NEW YEAR’S EVE, December 31, 2004
A Sermon Based on Matt. 25. 31-46 (RCL) by David Zersen
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and in prison and go on to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needed clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV)
WHEN LOVE CATCHES US BY SURPRISE
There’s a surprising New Year’s Eve message waiting for us in the comedy, Bruce Almighty. News reporter, Bruce Nolen, played by Jim Carey, complains that God gave him a crappy life and that he, Nolen, could do a better job of running the world. God, played by Morgan Freeman, then gives Nolen a chance he can’t refuse. He gives him all the power he needs and waits to see how he uses it. For a good while, Nolen wastes his powers on self-centered trivia. He tries to get his girl friend to love him with super-human lovemaking. He parts the soup in his bowl and then traffic in the city for his Ferrari, like Moses at the Red Sea. He creates news scoops for himself by miraculously discovering the body of Jimmy Hoffa and makes his competitors mouth gibberish while delivering the nightly news report. Gradually, however, Nolen’s world descends into chaos without a benevolent, gracious Almighty at work, and he confesses to God who works the night shift as a janitor in an office building, that things are not going well. “I can’t get people to love me of their own free will,” Nolen laments. “Welcome to my world,” God replies! God helps Nolen to understand that seeking to use one’s blessings and opportunities only for oneself leads to dead ends. Nolen begins again, but ends up being killed in a car accident. The Almighty meets him in the afterlife and listens to a prayer in which Nolen asks only for things which benefit others, especially the girl he had loved. “Now that’s a prayer,” says God, and sends Bruce back to earth to try once more—this time taking menial jobs and serving others which demonstrate a sense of fulfillment he had not known before. It’s a great story, although it has a few peculiar theological twists, and it has special meaning for us on New Year’s Eve.
Dealing with Accountability
Sooner or later, all of us realize that egotistic, self-centered actions may place us in the limelight for a while, but lead to no personal fulfillment. We recognize this at both collective and personal levels. At the end of every year, at least, we take the time to reflect on how we have used our time. Inevitably, we find ourselves accused by many of our actions in the past year.
At collective levels, for example, we here in the United States made big political decisions based largely on fear and a narrowly defined view of morality. The important domestic fiscal, educational and human justice issues which are the essence of political responsibility went largely untouched. Now we must reflect on our actions and ask whether what we did really demonstrated vision and wisdom for our role in a larger world or whether our attempts merely to assure our survival were not motivated by self-aggrandizement and false piety. Some of us tonight may feel the need to pound our breasts and say “mea culpa.”
At personal levels, whoever we are, there is a need to examine our actions in our relationships, our business lives and our civic involvements. Whether our actions intended to secure our advantage or establish our priority only we can best tell, but all of us know that much of it established more a triumph of the ego than real progress in our marriage, family, business or community service. If we are sufficiently sensitive, we can remember the cry of a spouse or family member, the disappointment of a colleague or associate, because of words or actions motivated not by love but by a need to control or achieve. Somewhere, there is a need to rap your sternum with a “mea culpa.”
At the end of the year, we can easily acknowledge that we too have been given enormous blessings and powers which we, like “Bruce Almighty,” have used in trivial and self-serving ways. In private corners and sometimes in very public places, chaos or disillusionment reigns because we have misused our God-given opportunities. It is healthy and human for us to pause and recognize that the settings we have created might be better in many ways had we never been there.
The Biblical response to all of this is one of judgment and grace. It is important for us to hear the judgment that challenges our misuse of God’s trust—and to know, as well, as we hear it, that God’s grace is equally real. This evening’s text makes it clear that while there is condemnation for failure to respond to the love and kindness which God shares with us, there is an eternity of blessing waiting for those who respond generously and caringly to God’s goodness in our lives.
The message of the text is clear. Christians are held accountable for the gift of God’s grace. If the love we have come to know in the story of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection for us falls on deaf ears, then we end another year with no advantage or privilege. However, when the story of this love has claimed us, and lives in and though us to claim others as well, then hungry are being fed, thirsty are being given drink, strangers are being welcomed, and the sick and imprisoned are being cared for. The surprise of Christmas as well as at the end of the year is that there is something very spiritual about the way in which we deal with the mundane things of daily life—and that God wants all the “Bruce Almighties” of the world to know that the love which was born in humility in straw and stable seeks to find its way in the commonplaces and common relationships of our world.
