First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence
November 26, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 25: 31-46
Sermon: “Windows of God’s Love”
The beautiful stained glass windows in this sanctuary are more than pretty colors. Inscribed on the windows are stories gifted to us by the generation building this church in 1957. Here on the west side of the chancel is the story of the Passion, the last week of Jesus’ life. On the east side of this back wall are images that tell the Resurrection Easter story. Facing front in worship we see the focus of faith in passion and resurrection of Jesus.
The sides of the sanctuary which support the structure’s roof are images of Jesus’ life and his teachings. Over here on this first one near the top, is an image of Jesus talking to a woman at the well. The female is a Samaritan, an ethic group despised by his people. Jesus was thirsty, so he asked her for water; they shared in conversation, and he promised her a drink of living water. You might say he was welcoming a stranger when he talked to her. The next window tells about a man who was beaten, robbed, stripped naked and left in a ditch to die. Along came the man’s political adversary, another Samaritan, who cared for him. He clothed the naked in doing so. The next window shows Jesus feeding a multitude of hungry people, and the next on is all about healing and caring for the sick. Over here on the west side, there a little man who climbed a sycamore tree, Zacchaeus. Matthew is in the next window. Zacchaeus and Matthew were both Jewish men who were tax collectors. That means they worked for the Roman Empire. They made their livelihood supporting a foreign occupying power. You might say they were imprisoned in a corrupt system, and they imprisoned the poor in debtor’s prison. Jesus called them to them. You might say, he visited the imprisoned and set them free.
Clearly the designers of this building saw the importance in this Bible passage we hear today from Matthew’s gospel. This is Jesus’ last lecture to his students in Matthew. He’s been teaching them for years now. He’s been welcoming, clothing, feeding, healing, visiting. They’ve watched him. His week of death draws near and he says to them, “One last time fellas. This is what my people do. This is what all God’s people do. This is what all the nations of God’s people do: welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoners.” Still, the disciples were surprised by his story.
The sheep standing on his right said, “when did we do those things for you?”
“I never saw you naked or in prison,” said Peter.
“You weren’t sick or undocumented,” said John.
Jesus said, “oh yes, I was. Remember the others, the poor and ragged masses. Remember you fed them… when you fed them, you fed me.”
Jesus continued his story as he turned to the goats on his left and said, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
The goats were just as surprised as the sheep had been. They said, “We would have done that for you, but we never saw you—we never saw you hungry or thirsty or sick. We never saw you naked, Lord. We would have cared for you if we had known that was you.”
John Wesley preached “On Visiting the Sick” in 1786 and he said, “One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorance an excuse for their hardness of heart. ‘Indeed, Sir,’ said person of large substance, ‘I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want.’”
That sounds as familiar today some 231 years after John Wesley wrote it. There are some privileged who don’t know anybody in the world that is in want, because they do not care to know. Unfortunately, that sounds like some of our elected officials inhabiting our capital city these days who know of no one in want.
Jesus is preaching a last public lecture before passion week begins. It is interesting that he says nothing about faith or doctrine, nothing about being born again Christian or a member in good standing of a local church. He doesn’t ask them if they know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. He doesn’t ask them their sexual orientation or who they love. He tells of judgement day, yet no one has been raptured up or left behind. All stand with everyone else.
Neither the sheep or the goats behavior was about trying to ‘get into heaven’ or ‘stay out of hell’. They just saw people in need, and they served them. They were just living their lives of faith the way that they always did.
But what about the goats, preacher? What about those damned goats? I do believe in God’s eternal grace, which means that I can’t believe in eternal damnation.
I think Jesus gave his lecture hoping the goats would wake up. This isn’t the end of the story, yet. The goats can recognize missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and be restored to companionship with God and others. The story is a teaching mechanism; it is another wakeup call story that Matthew has been telling.
There’s the good news. We have time to wake up. God’s time gives all time to wake up and see Jesus. When we wake up, we see with open eyes Christ in the face of every child who goes to be hungry – whether in Africa, Mexico, Iran, Iraq, China, or Omaha. We see with open eyes Christ in the stranger who is of a different ethnic group, speaking a different language or with a different accent. We will see with open eyes Christ in our nation’s prisons turned into for-profit institutions disproportionally housing our brother and sisters of darker hue skin. We see with open eyes Christ in poverty, denied houses or medical care legislated by our laws in a government of “we the people.”
The good news is, we can see Jesus. We can welcome the stranger, as our immigration team is leading us to do. We can feed the hungry as our food ministry does every month. We can clothe the naked as our coat drive did yesterday. We can care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.
The architects and artists of this church so carefully reminded us what it means to follow Jesus through these stained glass windows. Built in 1957, only 18 years after its construction, our archives write, “within sixty seconds, late in the afternoon on May 6, 1975, [an F5] tornado tried to destroy our new church facilities.” The thick concrete foundation walls and support pillars held firm and did not crack, not a life was lost. Great damage was done to these windows, but great care was given to restore these windows. The original artist was summoned out of retirement to recreate them. A year later when all the repairs were complete, Dr. Roger Bourland said in his heritage Day sermon “I think the building stands on a good foundation. But the foundation on which we stand is not so strong that we can ride its coattails into the Kingdom of God. You see, the future of this church stands or falls with the ministries of people like you and me.”
That is as true now as it was then. Maybe that’s why the stained glass you face on your way out of church, when you are leaving the sanctuary and walking back into the world says, “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger. I was naked, sick and in prison.”
We are to be windows of God’s love. Whenever we live this gospel message, our eyes are open to see Christ all about us, and we know that God still goes this road with us. May it be so.