The Overlooked and the Ignored

July 2nd, 2017

The Overlooked and the Ignored

Matthew 25:31-40

July 2, 2017 (Community 4th of July Service)

If you think about it, Jesus was crucified for two reasons. First, he was a threat to the powers that be. The fear was that he was too political. He was only a step away from turning his followers against the Roman occupiers and the Jewish authorities. A threat like this could not be allowed to go unchecked.

The other reason that Jesus was crucified was that he wasn’t political enough. Think about Judas. Why did he betray him? Judas betrayed Jesus because he wasn’t willing to be the Messiah that Judas wanted him to be. There was supposed to be a revolution. Jesus just refused to step up. In his frustration and anger, Judas betrayed Jesus for a bag of silver coins.

I suspect that every pastor who has ever preached on or around the 4th of July gets at least a taste of what Jesus must have felt. The more in line we are with what Jesus taught, the more likely it will be that we are accused, once again, of being too political or not being political enough. Thankfully, crucifixion and betrayal have, for the most part, given way to the occasional unsigned note or the comment made in passing at the gym. Much as such things may sting, the bottom line is that we live to preach another day.

Interestingly, Jesus was not a politician. Politicians care deeply about public policy and stimulating the economy and the growth of a village or state or nation. (I want to be careful here and say that the world desperately needs good politicians. The fact that Jesus wasn’t one of them doesn’t cancel out that fact.) Politicians build coalitions and, at their best are good stewards of the power that they’ve been given, although we all know that many people, when entrusted with power, are seduced by that power to use it to their own ends. That’s why we need the good ones, the ones who never forget that they are in power to serve the larger good.

Think about Jesus for minute. He said things that were never going to “sell”: “Love your enemy;” “Forgive seven times seventy times;” “Whoever wants to be first must be last.” These statements do not “spin” well. He never proposed one solid policy. Do you remember the story he told about the good shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was missing? What kind of business sense does that make? If you really read the Gospels, the overwhelming conclusion that you will come to is that Jesus really didn’t care how popular he was. He clearly hadn’t market tested any of his ideas. This may explain why so few people who heard him actually followed him, much less tried to do what he taught them to do. Jesus had no problem speaking the truth. He just wasn’t all that interested in really selling it.

In fact, the dangerous thing that Jesus did most was that he cared for the people whom the rest of the world overlooked and ignored. Plenty of religious and political leaders have understood that to get some things done, well…you just have to “schmooze” with the right people. Would it have cost Jesus that much to snuggle up to a Pharisee or two? Would it have been that hard to give a nod to the Romans or, if he felt more like it, to poke the Romans in the eye and solidify his “base?” Jesus would have none of that. He spent nearly all of his time with women, with poor people, with the sick, with foreigners and just about every other rag- tag example of a human being that he could find.

The truth that Jesus lived and preached was simple: every person is a child of God. Every person matters. The rich and the powerful didn’t need to be told that truth. They told themselves this truth every day and every person they met echoed this truth, too, in the hopes that a little of that wealth and power might rain down on them. The religious rulers also didn’t need to hear this truth. They were completely convinced that they were the chosen ones. (They were also convinced that God’s approval was their’s to sell to the highest bidder.) In contrast to all this, Jesus met the overlooked and looked them in the eye. Jesus paid attention to the ignored. He cared for them and did what he could to help them.

Jesus cared. It wasn’t that he cared about the people who had the clout to make that care worthwhile. It wasn’t even that he had that magic touch that made everyone who met him feel like he cared about them. The truth was that when he was in a crowd he always seemed to be sorting through the crowd to find the person on the margins, the one who had been rejected, the person, in at least one case, who was hanging out up in a tree. And when he found that person, he reached out to them, or he responded instantly when they reached out, or he just invited himself to their house for dinner. And by paying attention to that one lost sheep, the tendency was to leave 99 angry sheep behind: “Why him? Why her? Why not me?” Aren’t we all just more open to the religious leader who finds some way to make us all feel special?

