Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Christ. Amen.
Let me begin this day with a simple question. It is a question that I often ask the Church Council when it gathers and the staff when it meets. It is this: “Where have you seen Jesus lately?”
In the story of St. Martin of Tours, which we heard last the Sunday, one bitterly cold night a shivering beggar pleaded with the young Roman soldier for mercy. Martin, like all the other soldiers, wore a large military cloak. None of his companions took notice of the beggar, but Martin feeling compassion cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave half of it to the beggar. That night Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, dressed in the parted cloak, and he commended the young soldier for his charity.
The hiddenness of God is a theme that runs through out scripture as well. In the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah, God comes to their tent in the form of three men. Sarah slaughtered the finest livestock and served the best to the strangers. The story reminds us that we are called to tend to needs of travelers and sojourners, those who are poor and thirsty, hungry and naked, sick and imprisoned. The message appears again in the Book of Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
So, “Where have you seen Jesus lately?” Now, I imagine most of us haven’t had the experience of St. Martin sharing his cloak with Christ, nor being surrounded by the Holy Trinity at breakfast, or even being greeted by angels as we welcome strangers at our doors, but I am convinced that God is near to us every day. But beware, my friends, he may be hidden in the faces and figures of the poor, the needy, the hungry, the sick and those in prison.
This morning, we turn to the third and final parable which Jesus tells his disciples in his last days in Jerusalem as recorded in St. Matthew’s gospel. Jesus knows that his days are numbered. He knows that his disciples will soon abandon him and that one will betray him. He himself will be crucified and die. But in the face of such tragic sadness, Jesus offers his disciples three words of encouragement. In the first parable, the familiar story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids waiting into the midnight hours for the bridegroom to come, we discover that the foolish maidens have forgotten to bring extra oil. They are not prepared for the wait and so they miss out on the wedding banquet. The parable reminds us that life is unpredictable, and that you and I must prepare ourselves for the long haul. Last week, we heard the parable of the talents and the slave who refused to use the treasure given to him. The parable challenges us to trust the giver and take chances with the gifts God’s has entrusted to us.
And so we turn to the final parable and word of counsel. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus warns his disciples, do not be caught up in the glittering images of the world. Do not be obsessed with your possessions or status. He would instead teach his followers that that the expression of true discipleship is not a creed, a statement of faith, or even knowledge of scripture, but the true mark of discipleship is the concern we show to those in need.
It is important to note that the parable is a not about sheep and wolves, of the obviously good and evil. It is a judgment between sheep and goats. The King chooses to distinguish between the people who profess to be his followers. He separates the false from the true and then explains the basis of his choice. When the merciful followers had an opportunity to help someone in need, they did it. Nothing more was required. Jesus himself always identifies with those in need, and states that if you help them, you help him; and if you ignore them, then you ignore him. Not one deed performed in that way ever escapes the eye of our watching Lord. There is no need for him to examine further the generous and merciful. They have laid up abundant treasure in heaven. “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom.”
It is a characteristic of true discipleship. Unaware and unconsciously born of love for Jesus Christ, his compassionate followers respond to the pleas and the needs of those about them. They keep no records, and they expect no praise. For them it is a glad privilege. They are unaware they are doing anything unusual, but find delight in meeting the needs of others.
Now this may seem like a rather peculiar parable to close our fall stewardship campaign. You might be wondering, so what does this have to do with meeting the budget? Paying salaries, the maintenance of the building? Tell me the story of “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, or perhaps the story of the widow offering her two copper coins. These are stories of stewardship. But my friends, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is a story of stewardship as well.
You see, stewardship is not about that narrow slice of life we call offerings, tithing or that portion of our time, talents and treasures that we give to church. For what is stewardship? A steward is a person who takes care of the precious property which is not his own, and stewardship is taking care of the precious property and people that God has entrusted to us.
A few years ago when I was serving in Marine oo St. Croix, Janna and I were scheduled to escort a group to Greece and Turkey in the footsteps of St. Paul. We were, however, faced with the question: who was going to take care of the kids, the house, the plants, and the mail? Truthfully, I should say that Janna was faced with these questions. I was merely aware of her putting together daily schedules. But she was asking the question, who is trustworthy enough to take care of our most valuable possessions? It was a tough question. You don’t ask just anyone to care of your children for 13 days. You trust them with someone who is very reliable…in all the small day-to-day details and all the large important details. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t trust myself to the task. Stewards are people who take care of precious property that is not their own.
That is the task and the mission of Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church. We have been called to be stewards of God’s precious property. His has entrusted to you and me, his creation and his loving children. But there is one catch. He has not truly departed from us. He remains hidden, so we are to seek him where is his found. To be sure, we believe he is hidden in the broken bread and poured wine of Holy Communion, and in his Holy Word. It is why we gather here on Sunday mornings. But then we are to go forth Monday morning and to seek him in the world where he may be found hiding behind the faces and places of suffering people.
My friends, this year’s stewardship campaign is not about maintaining staff and programs. This year’s campaign is about how our congregation can lift up its level of giving, so that we can give more to others. And it begins with you. Jesus doesn’t demand the building of cathedrals or a seven year commitment to the mission field. Jesus invites you to do simple things. He invites you to feed the hungry, offer a drink to someone who thirsts, welcome a stranger, cheer the sick, and visit those in prison. These are things which anyone can do. This is not a noble request requiring you to give away all your wealth so that your name may be written in the chronicles of history. No, Jesus invites you to provide simple help to the people you meet every day.
So, “Where have you seen Jesus lately?” But there is a twist. Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats is a poignant reminder that someday, the question will be turned around, and instead Jesus will ask, and “And where did I see you?” On that day, he will welcome the righteous into his eternal kingdom. May we all be counted among that number. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.