Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon for November 20, 2011

Chaplain (CPT) Mel Baars
Camp Sabalu-Harrison, Bagram
20 November 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46

“Love Wins”

When I was in high school, our youth group put on a production of the Broadway musical Godspell. Basically, Godspell is straight out of the gospel of Matthew, alternating music and dramatization of the scripture. Admittedly, at that point in my life, I didn’t know very much about the Bible. But I thought I had the basics down. Creation and Adam and Ave, Noah, flood and rainbows, Joseph and his colorful coat, David, Goliath, and a slingshot, Mary on a donkey heading for Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth, miracles, the Last Supper, the cross and then resurrection. The end. Episcopalians are not known for their biblical knowledge.

So, in the play, whenever we got to the skit about the sheep and the goats, a parable on Judgment Day, I always got a little uncomfortable. This one kid in my youth group, who was a total ham, played “the King.” In grand gestures he would separate the sheep and the goats, who were “played by” other high school youth on their hands and knees, pretending to be four legged creatures. First he would give the sheep the good news. Guess what? Surprise! They were saved! “Sweet,” all the sheep would say, as they gave each other high fives and danced around the stage. Because they had given a cup of water and visited prisoners, they got to go into God’s kingdom. Then, the “king’s” whole demeanor would change. His face would get all contorted as he would turn toward the goats. Giving a little cackle, he would drop the bomb on the goats, who were sitting there, with such hopeful looks on their faces. “Eternal fire and damnation,” he would yell. And all the little goats would burst into fake tears, falling all over the stage. They would look so update and confused, wondering out loud how in the world this could have happen.

Every time this would happen in the play, I would think to myself, “Man, it really stinks to be a goat!” It just seemed so random. Neither group really knew what was coming because neither group really understood what it meant to love and serve in God’s name. Their questions to the king demonstrate just how confused they are. The sheep, happy of course that their news was good news, still pose the question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” They genuinely don’t understand how they gave this king food, water, shelter, clothing and care, because, even though they are sheep and their brains are small, they still know they would have remembered serving “the king.” Likewise, the goats, devastated by the news of eternal damnation, are also confused. “When,” they ask, “Did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not take care of you?” The goats brains are also small, but they are pretty sure they would have remembered, snubbing a king. And, this is when the king reveals the big secret. “Just as you did or did not do to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.”

I used to feel so sorry for those goats. I mean, they didn’t really know what they were or were not doing, right? I mean, if they had KNOWN that eternal damnation would be the consequence of neglecting the poor, the marginalized, the imprisoned, and the rejected, don’t you think they would have changed their ways? I mean, I would, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I?

It doesn’t take much reflection of my own life for me to realize that I am actually one of the goats. Sure, I have rolled my window down a number of times to offer a dollar or an apple or granola bar to a beggar at a stop light. I have served food at soup kitchens and built houses for Habitat for Humanity. I have even gotten pooped on, not once, but twice by diaper-less toddlers in an orphanage while trying to play games and color. Surely, THAT counts for something. But, even still, I have a suspicion, if responding to the least of these wherever and whenever they cross my path is the standard, on most days, I simply fail. I can just think all the way back to yesterday and my walk down Main Street in the DFIP. How many detainees did I see being wheeled around? Even when they can’t see me, even when I am not allowed to visit them, at least formally, even when I have been ordered not to talk to them under any circumstance, somehow I know that those are not the kinds of excuses that this “king” of our gospel story would listen to. I know, even though I don’t want to admit it, that I am being called to more, called to step beyond my comfort zone, to stop hiding behind my fears. I am called, every day, again and again, to respond out of compassion and love, even to those who have hurt me those I love.

So, mostly, I am a big goat and unlike the goats in Matthew, I don’t have the excuse that I didn’t know. Cause I do know. After all, I was in the play! And, I have read this passage countless times, now that I am a preacher. So, really, there are no excuses. Sometimes, though, when we know something in our minds, it is hard to know how this translates into our every day lives. We may know what kind of life God is calling us to live, but we may not know how to actually live this life, day to day. And for this particular season of our lives, here in Camp Sabalu-Harrison, living and working in this detention facility, what does Jesus’ instruction, “What you do to prisoners, you do to me,” really mean for us?

