An Audacious Vision

“…I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” -Matthew 25:36

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Matthew 25:31-46, Isaiah 42:5-7 [3]

The more we get together, together, together, the more we get together the happier we’ll be….

‘Cause your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends,

the more we get together the happier we’ll be.[1]

It’s an old, old, song…1679…not as old as the words of Jesus, but I think Jesus would appreciate the sentiment. 

It echoes God’s words in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that the man should be alone…” 

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck says, “The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being.”[2]

Each one of us is a piece of the puzzle that makes up the world, and we complete each other. We need each other. We see that in all of Jesus’ “I was…” statements in Matthew 25, but maybe most of all in the last one:  “I was sick and you cared for me; I was in prison and you visited me.”

In the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25, the king commends the sheep who cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned, but they were eons away from the level of medical care that we know today.  In Jesus’ time, medical care was given by the Levites, the tribe of Israel that also took care of the temple and led the congregation.  They followed the prescriptions handed down from Moses in the book of Leviticus.  They were also influenced by the medical concepts and practices they learned during their 400 years in captivity in Egypt.  But their foundational belief was that healing was in the hands of God working through those who were guided by God.[4] And the ongoing daily care of the sick and those in prison was done by friends and family.

The leap from ancient Israel to modern medicine is huge.  How did we get from there to here?  Along the way there were a whole bunch of people who didn’t settle for just addressing the symptoms.  They went looking for underlying causes.

[5]

There is a saying that says: “If one fish winds up on the shore, one may ask, “What’s wrong with that fish?  But if a school of fish washes up on the shore, one may say, “There’s something fishy going on here.” One must ask, “What’s wrong with the water?”  Solve the problem with the water and the fish can swim in safety.

We tend to focus on the fish, and try to fix individual people.  It is important to help individuals, as we have been talking about, with food and water and clothing and shelter and medical care and visiting, to respond to people who are impoverished. But we also need to be asking the bigger question: “What is causing them to end up and remain there?[6]

This is the audacious vision of the Matthew 25 movement in our denomination: to dismantle structural racism, to eliminate systemic poverty, and to build congregational vitality.  Any one of those is an enormously audacious undertaking all by itself. All of it is a part of the vision we are committing to when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Is this something our denominational leaders just dreamed up on a whim?  No. This is the call God gives to us all as people created in God’s image, breathing God’s breath, walking on God’s earth, as we read in Isaiah 42 today.

“God gives breath to everyone, life to everyone who walks the earth.  And it is he who says, (v5)

“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness…you will be a light to guide the nations…you will open the eyes of the blind. You will free the captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)

It’s an audacious call, an audacious vision, whether you take it literally or figuratively, and I think we have to consider both.  But also we must take note that God does not cast this audacious vision and then leave us to do this on our own.  God says in Isaiah 42:6: “I will take you by the hand and guard you, and give you to my people.”  Our ability to accomplish any of this is not based on our own strength, but on God’s strength.

Paul in Ephesians 3:20 says, “All glory to him who is able, through his mighty power at work in us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or imagine.”

Through God’s mighty power at work in us.

That’s the good news.  We can do more than we can imagine with the power of God working in us.  If we’re willing to dream and keep on dreaming, and we work together, we can keep moving forward, no matter how small the steps are.

[7]

There was the perfect illustration in the news this week of a discovery scientists in Australia have made about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The leader of the project is a parent whose baby died 29 years ago without explanation.  This parent was also a scientist who was determined to find answers, which led to developing a hypothesis, convincing an organization to fund the research, working with a team to do the research, and all the little tiny steps along the way that led to finding an explanation to something that everyone said had no explanation.[8] It’s significant because it will save lives, but also because many parents have been wracked with guilt thinking it was something they had done wrong.  When we think about solving a big problem like that, imagine all the tiny steps that went into it.  People who listened to and believed parents who were careful to do all the right things, people who encouraged children that were interested in science, research facilities that supported the exploration of a hypothesis….etc.

Lots of small steps and people working together can accomplish amazing things. It’s why in our darkest times we keep holding on to God’s promises, like:

  • Galatians 6:9 that says to keep on doing good, for at the right time you will reap a harvest if you don’t give up. 
  • Or Isaiah 61:2 that says, “At the right time, I the Lord will make it happen.”
  • Or Isaiah 42:5 that says, “I, the Lord have called you to demonstrate my righteousness. I will take you by the hand and guard you.”
  • Or John 1:5 that says, “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not overcome it.”

