Pentecost 11C. 2007
Matt. 25: 31-46
A sermon by Prof Joe Bessler. Preached at The Uniting Church of St James, Canberra in August 2007, before the first Common Dreams Conference
A Liturgy is also available
SHUT UP, MATE! WE’RE IN
I am flat out thrilled to be here.
It is such a beautiful country.
I’ll never forget flying over the water and into Sydney at sunrise.
Such a beautiful, fascinating, and at points haunting landscape - in its solitude.
I’m especially delighted to be participating in the Common Dreams Conference;
Rex [Hunt, minister at St James and director of The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra]
spoke to me about two years ago at a Westar Institute meeting in California,
when this Conference was very much a dream in his own mind,
and I’m grateful he included me in his vision for it.
I bring greetings from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa OK.,
especially from the President of the Seminary, William Tabbernee, who until coming to Phillips in 1992,
was President of the Church of Christ Theological College in Melbourne,
and from Kay Bessler-Northcutt, my spouse of 18 years and who is a professor of Homiletics.
She sends her best to you and her sympathies that you’re stuck listening to me
rather than to a real homiletician!
She’s right, you know.
When I was filling in for Kay one Sunday,
I had an 80 year greet me at the back who said to me.
‘You know, over the years I’ve noticed that preachers have different styles.
You clearly like to lecture.’
Now a word about travel.
This is my first trip to the land of Oz, and it’s been no yellow brick road getting here.
The travel hassles were all in the States, but let’s say
I’m far more appreciative of Dorothy’s magical red slippers that could take her back to Kansas so expeditiously - and Toto too -
You see if a pair of those slippers could just get me to Wichita, Kansas,
I could rent a car and be home by dinner.
Once the Conference is over of course…
This is one of my favorite texts in the New Testament,
but let’s be honest, the story also has some historical baggage
that we’re working against here - all of those medieval paintings of the sheep and the goats,
all of those beatific figures of the blessed in heaven looking down on the torments of the damned -
a set of images and interpretations that just about ruined this text.
And then there’s another tradition of interpretation that’s done it’s fair share of damage.
The idea that the story provides us with a set of “corporal works of mercy”
as my Catholic church has called them - works of charity, private good deeds
that a virtuous person might do.
But that reading misses entirely that the story opens with all the nations gathered,
not a set of private individuals - the text is about justice not charity.
So, as we get started, I’d like to begin with a few observations to clear the ground.
First, let’s notice where this story is placed.
Matthew puts this story directly before the last supper and the crucifixion
as if Jesus is preparing his disciples for how to cope with his absence and death -
as if to answer the question, where will we find Jesus after his death?
Make no mistake, even though this story happens before the crucifixion,
it is already a resurrection story. You will find Jesus after his death
exactly where Jesus hung out before his death –
with tax collectors and sinners, with those who are in prison,
with those who have nothing.
Second, from a theological perspective,
this is the most radical text in the New Testament.
Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice that there is no dogmatic text here,
no inquiry about the catechism or right belief.
In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King - so, this is remarkable.
[There’s not a lot of bishops in the church I come from that want to hear that.]
Third, we good church folk get this story wrong every time.
At least in the States I frequently hear during the “announcements” portion of the service:
“we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives.”
But that’s not what the story says.
The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing;
the king is present in the one in need.
We go to them to be changed not to change them.
And finally, then, this story doesn’t “predict” a literal final judgment;
it’s a wisdom story, about what “finally” matters.
And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia,
I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself:
“what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?”
My favorite philosopher of dreams isn’t Freud or Jung, but Gaston Bachelard,
whose book The Poetics of Space is a marvelously fantastic meditation
on the poetic image of the house as primordial image in our daydreams of intimacy.
In a chapter called “The Dialectics of Outside and Inside” he writes at one point:
“Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of a form that guides and encloses our earliest dreams.”
I think this story from Matt. 25 is one of those “guiding” and “enclosing” forms.
With its scene of final judgment - with all the world gathered - the story is a totalizing dream about all humanity.
If there is a “common dream,” a common good, this is Matthew’s take on it.
The scene of judgment adds anxiety and suspense to the dream,
and these figures of “sheep” and “goats” give the story a further dreamlike, symbolic quality.
As the king reads each statement, I was hungry, I was thirsty . . .
an image is summoned up before our minds - not an abstract concept,
but a very physical scene of need - summoned before us as a call for our response.
It is a scene that captures well the immediacy of responsibility
that Jewish philosopher Immanuel Levinas says that
all humans experience when we encounter the “face” of the other.
