Preacher: Rev. David Exley
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
The last time I had an extended stay in Washington, D.C. was 13 years ago. As a youth minister working in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. I took a group of middle school students and adult leaders from our church to participate in a service and education program run by Washington Quaker Workcamps. The program (based out of William Penn House, located 5 blocks east of the Capitol Building in DC) was designed to educate students and leaders on issues around poverty, homelessness, and activism. During our week-long stay we participated in a number of local outreach programs based in the city. It was a transformative experience for both the students and the adult leaders. I fully expected that our group would be moved by the programs we participated in that week. What I didn’t expect was the response that many of the students had to the Quaker “worship“ experience they had that week.
If you’re not familiar with worship in the Quaker tradition, it’s very different from your typical mainline church service. In fact, it’s mostly silence. You see in the Quaker tradition (known as the Society of Friends) there is a belief that all people have an equal amount of “light” (that divine spark) within them. And so, when Quakers gather for worship, they typically sit in silence and if someone feels compelled to speak, they speak. In the case of our experience at William Penn House there was only silence. Each and every morning when we gathered for 30 minutes of worship there was silence. While that silence may have been deafening to many of the adult leaders, it wasn’t as painful as I expected it to be for the middle school students. In fact, after the first morning of worship (that first 30 minutes of silence), one of our students came up to me after worship and said, “That was powerful!” I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! They thought that extended time of silence was powerful? That’s not at all what I would have predicted!” But, the truth is there was something powerfully sacred about that time of silence we experienced together that week. What a gift it was to be surprised by a group of young teens—by silence—that week.
I’ve read the passage we heard this morning from Matthew 25 hundreds of times. You would think that there would be nothing new to learn from this familiar parable of Jesus. But, as many of you know, just when you think that God has nothing new to say, God shows up and surprised you in the most unexpected way. What I’ve failed to see in the past is that God actually is silent in this parable. And, in that silence, there is much to learn.
Like many other people I’ve tended to see God almost exclusively as the king in this parable—the one who separates the sheep from the goats and determines their fate. However, when I look again, I see that God is present—most especially—in those that are in need. When we read this parable a certain way (perhaps the right way) God is not the one handing out judgement. God is not the one speaking words of welcome and condemnation. God is the one who simply exists in the world with needs that are far too common to us. God is the one who is hungry. God is the one who is thirsty. God is the one in prison. God is the stranger; the outcast; the oppressed one. From one angle, God has no voice in this parable. God only has a need and that need is synonymous with the needs of the people. The whole point of the parable is to see God (or to see Jesus) in the stranger—the one who is sick, the one who is hungry, thirsty, and in prison. It makes me wonder—how often do we get it wrong when it comes to God?
God is not found most exclusively in those transcendent things. Through the life of Jesus we see that God is found imminently in our world. Where we would normally look up to find God—whether it be in the heavens or some highly exalted place within this world—we discover that God’s position has moved. In response, we need shift our eyes to those unexpected places. We need some sort of holy silence to reset our thinking about God and all that is holy.
The other key thing that we can learn from this teaching of Jesus is that God does not work at an individual level. This parable is not one where we can simply say, “Ok. How can I tick all the boxes of God’s divine ‘To Do’ list in order that I can be welcomed into God’s presence—so that I can enter those ‘Pearly Gates’ that await the saints when life on earth has come to an end?” For when we look at this list it becomes abundantly clear that we cannot do this work alone. None of us have enough food to feed ALL the hungry. None of us has the financial means to clothe all those who are naked OR provide water for ALL who thirst. None of us have enough time to visit all those who are in prison OR ALL those who are sick. The weight of limited resources weigh heavy upon us as we attempt to do this alone. We can only do this when we work together.
Fortunately for us, God is not concerned with how we respond to this problem individually, God is concerned with how we respond together—as one. We cannot do this work alone, BUT as the body of Christ we can do it together.
As we come to the end of the church calendar, perhaps the only place to appropriately end it is the way the story must begin—in silence. Perhaps we (like Zechariah) need to begin in silence if we are truly to see the face of Christ in this world. Remember Zechariah? He’s the one in the Gospel of Luke who is visited by an angel. He and his wife (Elizabeth) are advanced in their age and the angel tells him they will bear a son (the one who will become John the Baptist). Zechariah is filled with doubt and asks for a sign to confirm this will indeed happen. The angel tells him that he will be unable to speak until all the things come to pass. And so, it’s only when the child is born that Zechariah is able to speak again. In the time of silence in which Zechariah was unable to speak, something changes within him. Perhaps that is what we need to truly come to grips with who God is and where that divine light is to be found within this world.
It reminds me of another story….
Once a farmer lost his precious watch while working in his barn. It may have appeared as an ordinary watch to others, but held a deep sentimental value for it.
After searching high and low among the hay for a long time, the old farmer got exhausted. The tired farmer did not want to give up the search for his watch and requested a group of children playing outside the barn to help. He promised an attractive reward for the person who can find his beloved watch.
After hearing about the reward, the children hurried inside the barn and went through and round the entire stack of hay to find the watch. After a long time looking for a watch in the hay, some of the children got tired and gave up. The number of children looking for the watch slowly decreased and only few tired children were left. The farmer gave up all his hope to find the watch and called off the search.
Just when the farmer was closing the door, a little boy came up to him and requested the farmer to give him another chance. The farmer did not want to miss any chance of finding the watch so let the little boy in the barn.
After a little while the little boy came out with the watch in his hand. The farmer was happily surprised and asked how the boy succeeded to get the watch while everyone including him had failed.
The boy replied “ I just sat there tried listening to the ticking of the watch. In silence, it was much easier to listen to it and direct the search in the direction of the sound.”
The farmer was delighted to get the watch and rewarded the little boy as promised.*
Even in the midst of a time of pandemic, the world is filled with a cacophony of noise. That noise often prevents us from hearing the voice of God—from recognizing the face of God in the places we travel. Rather than fill the world with noise, perhaps we need to enter into this “New Year” in silence so that God might help equip us with what we need to transform our world. For that is what God is concerned with… not heavenly visions of a world beyond this one. God is concerned with lifting this world up and seeing heaven appear on earth. The good news is that we can see it too, we just need to work together. Amen.