I was driving my little Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel with a little fellow in the back seat. We stopped at a red light, at the intersection of Preble Street and Marginal Way in Portland, where I looked up the hill and then heard 2-year-old Edward asking, “Did God make everything?”
“Did she make all the buildings?” (Pronounced “beeldings,” to make it even cuter.)
They start early in my family, trying to work out just who God is. Human beings have been doing it ever since there have been human beings. For the Psalmist whose words were paraphrased in our Call to Worship, God is the “rock of our salvation,” “a great King above all Gods,” our Maker and our Shepherd. That’s just in Psalm 95. And I can find more than one reference to God as Divine Architect, so maybe I didn’t give Edward the right answer, theologically speaking, but they always tell you to answer children at the level they can understand.
So, on that long ago day at Toddler University, I said to Edward, “No, God made people, and people figured out how to make the buildings.”
God gives us what we need, as a collective human community, to do the things that will benefit all of us. We have minds and bodies and the power to coordinate our efforts and an inherent appreciation for the new that leads us to try and succeed at things our great-grandparents never contemplated. We have the power to provide food and shelter and care for those who need help the most.
God also gives us the free choice to do those things, or not. And while other people may not see it in our lifetimes, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for our choices and our actions. In this last of the challenging parables Jesus shares with his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, we are shown a sharp contrast between those who respond to God’s desire and those who do not. If we don’t listen to anything else Jesus has to say in Matthew’s gospel—although I hope we have listened—if we don’t hear anything else Jesus says, we need to hear this.
We’ve moved on beyond hearing “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” followed by a story that might have been clear to 1st Century listeners, but which is opaque in the extreme to most of us. There’s an argument to be made that parables about the Kingdom of Heaven are instructions for how to live now, as
opposed to a picture of what heaven will be like. But here Jesus is speaking of ultimate matters:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Matthew 25:31-3, NRSV)
It had to sound pretty funny to his disciples, this talk of glory; they had seen the company he kept. Jesus did not have afternoon tea with King Herod or the Roman Governor. He did not curry the favor of the authorities. He did not associate himself with people who had earthly glory and power. Truly, he associated with the low and the unacceptable. He touched the untouchable. He pointed the finger at the ones doing injustice and was preparing himself to face the consequences of those actions in the arrest that was coming, in the death he would suffer at the hands of the earthly powers.
Here at what felt like the end of all things, the last chance to teach them anything, Jesus told it straight. When the Son of Man comes in his power, he is going to sit on a throne of glory, accompanied by angels, and he is going to tell us the truth about our lives. And Jesus wants us to know what matters.
He wants us to know what is going to matter and how we are going to be assessed. And he goes on to make it plain that we are not going to be judged on our acquisitions or our accomplishments or our wealth or our beauty or (sadly for some of us) our way with words.
But that’s not how it feels when we live in this world, is it? It’s pretty certain that in this earthly kingdom, we worship other gods. Just go to the mall, or watch the advertisements during a football game, and you’ll know what I mean. We worship money and getting ahead and beauty and romance and sex appeal and celebrity and shiny new technology … and sports.
I didn’t go to a football school. The College of William and Mary was known more for academics and access to really good shopping for visiting mothers. The first and last campus demonstration I attended was a protest organize by student leaders who did NOT want money to be spent on a more fabulous football stadium. I’ve never worshiped football. So it’s hard for me to understand the response of many Penn State students and alumni this past week.
We give power as a culture to anything that makes a lot of money, and football is one of those things, even college football. We use many earthly metaphors to describe God: King, Father, Shepherd, Architect, Captain, maybe even Coach. But we should never give a coach the power of a god. We should never give that power to a person, not a coach or a teacher or a politician or a star athlete or even a pastor. And maybe if we talk about how earthly power has been used to harm innocent people, we can learn something from each other.
On Friday, President Obama said,
“…I think it’s a good time for the entire country to do some soul-searching — not just Penn State. People care about sports, it’s important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected.”
Former Washington Redskin linebacker and Penn State alum LaVar Arrington spoke at a prayer vigil at Penn State on Friday night:
“The worst crime that we can commit right here is to leave here and forget what happened…Tonight, let this be the start of the greatest story ever told. The challenge, due to the evil acts of an evil person and evil people, the challenge has been issued,” he said. “Now, let it be known that we wage war as Penn State to make a difference. Do not walk away from here tonight and say, ‘I had an opportunity to hold a candle and look at somebody and listen to people talk.’ Leave here tonight with a resolve and understanding that you possess the power to change things.”
Those are good words, for Penn State, and I especially appreciate the way he actively calls on those present to act, to be empowered to set things right instead of saying, “I am only one person,” or “Someone else has the real power.” No, he exhorts his beloved community to act together to change the world.
They are very good words.
But I would argue about what should be the greatest story ever told. The greatest story ever told is this one: the great King over all the other gods does not care about our earthly power. The great King over all the other gods values hearts that care for those in need, the poor and the hungry and the naked and the ill and the imprisoned. The greatest King over all the other gods experiences our love and our worship in our acts of love toward other people. And our hero, our Savior, exhorts us to be *his* beloved community, the sheep of his pasture, the ones who act together to change the world.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40, NRSV)
When we search our souls, we have a clear choice.
We can be like the goats. We can turn our attention to the values of this earthly kingdom and its twisted sense of power without service, of power that takes advantage, of power that serves selfish needs simply because the same power means there is no fear of accountability. We can worship all the other gods.
Or we can be like the sheep. We can look at one another and see the face of Christ. We can look especially at those who are suffering and in need and offer the love and care Jesus offered, once and for all—for all of us.
May we follow the God who made us, the Shepherd who guides us, a great King above all the other gods. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(And yes, I know I’m a week ahead in the lectionary. We’re using the Thanksgiving texts next Sunday, and I didn’t want to miss this one.)