32 and the second is "the least of these" in verse 40. If "all the nations"refers to everyone except Christians and if "the least of these"refers to needy Christians, then this parable of judgment is easier to swallow because it's not about us, Christians. However, if the first phrase includes Christians and the second phrase includes anyone who is hungry, naked, sick, in prison or a stranger, then we need to sit up and take it more seriously. I have always believed the proper interpretation was the latter one. I don' think Jesus' intent was to put us at ease. He is the one who also said, " If you are going to follow me, die to yourself and take up your cross and then follow me."
This story seems to me to be about Following Christ. What it means to follow Christ. That was, after all, one of the main themes of his teaching. This story fits into his End of the World, the End Times, and the Last Judgment teaching. It seems pretty plain that he intended to say that all people will be judged based on whether we follow Him or not. Following Christ is not an optional activity for human beings. So here in his story - it is his Ministry to the Least, the Lost and the Left Out - that we are expected to follow.
Fred fit all those categories. No doubt Jesus would have made time for Fred. It is not too surprising that Jesus tells us to make time for the Freds of the world. What is surprising is that he tells us that when we do - we run right smack dab into him. Jesus. We find Jesus already there.
"Come", he says in verse 34, "Come into the Kingdom of God." He is not talking about some pie in the sky place where we go when we die. It is a place we can go to here. It is the Most Real Place we can go to here. It is more real than most of what we call the real world. You enter it like C.S.Lewis's Land of Narnia, which serves as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God in his tales, through a door that we find by following Christ.
It is clear that Jesus is talking to Christians here in verse 34 but the next couple verses are Unlike our usual descriptions of the Christian life. Nothing about going to church, singing hymns, teaching Sunday School or playing on the church softball team. What we do In Church is Important but it is not the most Important thing. It is not as Important as what we do out there in the world. That is where we witness to the Reality of what Really Is. The Kingdom of God. There is nothing too radical in America about going to church. In fact, in some parts of the country it is still the expected thing to do on Sunday morning. But Who the Church is and What it does - now that's radical. And it can cause people to wonder, What are you doing? Why? Who are you Following? Who do you Belong to? Then, they have a chance to make a choice, too. It is a critical choice because as the story says, there will be a great separation at the end of history and which side we are on will be based on that choice.
So back to Fred and Jesus. Jesus never says Come to Church and you will find me there. I think you can find Jesus there. I pray that is so. We expect Jesus to be there. He is in the preaching of the word, the praises of the people, the celebration of the Lord's Supper and the fellowship of the Body of Christ. It's just that he never says Follow me to church. He never says when you visit the church you visit me. But he does say that about visiting the prisoner or the sick. He does say when you feed the hungry or clothe the naked... I am there. It's not just that we do these things for Jesus, for his sake, but he says as we do these things for the Least, the Lost and the Left Out we are doing them to him.
What he says in these verses is clear as a bell and very surprising. Note: Jesus does not say, "I was sick and you healed me... or I was in prison and you set me free... or I was all messed up and you fixed me". The thing I like about what he says here is that it is something we all can do! These are Small Ministries for All of Us. Small ministries of visiting, clothing, hospitality and feeding. Nothing spectacular and showy. In fact, they are almost mundane. But it is through these small ministries that the Miracle of Jesus' presence occurs.
Dr Henrietta Mears taught that "every person we meet is dying for a drop of love." There are as many human needs as there are human beings. Basic needs NEED small deeds of Basic help. That's what the gospels show us Jesus did. That's what Following Him means.
That's what Fred taught me.