Sermon

Matthew 25:31-46

The Scavenger Hunt

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde

It goes without saying that my trip earlier this week to Lacombe, Louisiana had a profound effect upon me. I’ll try to explain it to you, but my description of the conditions down there won’t tell you the full story. Have you ever seen photographs of the Grand Canyon? They never do it justice, do they? Neither do the pictures of south Louisiana adequately convey how it really is, whether they are taken with a camera or described by words.

There are broken trees everywhere, some pulled out of the ground like they were weeds. Others are snapped off, as if a giant came along, and with a flick of his wrist just snatched off the tops. Power lines lie on the ground and people are still walking around with dazed looks on their faces.

But I think what I will remember the most is the trash. Appliances, furniture, all manner of household goods, broken lumber and parts of houses – if they are not still where Hurricane Katrina left them – have been taken to the sides of the roads and dumped in huge piles. It’s been almost four months since the hurricane came through, and the trash is still there. Much of the stench is gone, but the trash is not.

There are plenty of work crews. In fact, at one point we had to wait for several minutes until a huge truck finished clearing the side of the road near where we were staying. When we were finally allowed to pass, we found that the workers were from Batesville. There was an Entergy employee from Monticello at a Mississippi convenience store where we stopped. Workers are everywhere, but what they are accomplishing is a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done.

There is just too much to do. The destruction is unbelievable, and from what we were told, there were areas closer to New Orleans that were much worse than where we were. There is just so much to do that to witness it firsthand is to be overwhelmed by the need.

I feel the same way every time I encounter this parable by Jesus, the one we read a moment ago, the one about the end time when the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats, the good guys from the bad. That parable… the one that always makes me feel guilty. There is so much to do, and I feel as if I do so little. And for that reason I feel guilty.

And believe me, guilt can be a motivator.

I was asked to serve on the Rotary Disaster Relief Task Force, and after our first meeting found myself envisioning a connection between what Rotary wanted to do and what the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas was already doing. So, I worked at helping put the two groups together. I even went down to Louisiana three weeks ago, with some other Rotarians, on a one-day fact-finding trip (Don’t worry, I went on my day off ). But I couldn’t see going back as a part of a work team to actually do what we were talking about. Then, Charlotte Gadberry called me on Tuesday night and said a five-person work crew was being put together to go down for three days. Would I be a part of the team? (Deep breath). When? “We’re leaving Sunday afternoon,” she said. “Sunday aft… Next week?!”

I immediately started coming up with excuses. This is one of my busiest times of the year. I wasn’t being given enough lead time. I can’t just leave town on a moment’s notice. Not to mention that I’m too old and crippled up for that kind of work. (Another long pause). But then I told Janet, “I need to do this.” And besides, in essence, Charlotte said to me, “Put your money where your mouth is.” I would have felt guilty had I not gone. Guilt can be a powerful motivator.

It’s been almost twenty years, but I remember Fred Craddock telling of the time he attended a conference on hunger. Influential, knowledgeable speakers had been brought in from all over to talk on the subject. Near the end of the conference, Fred says, a young, willowy woman got up to speak. Her long straight hair fell down her back, almost to her waist. She carried a legal pad to the podium and began reading.

At first, Craddock says, he couldn’t follow what she was saying. Eventually, it dawned on him, as it did all the other listeners. She was reading the same sentence over and over, each time in a different language. Finally, at the very end, she spoke the sentence in English. All the time she was saying, “Mommy, I’m hungry. Mommy, I’m hungry.”

She was the most powerful speaker of the entire conference, Craddock says. At least, she had the most impact upon him. As he and his group drove back to Atlanta, alongside the highway he read a billboard he had seen numerous times. Before, he had hardly even noticed it. This time he did. It said, “All You Can Eat Buffet, $4.99.” This time, Craddock says, that message seemed to him to be obscene.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator.

I think Jesus knew that. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus didn’t use guilt very often. And it’s a good thing.

A lot of you, like me, grew up in church on a steady diet of guilt. I still remember – in fact, I was heavily influenced by – the evangelists who would come to our church on occasion and preach week-long revivals. (Oh, you young folk don’t know what you’re missing.) They could lay on the guilt so thick there wouldn’t be a person in the house who wasn’t uncomfortable. You could see people who had been Christians for a hundred years stand there during the hymn of invitation gripping the back of the pew in front of them until their knuckles were white with the tension.

Conviction, we called it… conviction. We sang “Just As I Am” – all forty verses – over and over again until the congregation was absolutely milked dry. Tragic stories of horror were told, as if they were really true, of people who had been convicted to give their hearts to Jesus, but did not do so. The consequences of their refusal were described in vivid detail. All this in order to get people to walk the aisle and give the evangelist another notch in his gun belt.