Dealing with Opportunity
As tonight we reflect on where we have been in the past year and the opportunities which lie before us in the new one, we want to give serious thought to the blessings and authority we possess and to the ways in which we can discover our real purpose and meaning in life by using them to enhance and improve common needs in simple surroundings.
The lessons Bruce Nolen learned in the movie came through the school of hard knocks and the same thing is true for all of us. Sometimes we assume that if we had vast amounts of money we would be compelled to be generous. Therefore we wait for the time when affluence overwhelms before we seek to meet the needs of others. I learned how wrong this is when I recently taught seminary students in Africa. Most of them came from the humblest settings, small villages of subsistence farmers. The average annual salary was under $500. Actual cash was seldom seen or used. The most common commodity was a large white yam, about a foot long, capable of feeding a family of four or more when boiled. The seminarians explained that teaching stewardship, generosity, was sometimes difficult when one had so little. Even the gift of a yam to provide for the needs of the local pastor was beyond the villager’s comprehension. They worked hard to help people understand that giving was a part of the Christian’s self-understanding, that when people serve only their own needs they can never discover the meaning of God’s own love for us, much less the joy and freedom which comes from passing it on.
Somehow in discussing this important stewardship opportunity with villagers in Ghana, it occurred to some that if the time of the offering were made the central, transcendent moment in the worship service, the moment when God’s gift of love is passed on to others, there would be a new self-understanding among the people. They developed the concept of two offerings, the first for local needs, and the second for more generous and extravagant outreach. During the first, there is singing and drum-beating, but during the second offering, the drum-beats rise to a crescendo and the people all process to the altar, dancing and singing in wild abandon, as they give themselves completely in this moment that transcends other moments.
It is a teaching moment for all of us. When people who have so little can bring an egg, a yam, a coin, and rejoice at the opportunity to reach out in love in some small way to others, what can it mean for us who have such great resources and such profound opportunity? In such a culture, $1200 provides a pastor’s salary for a family of four and $3000 can build a parsonage or a school. What changes you could make in the life of those people! However, in your own setting, there are equal opportunities to demonstrate that there is a relationship between the love God has for you and the way in which you treat people—that the common things we do for others have profound spiritual dimensions to them and demonstrate that the love of God is at work within us.
In the community in which I live, there is a wealthy many with whom I often discussed major gifts for the university of which I was president. He was quite capable of endowing major programs or building buildings which could have had his name attached. These things never interested him. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and early in his life he had learned about priorities and spiritual dimensions to the common things of life. He preferred to give his money to people’s clinics for the poor, to the Salvation Army, to disadvantaged children, to building housing for the poorest of the poor in Honduras. Sometimes he enjoyed going to schools and just reading stories to children. Not all who are gifted with blessings and power make such choices, but such choices are important in our world and Jesus tells us that, at the end of the day, and, at the end of the year, how we treat the least important in our world, in our families, in our church, and in our communities, says volumes about the vitality of God’s love at work in our hearts and minds.
There are two surprises for us in this New Year’s Eve text. On the one hand, it is telling people who share common gifts with common people that they are, in fact, doing a very spiritual thing, whether they know it or not. When they seek to help people who have less good fortune than they themselves have, they are embracing the divine love which came to us in self-emptying ways in a stable. On the other hand, if we wonder what it is that we Christians might do to ennoble our lives or to make us acceptable, we should be surprised to know that great schemes or ego trips and grand resumes are of little importance. Somewhere there is a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, a colleague—or someone completely unknown to us on a street corner, in a shelter or a prison—who waits from us a word of hope, forgiveness, an act of concern or kindness. No matter that some of them have made their bed and are now lying in it. No matter that some have deceived donors about their desperation. The surprising thing is that God’s love at Christmas has claimed each of us despite our failures this past year. The surprising thing is that that very love has caught us by surprise and now empowers us to make new beginnings for the new year.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin