"The Stewardship of our Relationships"

November 24, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 25:31-46

At the beginning of November, we were absorbed in a contest over who would be the "most important man in the world" for the next four years, the President of the United States. Well, that election has come and gone. Here we are now, at the end of the month, the last Sunday before the season of Advent begins. In the Christian calendar, which we (as Brethren) don’t follow as closely as our more high church friends, today is the end of the long season of Pentecost, and also the end of the Christian year, which starts anew with Advent. This last Sunday of the church year has become known as "Christ the King Sunday."

It’s appropriate to end this month emphasizing that there is a sovereign ruler greater than any earthly President, or other Head of State. You see, the most powerful man in the world does not really sit in an Oval office in a White House. The scriptures speak of a heavenly throne, where the true ruler will sit. In a scene too huge (for me, at least) to comprehend, this morning’s gospel reading portrays all the nations as gathered before the real "most important man in the world."

One day, before this ruler, there will be an accounting, a sorting between those who have done right, and those who haven’t. Simple enough. In this story, however, Jesus intentionally moves from the throne room of a King to the pasture of a Shepherd, as if to emphasize that the power of this ruler is not like what we’ve come to expect from world-class leaders. This King is different. How so? Well, after he has separated the sheep and the goats, he speaks to each group in very personal terms. "I was hungry ... I was thirsty ... I was a stranger ... I was naked ... I was sick ... I was in prison." Is this really "the most powerful man in the world?"

Of course, these words weren’t meant to be taken literally, were they? "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?," both sheep and goats ask. In response, Jesus pulls it all together. "Just as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did (or didn’t do it) to me." With a simple statement, this King has intimately tied his well-being to the fate of those who are all-too-often overlooked and ignored. He cares about his family, however broadly his family is defined. With this not-so-simple statement, Jesus intimately ties our well-being to the fate of these same people. We are connected.

Another way of putting it is that we are stewards over our relationships. Stewardship involves much more than money, you know. Have you ever put stewardship and relationships together? In John, chapter 17, Jesus prays this long prayer in which we find these words: "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me..." (v. 6) God entrusted those whom he loved into the hands of his Son, Jesus. Jesus took seriously his stewardship over these relationships, so seriously that he laid down his life for them. In this parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25, there is another trust implied. We are called to be "care-takers" of one another, especially those who are often overlooked and ignored, but who are still members of God’s family.

We don’t often think of this as stewardship, but we should. One of the greatest treasures God gives us is people. Just today we recognized the precious gift of a child in the life of a family, in the life of a church. Parents are called to wise stewardship of their children. Hopefully, we remember that stewards are not owners. Likewise, parents don’t own their children. God entrusts them into their hands for but a season.

Now, I believe that the stewardship of our relationships is one of the most difficult tasks God gives us. There’s real truth to the statement that "charity begins at home." Home is often the hardest place, though, to be charitable. Yesterday, my sister told me of her step-son recently "graduating" from a boot-camp program for teenage offenders. His family all took time off to travel four hours away to attend and support him. The path to that point, however, was quite rough. It won’t be a bed of roses from here on, either. Sometimes, those closest to us are the hardest ones to love. Am I right? "As you did it to one of the least of these," Jesus said, "you did it to me."

"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."

Those words touch so deeply, and yet they are very disturbing at the same time. There is almost a progression of discomfort to them. Have you noticed? They begin with simple hospitality: sharing food and drink. Each step beyond, though, is just a bit riskier. I’ve heard stories, as I’m sure you have, of homes that were known during the depression as places where hobos could receive a meal. Most often, though, these hungry wayfarers were fed on the back step, and not at the kitchen table. After all, is it wise to welcome a stranger into your home? How many of us would feel comfortable doing that? "I was homeless and you gave me a room," the King then said. Does your discomfort level begin to rise?

A family in our elementary school lost their home to a fire this past week. Amid this tragedy, it was good to hear that some neighbors have welcomed them into their own home, sharing what they have until other arrangements can be made. It will, no doubt, be uncomfortable for both families, especially as the warmth of the original invitation wears thin with the daily grind of family living. That’s to be expected. Still, this is one blessing coming out of a rotten situation.

Welcoming the homeless into our home is not easy, whether they are neighbors we know or strangers we do not. It requires more of us. The progression of discomfort continues. "I was naked and you gave me clothing." Nakedness is an indignity, a taking away of some of our most basic protections. When the Nazis committed genocide upon the Jews during W.W.II, they stripped them bare and herded them into so-called showers, where cyanide gas did its fatal duty. "I was naked," the King says. If that doesn’t make you shiver, then you have a heart of stone.

"I was sick and you came and took care of me." In this day and age when we are so cautious of germs, and the ways diseases can spread, these are disquieting words. Furthermore, there is a shift in the progression here from welcoming in to actively reaching out, from reacting to the knock on our own door, to journeying to and knocking upon the door of another. There’s more risk involved. Are you uncomfortable yet?

If not, try on the final statement of the King: "I was in prison and you visited me." Shirley was a member of our church in Indiana who poisoned her husband, and was sentenced to life in prison. Karen and I went to visit her. Maybe it was the crime. Maybe it was knowing the circumstances and the people involved, all the pain caused all the way around. No doubt it was also the place. Nevertheless, the first time we visited (especially) was an extremely uncomfortable experience. I suppose one can grow accustomed to visiting a penitentary. Walking through doors which are locked behind you, into space shared by those deemed criminal, is not exactly my definition of fun. Modern prisons are nothing compared to the dungeons of old. Of course, when the early Christians heard these words, they could think of dear brothers and sisters in the faith who were forced to be in such places because of what they believed.

Is it wrong on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to think such uncomfortable thoughts? Well, maybe it makes us more thankful for our present lot in life, for the ways we have been blessed. True thanksgiving, though, energizes us to face into the uncomfortable, to respond to God’s blessings with blessings of our own for others. After all, we are stewards of much more than our possessions.

Let me end with one of my favorite stories, one I’ve told before. It bears repeating, though.

It was the end of a long, frustrating day, as a social worker among the homeless, a woman and her family aet a meal out. Tired and hungry this mother sank her teeth into a submarine sandwich, only to be reprimanded by her young daughter: "Mom, you forgot to pray!" Rather than argue, she quickly mumbled a grace: "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest," and then, proceeded to eat.

However, not long thereafter a stranger, who had noticed them praying came over to their table. "Oh, no!" she thought as she eyed him, dressed in tattered clothes. "Isn't it enough that I deal with such problems all day. What now?"

"Please sir," the man said to her husband, "I haven't eaten all day. Can you buy me a sandwich."

Husband looked to wife, who made such decisions every day, for her wisdom. When she nodded, he took the man up to the counter saying, "Sure, let me go with you to pay for it."

But the 7 year old daughter was uneasy, she had scooted closer to her Mom when the man first came up.

"Mommy, what are they doing?"

"It's OK, honey. The man is hungry and Daddy is buying him a sandwich."

"But why?"

"Well, he doesn't have any money, and probably hasn't eaten in a while.

"I know, Mom, but why is Daddy buying him a sandwich?"

The answer: "because he is hungry," didn’t seem to satisfy. So, the woman thought about it, then pulled a typical parental switch:

"Why do you think Daddy is buying him a sandwich?"

"I'm sure God and Jesus would think it was a good idea."

"Yes, God doesn't want people hungry and it makes God happy when we help one another."

This seemed to make sense to the child, and she went on eating, keeping an eye on Daddy and the man. Thinking about it some more, the woman spoke on:

"Jessica, another reason Daddy is giving the man some food is because of something Jesus once said; that when you give a cup of water or some food to one of his children it is just like giving it to him."

"Just like giving it to Jesus?"

"Yes, Jesus often comes to us in poor and hurting people.

"Wow, excuse me, Mom."

And Jessica got up and went to stand with her father. She had taken the words literally and wanted to be close to Jesus. When they returned, the man declined their offer to eat with them, but his presence continued to grace their table.

"Mommy," Jessica said later, "your prayer was answered."

"What do you mean, honey?"

"Well, you asked for Jesus to be our guest, and he really did come."
                                                                    [Christian Century, 5/16-23/90, p. 520]

1996Peter L. Haynes

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