I exaggerate, of course. But not much. Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t operate this way?

Well, sometimes it seems these evangelists have got nothing on Jesus. This parable is an example. Talk about guilt! It is true that this parable seems entirely different from most stories Jesus told. In fact, we’re familiar with it, perhaps if for no other reason than it is so different from all the others. It stands out from the rest. We much prefer the stories he told that speak of grace and the kingdom. We like the prodigal son, the good Samaritan… parables like that. But instinctively, we know that when it comes to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and clothes to the naked, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and imprisoned, we’re not in familiar territory. That’s not on our daily to-do lists. So how do we reconcile what Jesus is saying here?

You remember scavenger hunts?1 We used to do it all the time when we were teenagers. At the beginning of the hunt you’re given a list of things you have to accumulate. The first group back with all the items wins. When you return, the leader checks off each item to make sure you’ve gotten everything that was needed.

Is that the way it’s going to be on the final day of judgment? The Son of Man, Jesus says, will be seated on the throne of glory and will gather all the nations of people before him. Then, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. “Let’s see… yes, you once gave food to a hungry person. Check that one off. There was the time you gave a drink of water to the thirsty child. Check. Visited a jail? Check.”

Is that the way it’s going to be? And if so, what is going to be our motivation for doing it? Will we get credit in heaven for clothing the naked if we give our old stuff to Goodwill only for the tax deduction, or just to get it out of the house?

And what if we help someone solely out of guilt or just to get them to go away? Have you ever given a beggar some money just so he will leave? Is once enough, or do we have to do it over and over and over again? Because, just as you finish giving food to a hungry person another hungry person comes to your door. Word gets around, you know. There’s a network out there. You begin to realize that the more you help the more there are who come to your door. The task becomes overwhelming, like after a hurricane. After all, even Jesus said the poor you will have with you always. Didn’t he say that? I think he did.

Can you feed one hungry person and make it into heaven? Or toss a quarter in a cup or throw a dollar bill at an old woman in the grocery store and call it done? “There! There’s my good deed for the day, my ticket to eternity with the sheep!”2

No, I think what Jesus is saying is that when you see a hungry or thirsty person, someone in prison or without adequate clothing, someone who is sick and has no one to take care of her – in other words, someone not like you – when you see someone who needs what you have it in you to give, you have to see that person as the presence, the embodiment, of Christ… even if that person doesn’t look or act like you. Maybe even especially if that person doesn’t look or act like you.

That’s not easy to do. Are you aware that we have a lot of people who come to our church office door asking for help? Or they will call on the phone. Some of these people, I think, have our office number memorized. And I’ve got to tell you, many of them have an attitude. It’s as if they expect you to help, and if you don’t they can get ugly in a hurry. It’s hard to see Christ in a person like that. After all, they’re probably sitting there with a list of churches and phone numbers. Instead of working, they work the system. That’s what they do. They don’t want to get better, they just want to get what they can as easily as they can get it.

It’s hard to see Jesus in people like that. But then, you try to put yourself in their place, and when you do you it becomes easier to see Christ in them. And when you see Christ in them, you want to help. You can’t do anything but help. You do so, not because you feel guilty, but because you know God loves them just as much as God loves you, and God needs you to show that love to them.

And when you do it in the spirit of Christ, you’re not even aware that you’re doing it. That’s the surprising thing about Jesus’ story. Those who helped others in Jesus’ name, and those who didn’t, weren’t even aware of what was going on. Evidently, helping others is simply a natural result of being faithful.

Earlier this week, I spent the better part of three days installing insulation, putting down flooring, and hanging sheet rock in a house belonging to a man named Irwin Batiste. I can think of a lot of reasons why I had no business helping him. First of all, he lives hundreds of miles from me. Aren’t there enough people around here who could use some assistance? Not only that, I’m too old for that kind of labor. Besides, he’s a Catholic and I’m a Baptist. He’s got six sons and two daughters, and not one of them has come by to check on their father. Why don’t they help?

There are a lot of reasons not to do such a thing, and only one reason I can think of to do it. But it’s reason enough. It is reason enough. Jesus – my Jesus, your Jesus – looks a whole lot like Irwin Batiste, who looks nothing like you or me.

And that just may be the point.

Give us a helping spirit, O Lord, because that is your Spirit. We have more than enough. Give us the grace to share it with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

NOTES

1This idea derived from Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 137.

2Ibid.

Copyright 2005 Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.