Who We Are

Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

I remember way back when getting ready to be a parent for the first time, we bought and read all of the books about being a new parent only to quickly learn there is a LOT those books leave out.  One of the small things I was not prepared for, is just how many times I would end up watching the same movie over and over again.   So like all parents from the past decade, I have seen Frozen a lot, but I think most parents also have at least one more obscure movie that they have seen more times than they can count.  For us one of those movies is Leap.  I do not expect you to be familiar with this one.  It was released in 2017 and went really under the radar.  It is an animated kid’s movie about a poor, orphan girl who wants to be a ballerina and is able to con her way into the most prestigious dance school in Paris and then eventually earning her spot.   By and large the plot progresses about like you would expect it to, but there is small detail of the movie that has stuck with me.   The head of the dance school, did not just demand perfection in form, but the most important question he would ask the students is “why do you dance?”   The movie establishes that this teacher is a perfectionist who demands absolute precision from the students, but this question  lifts up why they dance is just as important, if not more important, to how they dance.  This stuck with me because I think the similar question is so important to our faith.  The teacher wanted his students to be able to answer “why do you dance?” and I think we should all be able to answer the question, “Why are you a Christian?”

The movie Leap gives equal emphasis to the importance of how to dance and why to dance, and in the same way this morning’s scripture connects the why and the how of the faith.   It reminds us, why we are Christians, how to be a Christian, and the way those two are deeply connected.   This morning’s scripture reminds us just who we are supposed to be as followers of Christ.

“Why are you a Christian?” is a fundamental question.   It is so fundamental and basic, that sometimes we forget to ask it.  I know this is true, we do forget to ask this question.  To be ordained in the United Methodist church is a process.  I had to go before a church council and answer questions to be recommended.  I had to go before a district committee on ministry to be certified.  I had to go before the board of ordained ministry to be recommended for provisional membership, and then finally I had to go back before the board of ordained ministry to be recommended for ordination.  Throughout that entire process I had to write a lot of papers answering a lot of questions, I had to go through multiple interviews, and not once was I asked, “why are you a Christian?”, at least not until the very end.  Part of the process is that there are some formal disciplinary questions for ordination that have to be answer publically, and those questions have some very official answers.  The bishop when I was ordained was Mike Coyner, and before the ordination service Bishop Mike teased that he might ask questions that are not part of the formal script.  One person, fearing being unprepared, asked “like what?” and that is the bishop finally asked the question closed to “why are you a Christian?”  With a smirk, the bishop asked, “Do you love Jesus?”

Friends, this is why we are a Christian.  We are Christians because we love Jesus.   What we love about Jesus and how we came to love Jesus is different for each of us, but ultimately the reason why anyone is a Christian is because they in some way love Jesus.  This morning’s scripture about the sheep and the goats, is a parable about our love of Jesus.  I really appreciate how this scripture is presented within the larger context of the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew’s gospel has several sections where the teachings of Jesus are grouped together.  This scripture comes from the last of these sections when Jesus is teaching in the temple courts during holy week.   This morning’s scripture is the very last teaching there is, because after this scripture the gospel of Matthew turns to the plot to kill Jesus and the last supper.  I really appreciate in how this final teaching of Jesus, he drops all pretense about who exactly he is and starts with “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.”  This is less a parable and more a vision of what will someday happen.  This morning’s scripture points to the fact that when the son of man comes in his glory, the way Jesus is going to ask us “do you love me?” is through our actions.  Our actions will speak to our love for Christ, and Jesus makes it perfectly clear the actions that will show our love are the way we feed the hungry, invite the stranger, clothe the needy, and visit the sick and lonely.  The best way to express our love and devotion to Jesus the Christ is through loving the least of these.  This morning’s scripture seems to strongly link the questions “why we are a Christian” and “How we are a Christian together.”   We are a Christian because we love Jesus, and how we love Jesus is by putting love into action to serve those most in need.

