Sheep on one side, goats on the other

Our church recently signed on to an initiative of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA. As a “Matthew 25 Church,” we pledge to work on at least one of the following:

  • Building congregational vitality.
  • Dismantling structural racism.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty.

As a city-center church, we would have to try not to be involved in those things. In the center of the city, the hurts of the world press in on us.

Signing up to be a “Matthew 25 Church” is easy.

Or is it?

Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus’ picture of final judgment, and it follows page after page of blood-chilling warnings of judgment. Jesus said that one day, the “Son of Man will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” He will separate people, much like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

And what will separate the “sheep” from the “goats?”

Whether you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner. Three more times in quick succession Jesus repeats this list.

Few things in scripture are clearer than Jesus’ own criteria for judgment day.

When you understand that Jesus saved you at infinite cost to himself; when you understand that he bore in his body the judgment you deserved, you will gladly care for the “least” in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus said, “Eternal punishment” awaits those who don’t. Few things in scripture are clearer than that too.

In its desire to care for hurting people and sign up more “Matthew 25 Churches,” the PCUSA often forgets that God is a God of judgment too. We all tend to follow the teachings of Jesus we like, and ignore the ones we don’t. Denominations do it too.

This week, a young man came before Pittsburgh Presbytery to be approved for ordination. In his statement of faith, he said Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice provides forgiveness of sins and satisfies the wrath the God.” It’s true; Presbyterians have said this for 500 years. Yet the young man was lectured for being insensitive for using the word “wrath.” Some even voted against his ordination because of it.

Being a Matthew 25 church cannot just mean living out the parts of scripture that are socially acceptable or politically correct. Without judgment, without God’s righteous indignation against sin, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is worse than meaningless. It means that God isn’t loving, but arbitrary and cruel.  

Judgment and love are inseparable parts of God’s character.

A Matthew 25 church will care for the ones Jesus loves.

And, with his help, a Matthew 25 church will proclaim his truth. All of it.

Awful grace

On the night back in 1968 when the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in Indianapolis. Riots were spreading across the country, and Kennedy had been warned to cancel his scheduled event. Instead he chose to speak to the waiting crowd. You could hear the gasps and cries as the people learned of Rev King’s assassination from Kennedy himself.

There was no teleprompter. Kennedy simply spoke from the heart, holding his rolled-up script in his right hand.

People could choose to respond with “bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he said, or they could respond as Martin Luther King did, replacing the “stain of bloodshed” with “compassion and love.”

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy concluded by calling on the people in the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King…and to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

I wonder how many of us could have done what Kennedy did that night.

Not only did Kennedy not give a canned speech; not only did he not pander (he quoted from memory an ancient Greek poet); he simply lamented with and for hurting people and a hurting nation.

He, like the poets who wrote the laments of the Bible, cast the nation on the goodness and justice of God.

Today, the Landmark for Peace Memorial honoring Kennedy and King marks the spot where Kennedy spoke.

Because of Kennedy’s speech, people there that night went home and prayed. Indianapolis was spared the violence that engulfed most major US cities.

Shared lament

This week a protest a few blocks from the church made national news when a protestor hit a bicyclist in the head with a skateboard. A few other protestors accosted diners sitting outside. It all felt like salt in a wound. Restaurants have been struggling to reopen, and most protests in Pittsburgh have been peaceful. So why this?

How long, O Lord?

We’ve been preaching on the biblical understanding of lament in response to the pandemic and the unrest across the country. We’ve said anyone can complain, but it takes faith to bring your complaints to God. When you lament in the biblical sense you turn to God, state your complaint, tell God what you want God to do, and then choose to trust God.

And then repeat. You remind yourself that God is good, and that God can be trusted.

Lament can be a source of strength in times like these. But Pastor Mark Vroegop, author of the book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, says that once you learn to lament, you next need to learn from lament. 

The Old Testament Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. But it was not just the destruction that made the poet weep. It was knowing that the people of God shared the responsibility. They had turned from God and worshipped idols. They had lived for themselves and failed to care for the poor and marginalized as God had commanded. God finally let them experience the consequences.

Most often we lament over bad things beyond our control.

Sometimes we lament over the bad things we do.

Sometimes we need to lament over the bad things we all do.

We all suffer from a condition called sin.

Not every white person is a racist, but racist structures exist and need to be dismantled.

Not every protestor is violent, but violence is destructive and must stop.

But we all suffer from sin, and shared sin calls for shared lament.

Growing season

Life for Sarah Frey growing up on the family farm in southern Illinois wasn’t exactly easy.

Even in the early 80’s, the house had no indoor plumbing. The family grew or hunted everything they ate. At age four Sarah was responsible for keeping the fire burning in the wood stove that heated the house. At five she was driving. At eight she negotiating the sale of produce with grocery store managers. At 15, she moved out of her parents’ house into another small house the family owned, fixing it up with earnings from after school jobs. At 16 the bank loaned her $10,000 so she could buy a truck to build her produce business. The banker insisted on giving her two years to pay it back. She paid it back in two months.

At 18, she bought the farm, by herself.

At 19, she closed a deal with Wal-Mart to deliver tons of produce a week. The deal became the subject of a Harvard case study.

In her new book, The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm and Built a New Life, Sarah tells how challenges like these, and the love of her very imperfect family, shaped her life. She learned to believe in herself, work tirelessly, and refuse to let obstacles stop her.

We all need some inspiration right now, and Sarah delivers tons of it.

There is a reason that the Bible speaks of seasons and the importance of bearing fruit. Hard times taught Sarah to see the beauty in imperfect fruit. When Sarah found that the small or misshapen fruit was often the most flavorful, instead of plowing it under, she used it to start her fresh juice business.

Sarah said, “I hope the book helps people see through life’s imperfections and hardships. Right now, everything that we’re going through as a country with Covid, just know that there’s a brighter season on the other side of this.”

 “You need to have the optimism of the farmer. The growing seasons that are fallow can teach us just as much as the growing seasons that are bountiful.”