For the group of Hobbits in the epic novel and movie series The Lord of the Rings, their mission is to overcome the evil that is threatening their world, and the journey to the solution is long and complicated.   In the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, the elf Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett) inspires Frodo (played by Elijah Wood) with these words: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  Frodo the Hobbit is very small.  And even people who are not physically small can feel small, overlooked, insignificant, like the people Jesus is referring to when he ways, “Whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”

Galadiriel’s statement, though, wasn’t written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was written by the screenwriters.[9] In the book, the statement is a bit more complicated, and comes from the mouth of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, at the meeting of his council:

“This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[10]

Many of us probably feel like we are the weak or the ones with small hands.  Systemic problems like racism and poverty seem like they are beyond our ability to solve.  The Matthew 25 vision is an audacious vision. But the more we are willing to take small steps and learn more about the causes, the more we help move us all towards a more just world for all people, a more equal world.  It will take courage and time.

[3]

When one of these situations involves someone we love, we are more motivated to take action. Like the person who once asked if I could send money to help a family member who is in prison. I didn’t know anything about the situation, so I didn’t say yes right away, but I didn’t say no, either, because I like to help. Instead I got on the internet and did some research about the situation in our prison system.  And it turns out that in many states a prisoner needs money in their prison account to buy basic supplies like soap and toothpaste.  They get paid some for doing work inside the prison, but it’s often not enough to keep up with their basic needs, so the prisons have set up the Jpay system so that families and friends can contribute to their loved ones.  I don’t know how to solve the problems of that system, but I can help care for this one prisoner, so I did as this person asked and made a deposit through Jpay.  And it was more than worth the money for all that I learned in the process, though maybe the biggest education was discovering that there is so much more to learn. 

Standing together makes a difference for individuals, and in more public ways, too.  More than “fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, hundreds of people gathered in Selma, Alabama to march to the capital city of Montgomery. They marched to ensure that African Americans could exercise their constitutional right to vote — even in the face of a segregationist system that wanted to make it impossible.”[11]  People of all different races joined in that effort.  And it did result in changes to the laws and systems.

This life, this church, this Matthew 25 commitment, is not just me, it’s not just you, it’s all of us working together. So today, let’s talk about this together. “And let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)

Take a moment and think about when you’ve been sick, or when someone you’re close to has been sick.  How did people help?  What did they do to help take care of you?

What about being in prison?  If you’ve been there, how did people help you?  Or maybe you’ve had a friend or family member in prison. How did you help them?

Or maybe the imprisonment was of a different sort.  Chronic illness or mental illness can both feel like a prison of darkness.  An abusive relationship can be imprisoning.  So can an oppressive boss or teacher.  What helped you? How can we help?

What are the situations in our world with which you would like to help but maybe feel like they’re too big?

Working together, we can do more.  One reason is that together we have resources.  But the bigger reason is that we’ve been called by God to love and help each other.  Not because we’re better or smarter, because we’re not, but because when we’re following God’s call, we have God’s powerful love at work in and through us.

As writer and pastor Eugene Peterson says, “Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness.”[12]

“God sticks with us.” -Psalm 129 Message Ver. 

And that’s the way we change the world.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_More_We_Get_Together

[2] https://thingsabove.us/why-its-not-good-for-man-to-be-alone/

[3] Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

[4] https://www.baus.org.uk/museum/85/ancient_israel

[5] Photo by Carlo Pentimalli on Unsplash

[6] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Matthew 25 Bible Study, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/M25-BibleStudy.pdf pg. 7.

[7] Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

[8] https://www.biospace.com/article/researchers-answer-how-and-why-infants-die-from-sids/

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Fellowship_of_the_Ring

[10] Two different sources confirm the book vs. movie discrepancy: https://www.reddit.com/r/tolkienfans/comments/2lsiyz/is_this_galadriel_quote_in_the_book/ and https://thetolkienist.com/2021/07/26/not-a-tolkien-quote-even-the-smallest-person-can-change-the-course-of-the-future/

[11] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/civil-rights/selma#:~:text=Fifty%20years%20ago%2C%20on%20March,wanted%20to%20make%20it%20impossible.

[12] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

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