Scripture: Matthew 25: 31-46
Did you hear about Arnold Abbot a couple of weeks ago? Abbot is a 90 year old man, who heads up the charitable organization Love Thy Neighbor in Fort Lauderdale, FL. For over twenty years he has prepared and served meals to the homeless every Sunday and Wednesday. He serves these meals on a beach, in a central area that is easily accessible to the homeless population. However, the city of Fort Lauderdale recently enacted new ordinances that created so many impossible to meet restriction that it effectively made what Arnold Abbot had been doing for years illegal. Abbot faced a choice. He could follow the law or break it and feed the homeless. Two weeks ago today, he chose to break the law and fed the homeless. He was arrested. Two days later, he did it again. He was arrested again. He will certainly be fined, and he faces up to four months in jail. In an interview, Abbot said that he believes “in love thy neighbor as thyself”. When a reporter asked why he defied the law Arnold said, “These are the poorest of the poor . . . who could turn them away?” This story is not over because when you are 90 years old and believe in something, really what do you have to lose? Abbot has met with the local authorities to seek a compromise, but he has stated that he will continue to feed the least of these, regardless of the consequences. In other words, this 90 year old, war veteran, Christian man aims to misbehave. I do not know about you, but for me the story of Arnold Abbot opens up a big ol’ can of worms. First, there is the very complicated issue of homelessness. Some argue that people like Arnold are enablers, while others state that helping others is helping others. The people that Arnold helps feeds are people who for various reasons or by their own choices are not getting help in other ways. Second, there is the issue of civil disobedience. Who is in the right here? For me this leads to the third and bigger issue. What would Jesus do? More specifically, what would Jesus have Arnold Abbot to do? While we may not be able to answer that definitively. As I look at this morning’s scripture I have to notice that verse 35 states “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” It does not state, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat only when it did not violate local city ordinances.” This morning’s scripture, challenges us with a somewhat rebellious question. Does Jesus encourage us to aim to misbehave?
It does not often fit with the straight laced image we may have of Jesus, but he knew a thing or two about misbehaving. Jesus got himself embroiled in controversy more than once because of going against the Pharisees. The biggest example of this, dealt with the Sabbath laws. In order to protect the Sabbath day, the religious rulers had come up with some many regulations that honoring the Sabbath became restrictive. Jesus challenged these rules and stated, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus challenged the rules regularly by healing on the Sabbath, and this landed him in hot water. The gospel of John informs us that this is one of the first reasons why the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead. Jesus chose to break the rules because helping others, because honoring the intent of God’s laws, was more important than the made legal restrictions. Jesus did not only misbehave by breaking legalistic rules. He also defined social conventions. He often went against how the culture of his day believed he should act. He regularly did things that were considered improper. Jesus broke all of the rules and talked with a sinful woman at a well in Samaria. He broke the rules but changed her life. Jesus broke the social conventions, and he ate with sinners. Jesus associated with the people that an upstanding righteous person should not be seen with, because as he said it is the sick who need a doctor. Jesus broke rules and challenged manmade boundaries. Jesus acted out of a divine love even if that put him odds with the political, religious, or societal powers. If we are being faithful in following Jesus, then we might find that true for us as well.
What often put Jesus at odds with the rules, the reason why he misbehaved, is because he was living out his own parable. Jesus loved the least of these. In Jesus day the least of these were widows; they were women who had no one to care for them; they were the crippled; the chronically sick; they were the people who had been written off as ungodly sinners who have doomed themselves. He loved them, and this parable makes startlingly clear the criteria by which we are to be judged by is how well we love the least of these. Exactly who the “least of these are” can change from era to era and from context to context. Rosemary Brown is a United Methodist preacher, and world renowned speaker. She is regularly traveling to teach and preach to different groups. Last month, when I was in Nashville for a continuing education event, she was one of the keynote speakers. She talked about the first time she got fired from a church. It was the 1960s in Nashville, TN and she participated in a sit-in to protest the unequal treatment of African Americans. She was arrested as a result of this activity, and the upper middle-class church that she was the Christian Education director of did not like the idea of one of their staff members being on the front page of the newspaper for being arrested at a protest. The way that she tells it, they took her to lunch at the Country Club to fire her. However, she knew the right people to call, and those people changed the minds of others. It was asked if they wanted to be the church that fired someone for loving the least of these? They were challenged with the question “Was believing that all people are created by God and should be treated the same was a valid reason for firing someone?” They rehired her.
Who are the least of these today? More specifically, who are the least of these in Edinburgh, IN that we can love? There are clearly still the poor with us in Edinburgh, and just as in Jesus day far too often those with the least amount of means are taken advantage of and have a system stacked against them. And just as in Jesus’ day, the poor can be considered the least of these. Perhaps, the elderly who do not have anyone to rely on or help care for them, who feel alone, and abandoned could be considered the least of these? Perhaps, young single mothers, who have the enormous task of raising a child placed squarely on their shoulders, who are balancing enormous responsibilities, and are so very tired could be considered the least of these? Perhaps people who have made some bad life choices and have fallen into substance abuse, who have been written off as nothing more than junkies or alcoholics, who are in desperate need of a help they cannot bring themselves to seek it are the least of these? It does not matter where you are, the least of these are always among us. The question is, how are we going to love them?
In this parable, the actions that Jesus describes doing for the least of these are, just that actions. Feeding, giving a drink, inviting, clothing, caring for, and visiting are all action we undertake. Often when it comes to helping people we fall into the familiar habit of throwing money at it. Donating money to help others is well and good. In fact, it is necessary because the simple fact is that we as a church or any organization cannot help others without the funds to do so. However, we have to do more than simply give money, we need to do the actions. We have to love the least of these. Loving other people is messy spirituality. Sometimes we have to aim to misbehave. We have to be willing to break societal conventions. We have to be willing to love those who fit outside of the church stereotypes. We, as Christians, need to make sure that we are not treating our buildings as immaculate cathedrals that preserve tradition, but instead we are treating are buildings as spiritual hospitals that triage and heal sick souls. We have to be willing to welcome in and love anyone. Let me put all of my cards on the table, if someone came in on a Sunday morning with unwashed clothes, unkempt hair, multiple tattoos, and piercing in the most odd of places, how loved would they feel in this church? Do you think that anyone, regardless of their appearance, their lifestyle choices, their beliefs, or any other criteria would feel welcome here? We cannot and should not set criteria. It is not up to us to pick and choose who should come. If someone ends up in a church, they are there for a reason: they need Jesus. We need to recognize that. We need to be willing to love people as they are, not try to fix them to fit our preconceived notions of what is proper. If we are loving the least of these and welcoming them among us, if we are reaching out and inviting in, then we have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable idea that we will be welcoming people who do not look, act, or think like us. We have to be willing to break the rules of what “church people” are supposed to look and dress like.
We have to do more than just welcome though, we need to act. We need to put our faith into action and love others. 1 John 3:18 states, “Let us not love with words or speech, but with action and in truth.” We have of some ways that we can already do that. We have a food pantry in town, and we can love the least of these by supporting it. Either through volunteering on the 2nd Saturday or 4th Thursday or through faithfully and constantly bringing in needed foods, like canned meats. Supporting the food pantry is great, but Edinburgh UMC let’s do more. Who are the people that would qualify as the least of these in our town? How can we love them the way that Christ would love them? These are not hypothetical or rhetorical questions. I truly want to know. I absolutely would love to sit down with any of you and listen to who you think we need to reach, I welcome the opportunity to listen to your vision on how we can do that. I am not joking, please contact me; let’s talk. Let’s make a difference, and if necessary let’s aim to misbehave.
Philosopher and Theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly." This morning’s scripture about the sheep and the goats is one of Jesus’ well known parables, and if we are being honest we all understand what it means. The question that leaves us with, is will we act accordingly? Will we feed the hungry, give something to drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger, clothe the needy, look after the sick, and visit those who need to be visited? By the grace of God, may the answer be yes. God in great mercy, has shared with us the love of Christ, may we respond in gratitude the only way we possibly can, by sharing that love with others. It may be messy, it may be uncomfortable, and it may stretch us, but it will be so, so very worth it. Because when the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” May we live as sheep of the Good Shepherd.