A large group of children were all lined up for lunch in the cafeteria of an elementary school run by the Episcopal Church. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. Everyday they ran out of apples so the chaplain made a note and posted it on the apple tray, “Take only one, God is watching.” As the children moved further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table there was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies, the kid’s dessert for that day. Next to the cookies was a note, written by one of the students in crayon. It read, “Take all you want, God is watching the apples.”
I love telling a joke somewhere in my sermon. It gives me great pleasure to make you smile on Sunday morning, sometimes even the folks at 7:45 . When the joke illustrates my point then all the better. But every preacher understands, if he or she is true to the profession, that our job is not to make you smile. Rather, our job is to proclaim God’s Good News as honestly and as clearly as we can in the hope that through our words God’s Word will touch your life. That does not mean our job is to make you feel guilty. Nor is it our job to pound you over the head with our personal agendas. This pulpit is not a soap box, it is not a bully pulpit. None of us who are called to stand here relish the idea of saying things that make folks uncomfortable or even angry. We only want to be faithful, faithful to God and faithful to the people we are called to serve. In recent weeks, we have heard a sermon on the death penalty and a sermon on Christian responsibility in the face of war. They were good sermons, honest sermons, Godly sermons whether you agree with them or not. If they made us squirm then maybe we need to squirm a little. If they made us think then perhaps these are issues with which we all need to wrestle. I don’t know a preacher in the world who would not like to have everyone feel good at the end of his or her sermon. But that is not a luxury we can afford. Our job as Christ’s followers is not to feel good, our job is to follow Christ.
“Take all you want. God is watching the apples.” We live in a value-neutral society where many people like to believe that there is no higher standard of judgement than our own conscience. We believe we can pretty much do what we want as long as it isn’t illegal and if it isn’t illegal then no one has the right to stand in judgement over our actions. Now people of faith, people who believe in a God who cares about human behavior may recognize a standard of judgement higher than the individual’s conscience. But even the religious, who believe in judgement, tend to fool themselves into thinking that God isn’t interested in judging them, only the other guy. Religious folks tend to believe that God is watching the apples and not the cookies, that God is watching someone else, someone who needs watching like Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. However, as Greg said last week and as our gospel for today proclaims – God is watching us. God is watching not just the grand villains of the world. God is watching you and me every moment of every hour of every day. God cares about our behavior, God cares about what we do and do not do. We may be saved by our faith but we are judged by our actions.
This view of Christ as judge stands in sharp contrast to the view of God as the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, the God who searches for the lost and comforts the suffering, as we heard in our reading from Ezekiel. The truth is the good shepherd and the judge are two sides of the same Divine mystery. We cannot have the one God without the other. God the Good Shepherd is also Christ the King, the Judge, the final arbiter of right and wrong, the God who separates the sheep from the goats. We cannot cling to the God who loves us so much that he died for us, without also honoring the God who will one day be our judge. It is a total package.
In our gospel for today, Jesus is only a few days away from the cross. He knows that he will die and he wants his followers to understand the implications of calling themselves his disciples. Jesus does an amazing thing in this passage. He teaches his friends something that ought to be branded onto our hearts and kept always in front of our eyes. He tells his disciples that he does not just care about those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, in prison or the stranger in our midst. It is not a matter of just caring, he tells his friends it is deeper than that, more fundamental. It is a matter of identification. Jesus is the hungry and the thirsty; Jesus is the guilty prisoner, the naked, malnourished child; Jesus is every person who walks through these doors wondering if anyone here will greet them and welcome them with open arms. Therefore, if we want to love Christ then we must love these people, we must actively seek to love those Jesus calls, “the least of these.” We can’t love Christ and then think we ought to love these people. We can’t love Christ and intend to love these people. There is no separation, Jesus gives us no room to maneuver. We will be judged by how well we love God and we can only love God by loving those in our world who are most in need – the least of these who are members of God’s family.
I remember not long ago sitting on my couch watching TV and eating a sandwich when one of those commercials came on soliciting money to help the world’s poor. Pictures of the bloated bellies of the malnourished flashed by on the screen followed by close ups of the fly infested faces of starving children in Africa . As I watched, I remember feeling angry. I was not angry because people were starving. I was not angry because here were pictures of Christ as the “least of these,” wasting away to nothing because of the corrupt governments of developing nations. In fact, I was not angry because of the reality of what I saw. I was angry because I could not find the remote to change the channel. I was angry because those horrible pictures were ruining my appetite, messing up my plans to enjoy my sandwich.
If we really loved Christ, if we really understood what it means to love Christ would we forget, could we forget the millions who suffer and die because of poverty and hunger? If we really loved Christ wouldn’t we know, like we know our own phone numbers or the birthdays of our children, the statistics that proclaim that 11,000 children die each day from malnutrition? Wouldn’t we know and care that our nation’s food banks fed 23.3 million people last year who could not afford to eat? Wouldn’t we know that since 1990 the percentage of men in prison has increased 77% and the percentage of women has increased 108%? If we understood what it means to love Christ, wouldn’t we know these things and try to do something about them instead of changing the channel?
When our judgement day comes, when we stand before Christ and have to answer for our lives, most of our achievements won’t matter. It won’t matter that we made a fortune in the market. It won’t matter that we were managing partners of some law firm. It won’t matter that we were chief of staff at the hospital. It won’t matter that we were rectors or bishops. Jesus doesn’t care about these things. Christ is only going to ask us one question – who did you love? Did you love stuff more than people? Did you love only yourself? Did you love only when loving was easy? Did you love only your own flesh and blood? Christ is going to ask us, “Did you love me in all those other people who had so little and needed so much?” What are we going to say? What are we going to do? God help us. God forgive us. God give us strength. Amen.