If anything, what Jesus offered us was a chance to feel not special but useful and helpful. This is the extra dangerous part. He cared but it turns out what he really wanted was for us to care, too. (The gall of this man!) The disciples recognize the crowds’ hunger and suggest that Jesus should do something. Jesus looks them in the eye and says, “You do something!” Jesus touches a leper and, as if that’s not gross enough, everyone knows that he’s going to expect us to touch one, too. On the last night with his disciples, Jesus drops to his knees and washes their feet just like a servant and tells them that they are here to be servants, too.

Caring about people that no one is supposed to care about challenges the powers that be—the powers who, in all sorts of ways, have declared that those people don’t matter. The issue is not the people. The issue is the precedent. When we are in charge, we don’t want anyone doing things that upset the present order. When the lepers or the women or the sick or the blind start thinking they matter, who knows what will happen next. “Jesus, you’re just opening up a whole can of worms…”

For those who dreamed of wielding power, Jesus was equally frustrating. “Care about the poor, the women, the sick and the blind..by all means, Jesus…but get some milage out of the effort. Harness those people for the revolution. Make them your foot soldiers for seizing worldly power!” Any good populist knows that you learn how to speak to the needs of the overlooked and the ignored. You promise them a day when they will matter. Then, you ask them to join you in working for that day! Jesus cared for people and didn’t ask for a thing, other than occasionally asking them not to tell anyone. Jesus cared about people in need simply because it was the right and faithful thing to do.

The ultimate expression of this ethic of care is found in our text from Matthew. The text is a fable about the end times that is meant to show us what matters in the end. The Son of Man takes his throne and begins separating sheep from goats. (In real life, if you’ve ever spent any time on a farm, you would much rather be a goat than a sheep. Sheep are dumb and smell bad. Goats are clever and funny and full of spunk.) The “sheep,” the one’s who are “in” and have been “in” always, are “in” because they care: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was homeless and you gave me a room. I was shivering and you gave me clothes. I was sick and you stopped to visit. I was in prison and you came to me.”

On the one hand, this seems really simple: offer water to the thirsty; feed the hungry; shelter those who have none; clothe the naked; visit the lonely. It’s not that hard to figure out, right? We’ve got the formula! On the other hand, what we haven’t figured out is that this is what actually matters most. Meeting the needs of those around us matters more than our personal piety. Meeting the needs of those around us matters more than holding on to power. Meeting the needs of those around us matters more than our big scheme of the day. Meeting the needs of those around us matters more than anything else!

The shocking thing about the sheep is that they have no idea how much their acts of care mattered. They are completely uncalculating. They didn’t eye up the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely and think how many points they could score by caring. They just did the caring human thing that was there to do. The needs were obvious. Their choice to help was obvious. And none of it seemed like a big deal…until Jesus said to them, “You remember that hungry guy? That was me! Remember that thirsty person? That was me, too! Remember that guy in prison? I know this is going to be hard to believe but I was that man!”

What makes followers of Christ too political and not political enough for most folks to this day is the same thing. While our politicians debate how to pay for health care and how many people we can afford to leave uninsured, Christ calls us to care for the sick: “That person who is trying to figure out how to pay for their prescription? That’s me!” While we debate crime policies, Christ calls us to care for those who live in fear: “That child over there who isn’t sure how to make it home without running into the gangs? That child is me!” While many try to pass judgement on someone whose religion or sexual preference or appearance makes them a minority, Christ calls us to care for the overlooked: “All of those people who are variously attacked and scapegoated and ignored? Those people are me, too!”

Forget all the labels. Leave the policy debate for another day. If you intend to follow Christ, watch for the person who is overlooked or ignored. Watch for the hungry or the sick or the lonely. Watch for the person whom everyone knows for sure simply doesn’t matter. Then, choose to care for that person, with no expectation of anything in return. It’s what we do for a fellow human being. It is simply the right and faithful and grateful thing to do.

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