And when Mathew then has the king reveal his hidden presence in the outcast,
he turns that moral call into an intimate one - at least to those who responded:
come into my household, into my presence - responsiveness
to profound human need is the basis of intimacy with God.
Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity:
For every need an adequate response;
That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you...
I was hungry and you gave me to eat;
I was thirsty and you gave me to drink,
I was naked and you clothed me . . .
A rhythm of need and response;
an economy of abundance, or at least enough.
God in the midst of humanity,
not lording it over everyone with the powerful but hidden,
as a dream would have it.
But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream,
those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition,
enter the intimacy of the common good.
I was hungry and you gave me no food (notice the implication: you had the food to give but you wouldn’t give it).
And instead of the former harmony we hear this discordant,
out of balance “no” response to every need.
No water, no clothing, no shelter, no visit.
The sense that there’s not enough for you.
Regina Schwartz, in her book The Curse of Cain, calls this an economics of scarcity.
But, and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream:
there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity
we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance - we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.
This “dream” of Matt 25 is Matthew’s attempt
to convince his own community of hearers and readers (but perhaps also us) of a common dream.
In the story or dream - yes, there are those who are rewarded and those who are damned.
But, if those hearing the story can learn from it,
then we can ALL get it right - it is in our power, says Matthew,
to create a community that attends to the common good.
Finally, this is a dream about character.
A lot of people back in the states are critical of progressives
for talking a lot about justice but not enough about character,
but Matt. 25 also dreams of character, and it is a type of character that is distinctly progressive
(although you may want to tell me that you think I’m dreaming on this one).
Have you ever wondered why Matthew
would go through the whole list of things, not just once but twice?
I have . . . and it’s especially irritating if you’re the reader for Sunday service,
and you know that folks in the congregation are starting to go to sleep
when you start that second round of “I was hungry . . .” So why?
When the King finally lays out these scenes of need and response,
neither the sheep nor the goats get it.
“But we didn’t see you” each of them says.
Now let’s take this one team at a time:
let’s say that you are on the Sheep team.
And the King says, “Come, inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you, for I was . . .”
OK, and at the end of that wondrous announcement,
the captain of your team is dumb enough to say, “Lord, when was it we saw you hungry . . .?”
And you can see one of the coaches kicking him under the table,
saying “what are you, nuts. We’re in. What are you doing?”
You tell me. What’s he doing?
He’s a good man, isn’t he?
He genuinely wants to know.
Doesn’t matter if he getting a reward; he wants to know.
And he’s honest . . . he didn’t see the King . . . he’s willing to be self-critical.
Well, let’s listen to the other side for awhile.
Imagine you’re on the Goat team.
The King says, “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was . . . ”
And at the end of that horrible list, the captain of your team says,
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked, and did not take care of you?”
Do you hear the difference?
In this context, the very same words take on a very different meaning.
Here, the captain’s words are defensive . . . uh, wait just a minute,
if we didn’t know it was you, it’s not legal for you to punish us with eternal fire.
And here, all of your team-mates are saying, “yeah, don’t let them railroad us.”
That’s why I think Matthew goes through all that repetition.
It’s now quite amazing to me when I hear those two sets of response - the words are the very same;
they’re uttered within moments of one another,
and they indicate entirely different kinds of character.
Don’t let people try to convince you that getting the words right,
saying the right formula, is what faith is all about.
Imagine a person who has not only that kind of intellectual honesty and personal integrity
to risk her own welfare but also is the person who responds to profound and deep human need.
Is Matthew dreaming or are there people like that?
And can we aspire to be them?
I think this story is asking us to aspire to be that kind of person -
who asks difficult questions, who cuts through dogmatic rigamarole,
and who seeks God through her neighbor’s welfare.
This is Matthew’s proposal for our common dream.
The divisions between Sheep and Goats,
Wisdom and Foolishness, Compassion and Indifference are depicted so that
we might know something very important about our lives:
that we dream with our choices.
While the story presents us with a sharp division between sheep and goats,
it is actually dreaming of a roundness, of a unity.
In telling the story Matthew wants his hearers and us to see what is ultimately or finally important in the life of faith -
what it means to live out the wisdom of Jesus when we can’t see him anymore.
There’s no literal heaven or hell fire -
these are the poetic images for the kind of worlds created
by the choices to help those in need or by the choice to ignore them.
As Rex read to us a bit earlier in the Liturgy,
“Listen, you Godwrestlers, the world is one, All the parts are intertwined.”