The Least

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
November 20, 2011 – Christ the King (A)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

The least – that’s a term that no one wants to be described as. Think of all the ways that word is used. “At least” usually precedes something worse that could have been. Comedian Chris Rock once had a routine about the phrase, “the least I could do.” He said that is like saying, “If I could do any less – I would!”

There isn’t a one of us that does not want to be able to make the least effort for the most gain. Every plumber knows this – because every plumber knows that water will always run down hill in the most expedient course. It is not a bad thing or a sign of laziness to want the most gain for the least effort. It is simply the nature of things, even the created order of the universe, to move in ways that result in the greatest reward for the effort exerted.

So, like it or not, we all seek to find out the answer to that question – what is the least I can do? There is even a book out called, What Is The Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? The book’s author, Martin Thielen, is a United Methodist Pastor who says the book came from conversations with a friend who claimed to be an atheist. Through their conversations, the friend came to admit that he did not have a problem with Christianity as much as he did with its expression.

That’s a fairly common critique in today’s world. It is not a particularly new critique, but it does seem to be growing in strength. It can be a hard pill to swallow for a congregation of members who invested their lives in the development and maintenance of the church. It seems oddly out of place in congregations of members that are no longer able to do what they once did and do not understand why people no longer seem to hold the values they once did.

In some ways it can leave those who used to be the star players feeling like bench warmers, or worse – the last one picked. What a lonely place it is to be the last one picked. What a lonely place it is feel thin and pushed out by the larger, fatter sheep.

How joyful and wonderful it is to hear Ezekiel’s words of hope and restoration! How wonderful it is to know that God is yet at work in our midst! God is certainly at work and will ultimately decide between sheep, yet we have choices to make in the meantime. In the meantime – literally a time with meaning in between two events. It is a time with an intention, a purpose, and a desired result.

There is no question whether or not time has purpose. The only question is what we will do with it – how we live into that purpose. Time is a limitation. Time leaves us feeling that we have done the least we could, even if we have given all that we could.

Recently I saw an interview with a soldier amputee who escaped an IED that his fellow soldiers did not. He continues to serve others by supporting other veterans – even founding a nonprofit organization for wounded soldiers - but he sees his service as limited in comparison to others. He thinks it is the least he can do. He simply serves because it is his nature to do so.

Some would say that the church is in a similar position, weakened and wounded by conflict within and without. To some extent that is true. To some extent that is also the place of our greatest strength.

The church that is aware – beyond the shadow of a doubt – of its own limitations will more easily see the needs of others who are in the same position of need. The church that is aware – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that its members need one another will be described in terms of genuine community. The church that knows that it is a skinny sheep will be described as a place where the extremes love each other.

Now before I get too carried away on describing the church, let’s not forget that these texts are as much about individual responses to grace – maybe even more so – than a corporate one.

All of them point to a time of restoration by the hand of God, but they are not without the edge of condemnation as well. That is the tricky part – not simply avoiding the penalty, but avoiding the temptation to think that our eternal rewards come to us because we have earned them. Because the very next step is to think that the rewards in this life have come because we have earned them. And the very next step is to say that those who do not have the same rewards we do simply do not deserve them.

For the Lord said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And when we ask when and how, God responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

There are two things that fascinate me about this passage. The first is that the presence of God is defined by human suffering. There is no question as to whether this person made poor choices or has been victimized by some one or some system. God is simply, palpably, and experientially present in suffering. The second is that most people hear this and then assume that God is present when they act on the need of others. Most people assume that their act of compassion is the presence, the witness of, and the proclamation of the gospel.

But that’s not what it says. It says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Now, I’ll admit that taking this too far could put you in a life of guilt and poverty that serves the world less creatively than you otherwise might. The point is not to hold you over a barrel or compel you with guilt. The point is to open up the opportunity of being in relationship with others. The point is to recognize the eternal consequences of every choice and every interaction.

The point is to see that the riches and glorious power we stand to inherit are found in the here and now. It may sound funny, but it kind of reminds me of the movie, The Sand Lot.

Truly a modern classic, this is the story of a kid in the early 60’s who moves to a new town. Scotty Smalls has no friends and no athletic ability, and his only chance for finding friendship is with the neighborhood gang that hangs out in the sand lot, playing baseball. For some reason the star player takes pity on him and takes him under his wing even though all the others are making fun of him. He even gives him his baseball hat, since Smalls’ hat is more of a fishing cap.

I think that’s a nice image of the church. We pick the ones nobody else wants. We give of ourselves to make them understand they are chosen, beloved, and accepted. We are as affected by them as they are by us, and together we become more than what we were when we were apart.

You know, come to think of it, there’s a communion scene in that movie. Well, not a traditional communion scene – unless your theology is broad enough to accept s’mores as incarnational. The boys are gathered for the ritual, but Scotty Smalls has never heard of s’mores. He doesn’t understand how he can have some more of something he has not had. The conversation goes like this:

Ham Porter: Hey, you want a s'more?
Smalls: Some more of what?
Ham Porter: No, do you want a s'more?
Smalls: I haven't had anything yet... so how can I have some more of nothing?
Ham Porter: You're killing me, Smalls! These are s'mores stuff. Now pay attention. First you take the graham. You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then, you roast the mallow. When the mallow's flaming, you stick it on the chocolate. Then you cover it with the other end. Then, you stuff. Kind of messy, but good!
Sometimes I think God looks at us and says, “You’re killing me (your name here)! It’s so simple. Just love each other the way that I have loved you. It’s kinda messy – but it’s good.” As a friend of mine is known to say – It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard. Amen.

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