theolog cabin

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

November 24, 2002 (Christ the King A)

[Preached at First Lutheran Church, Vancouver, BC]
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46 (primary text)

Click the time link below to see the full sermon.

Think for a minute about the phrase, “a calculated risk.” What comes to mind? Doing your research before buying shares of Bombardier on the Toronto Stock Exchange, or Lucent Technologies on Wall Street? Considering the likelihood of success before undergoing an experimental surgery? Doing the numbers on mortgages and loans before buying a new home? Taking out a loan to send your son or daughter, or yourself, for that matter, to an expensive private school that will hopefully lead to success?

Think for a minute about calculated risk. A friend of mine was driving to school one day and was stopped at a stoplight when she noticed a middle-aged woman walking unsteadily across the street. While she was watching the woman carefully, the women suddenly looked her in the eyes and mouthed, HELP ME. My friend rolled down her window and asked the woman what the problem was, the woman said, “I’m lost and I don’t know where to go. I’m new to the city and I can’t find my way home.” Images and warnings flashed through my friend’s mind--should she pick up a total stranger who definitely looked unstable? The woman’s breath smelled like alcohol--was she safe? What would happen if she did not unlock her door?

We value safety and security so much that any risk we take is usually carefully weighed. We are taught to consider each option and choose the one that yields the most good--for our families, neighborhoods and communities, but more often, for ourselves. When we calculate the benefits, we are usually figuring out how we can end up with more than we started with. Growth, progress, improvement, getting ahead--these are important to us and to our society. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” of course. But in practice the venture should be well-planned, well-considered and well-constructed. How risky do we really get? And what gives us the courage to take risks?

The goats in today’s gospel had all the risks figured out. They knew Jesus was the Messiah, they knew he would come to reign again, they knew how important it was to acknowledge and honor him as king. They had calculated the benefits of being a Christian and decided it was worthwhile. Go to church for a few hours a week, listen to the sermon, give a few dollars here and there, do a few hours of volunteer work, go to the Bible study, take the kids to Sunday School, and of course, when Jesus came again, fall on your knees and worship him as the King over all. And in the end, you got eternal life. What a deal!

The sheep, on the other hand, were a little slow--just like sheep in real life. They didn’t have a confession of faith or a Sunday routine. They didn’t have a plan for earning eternal life. They didn’t have a two-stage Christology or a three-stage Christology or any Christology at all. The Greek word for “nations” here specifically means Gentiles, so they were not Jewish, and possibly not Christian at all. All they did was share their limited food, water, clothing, shelter, and time with those who were in need. They hadn’t taken any time to calculate the risk, to do the math, to figure out if they could afford to help people like this. They didn’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus--they didn’t even recognize Jesus when he was right in front of them.

No wonder, then that both groups are shocked when they receive the unexpected. The sheep saw more than they realized, while the goats saw less. Calculating the risk of helping others did not account for this hidden presence of Jesus. In fact, calculating this risk kept some from seeing Jesus. Obviously some don’t know Jesus as well as they thought they did. Jesus can’t be predicted; we don’t know in advance where he will make himself known to us. Without taking an UNcalculated risk, we risk missing Jesus altogether.

So is it possible to resist our human and rational longing to carefully compare pros and cons before making a decision? Are we called then to be impetuous and not think things through? What if we need some time alone, some quiet time to think and make what seems to be the best choice? Is this a bad thing?

Our logic is a gift from God and should not be neglected. But at the same time, if our logic allows us to explain away our call to serve, it keeps us from seeing the true need of the world. This is the danger of living in a world where there is no end to the poor, the suffering, those in need. There are always more to help, and so we can take our time, think it over; if we miss a few, we know there’ll be others. Do you give your toonie to the shivering kid whose styrofoam cup is half empty this morning? Or do you say to yourself, “After I get my morning latte, I’ll give the change to the next kid.” We use our reason to temper our risks, to make them easier to handle and less likely to really affect us.

When a call went out for volunteers to offer beds and shelter to travelers stranded in Vancouver after September 11th, I seriously thought about calling. I live close to the airport, I have a fold-out couch, I am short, it seemed like a perfect way to help out. But I am also a single, young woman who would feel very vulnerable with a complete stranger sleeping in my living room. The sad realities of our world, the structure of sin we live within, makes it difficult for us to take chances like this. If I had volunteered anyway, would you have congratulated me? Or would you have raised your eyebrows and thought, “How lucky you are that you happened to get a good, decent person. Who knows what could have happened? How brave!” The risk, once it was calculated, proved too great.

Does it remind you of disciples who fled the trial of Jesus? Does it remind you of Peter denying Jesus? Does it remind you of others who know the risk to themselves is too great? Does it remind you of yourself? As Jesus’ words die away, we are pointed towards the shadow of the cross and the earthen lump that is Golgotha. Soon Jesus will be arrested, tried, and crucified, and his face will truly be one that needs food, drink, clothing, and companionship. But not one stays with him, because the risk is too great.

How can we undertake the risk even if it is too great? Can we have the grace necessary for good works and not be conscious of it? Can we resist explaining risk away, but not be foolhardy? We are called to live in-between knowing the possible outcomes and blind obedience. We are between the poles of world-wise maturity and non-calculating innocence, and we must learn to live within that tension, neither cynical...nor naive.

It is a risk to follow a king who cannot promise safety or security to his followers. It is a risk to follow someone with no resume, no money, no troops, no friends in high places. It is a risk to follow a shepherd instead of an earthly king. Christ separates the sheep and goats before the final sundown as one who loves and gives, not only as one who judges. The Reign of Christ invigorates us because the sun has not yet set, and even now, we can see its seeds among us. Present and future pull on us strongly like the poles of knowing and innocence, and we live somewhere in the middle, trusting that God will guide us each step of the way.

HELP ME, the lost woman said again. My friend took a deep breath and unlocked the door, and told the woman to get in. The woman knew her address but had gotten confused and scared, and could not find her way home after wandering a few kilometers away. As the car pulled up to the woman’s home, she turned to my friend, looked directly into her eyes again, and said, “You are truly an angel sent from God.” Before my friend could reply, the woman was out of the car and heading up towards her front door.

Who could have calculated that risk?

Give us courage, O God, to take even the uncalculated risks and not turn away from your Son in the face of the needy. Help us to not confuse seeing with serving. Amen.