Before I arrived here, I had all kinds of ideas about how I was going to love Jesus in this prison. But, the truth is, I struggle every day. It’s not a struggle about whether or not I think these detainees deserve to be here or not or if I believe that they have done wrong. In many cases they have done wrong. They have brought pain and harm to innocent people, and they need to be stopped. My struggle is more about how I feel about them, what goes on in my heart when I see them, or worse, when I feel nothing, when I am unwilling to even acknowledge them and how they are somehow a part of me. Jesus demands more of me than that. Jesus calls every one of us to see, to acknowledge, and then, to love. If we can’t rise to that, if that seems too hard, then we are at least called to pray about it. When we struggle to respond to the least of these because of our fears or our prejudices or our self-centeredness or even our legitimate pain, we can still pray for a more generous heart which has the capacity to let go and forgive, to embrace instead of throw away.

This reminds me of a story that I have heard told before. Back during the days of integration of the public school system, President Johnson called in US Marshals to protect children from angry hecklers as they walked into their new, desegregated schools. There was a little girl named Ruby Bridges. Grown ups, who didn’t think she belonged in a white school, would scream at her and call her names. Whenever she walked by the angry mob, she would whisper under her breath. When she was asked what she was saying, she said that she was praying for the people that were yelling at her because they didn’t know what they were doing. She was echoing the words that she had heard in church where she had learned that Jesus was given a whole lot of trouble, and he said about those who were causing this trouble, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” When there is nothing else we can think of, we can still pray. When we feel we have nothing to give, nothing to offer, we can still pray.

Today, in our scripture, we are reminded that God is not a distant God, but God who is right here, in the midst of all of us. If you want to see God, you only have to look as far as your neighbor. To see the one who is in need, for whatever reason, the one who is vulnerable, the one who can’t stand alone, is to see God, face to face. “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” The interesting thing is that there is nothing in the king’s judgment of sheep and goats that cites proper religion, attending church, following the rules or anything of that nature. It’s simpler than that. The only thing that seems to matter in this business of separating sheep and goats is whether or not love, care, kindness, and compassion was shared freely with those who needed it. That’s it. Deeds of love and mercy are the ways of God’s kingdom.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me if it was possible to do real good without a religious background. I can’t help but think about this passage. The righteous, the ones that were welcomed into God’s kingdom, were considered faithful, not because of a belief or a claim, not because of membership in a church or because of what they said, but they were called righteous because of how they lived, even when they didn’t realize it. If the goats had been clued in, they may have changed their ways, but all for the wrong reasons. You see, the sheep just shared, not because they were forced to or compelled by religious edict, but because they had love and compassion in their hearts, and it flowed freely. It seems this is what Jesus is getting at, a kind of love that flows, not out of calculation or duty or hope of “doing the right thing,” or even hope of being saved, but instead, because it naturally spills over.

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ, God’s love made into flesh, teaching us, showing us, encouraging us along the way so that we might realize that it is only when we love that we truly live. And this is the thing about God’s love, the more you are willing to share it, the more you have to give away. This is the other thing about God’s love. It is for all of us. It fills in the gaps that we have not been able to fill. It makes us strong where we have been weak. It helps us transcend all that we cannot do on our own. This kind of love even takes us goats and transforms us into sheep. Because, in the very end, God’s love wins. Amen


  1. Mel, I felt as if I was right there with you, listening to your words, as I read this sermon.
    You are so wise, and you help open my eyes.
    Be safe and have a Happy Thanksgiving. Know that I am thankful for YOU in my life.

  2. Mel,

    You are truly living the challenge of "love your enemy" every day. So difficult. Would that I could respond to that command as well as you do! Thank you for all that you do and are.

    Sunday at UPC was our 22nd Alternative Gift Market -- always a great day in the life of our church. Lots of love evident in people doing what little (or much) they could do to help those in need throughout the world. Wish you could have been there.