This morning’s scripture leaves us with several questions:  Is that who we are?   Is that who you are?  Does the way you live out your faith point to why you have faith in the first place?  Do you love Jesus by loving others?   These are the kinds of questions that our hearts and souls should wrestle with regularly.  The beginning of the New Year is often a time for a lot of people to chart their course for the year.  It is a time people set aspirational goals, pick their course, and sail off into the unfilled calendar pages of a new year.   As you begin to chart your own course through 2023, I think one of the guiding questions should be Why are you a Christian?

It is such a fundamental question, but it is also one that so easy not to ask.  It is a question that is too easy to lose the answer to and in doing so losing who we are and who we are meant to be?   There is an old cautionary tale that illustrates what can happen when we stop asking ourselves the fundamental questions.  The story goes that there was a particularly dangerous section of coast line.  For years and years an old lighthouse had served as a warning to ships but due to decades of municipal budget cuts, the light house slid into disrepair and eventually reached a point where it had become to cost prohibitive to repair.

A bunch of local boat owners did not like this.  They wanted their coastline to be safe, so they banded together.  They set up patrols to help guide other boats at night, and when a boat did get in trouble they were there to help.  Others took notice and wanted to help to, so this informal group of costal helpers grew, so they decided to organize.  They called themselves the Rescue Yacht Club, and to have a central spot to coordinate their efforts and gather they built a clubhouse.  They still did nightly patrols, and they still helped people, but as their building was beginning to get finished their meetings started to be more focused on items like what should the carpet color be and less how do we make the coast safer.

Once the clubhouse was finished, they discovered that there were some ongoing cost, so they began charging dues.  This money covered the cost of running their clubhouse, but it also created some extra funds that they decided to use to make their building even better.  At this point the Rescue Yacht Club ran into a problem.  They still had plenty of members, they had plenty of money, but they had a problem filling the nightly patrol schedule.   The nightly patrols were cold, dark, and wet.  They also did not always end with people being rescued.  Most times nothing terribly exciting happened, so most of the members preferred to stay in the comfort of their clubhouse.   In response to this problem, they decided to install a telephone.  People knew where they were after all, so if they were needed someone could call them.

This led to an end of regular patrols by the Rescue Yacht Club.  Unfortunately the coast was still dangerous.  There were still people out there who needed to be guided to safety, there were still boats in danger, and people who might need to be rescued.  A group of concerned citizens decided that if the Rescue Yacht Club was not going to be doing it regularly, then they would.  They formed the Community Rescue Boat Society and resumed the nightly patrols.   After a while of doing this informally, the also decided that having a central location would be helpful and acquired a piece of costal property a few miles down the road from the Rescue Yacht Club.   They also eventually turned to asking for dues, and eventually also decided that their focus was not going to be on the nightly safety patrols.

Today, it is still a dangerous coastline.  There are still people lost in the dark who need someone to show them the way, there are still people who are in danger of running aground on deadly obstacles, and there are still people in need of rescue.   Unfortunately, there is no one on that particular coast doing that, but there are several of the finest yacht and boating social clubs you will ever find.

In that story those who started with noble intentions of helping those in need got lost along the way because they stopped asking the essential question of why they are doing what they are doing.   They became more concerned with the condition of their clubhouse and their own comfort than doing what they had originally set out to do.  They forgot who they are and became something else entirely.   This is a cautionary tale, which we would be wise to heed.

We have to know who we are, and the way we do that is we ask ourselves the fundamental questions.   Why are you a Christian?   Is it because you love Jesus?   If so, how are living out that love for Jesus?   In this morning’s scripture Jesus told us exactly how we live out our love for him.   We do not do it by sitting in comfortable clubhouses.  We love Jesus when we love the least of these.   We love Jesus when we take that love out of these walls, and love the people out there who need it the most.   The people who are lost, the people are in danger, the people who are forgotten, the people who are marginalized, and the people who need someone, anyone, to be there for them in their moment of great need.   When we love those people, when we love the least of these, then we love Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, the Son of Man, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who will come in all of his glory.  If we consider ourselves to be a Christian, then we love Jesus by loving others.  That is who we are.

As we begin this New Year, full of potential and full of possibility, may we commit to having it be a year where we ask ourselves the fundamental questions.  May you know, to the depths of your being, why you are a Christian.  May you love Jesus and may you express that love in how you love the least of these.   In 2023, may that love define who we are.


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