The Unseen Children of God
Matthew 25: 37 & 44: “Lord, when was it we saw you...?”
Over a month ago, toward the end of October, we read again the story of Jesus being confronted about whether or not people of faith should pay taxes to the Roman emperor, the supreme power on earth. You might remember that Jesus asks to see a coin, and on the coin is the image of the Emperor Tiberius. It was still a pretty new and profound thing in Jesus’s day that the emperor underscored his power by having his image struck on the face of Roman coins; the image of the emperor became known all throughout the empire that way. Rome’s emperor was a god who could be seen, a god reduced to an image on a coin, a coin that neither said nor suggested “In God we Trust.”
Jesus wanted his listeners to understand that the great Roman emperor, who could be seen, was not the equal of the God who made the universe and all that is in it, who could not be seen. You could obey the emperor who made sure you knew his face by putting it on the coins out of fear; but you could only obey the God who made us all out of love.
We’re back at this idea of what is seen and what is not seen this morning, and as I said back in October that sermon and this one are two halves of a single idea.
Not so long ago someone I know took a look at the little schedule of services that we put together for you, with the titles of the sermons for the coming season, and asked me how I managed to deal with significant items in the news from week to week when I had already planned what I was going to say. For the most part I am persuaded that what we have to talk about here on Sunday mornings is more urgent and more necessary than most things that come up in the news from week. But on this particular Sunday we have a case of the news catching up with us.
Let me explain just what that means.
We have before us this morning the great scene at the throne of judgment that is the core teaching of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and indeed the single most detailed set of ethical instructions for any of us who propose to call ourselves Christian disciples. In this teaching Jesus makes abundantly clear that being a disciple is less about what you believe, and more about how you behave.
But pay attention to what both the groups who are judged in the story, the ones on the right hand and the ones on the left, pay attention to the question they asked. Sitting in judgment on the throne of glory, the Son of Man tells those good disciples—you fed me when I was hungry, you clothed me when I was naked, you comforted me when I was sick, you visited me when I was in prison. And to those who failed the standard of discipleship he says—you didn’t feed me, you didn’t clothe me, you didn’t comfort or visit me.
And both of them say—when did we see you Lord? When did we see you?
They weren’t there when he tried to explain that the God who gives us the gift of faith, the God who offers us reconciliation and calls us to live together in love, that God isn’t so easily seen. Not on a coin, not on a street corner, not in a celebrity Twitter stream.
But that doesn’t mean that God is not present. That doesn’t mean that God is not with us, among us, present to us, in the midst of our own lives.
What Jesus is teaching us with this story is that the test of a disciple is how you act when you think no one is looking. The test of how well we are following the hope God has given us is how we act when we think God is nowhere around. Because the test of how well we are being disciples is whether we can open our eyes, our eyes of faith, wide enough to see that God is present in every last person we come across in this life, not just the ones here in church but all people, everywhere—even right there.
Maybe you thought—maybe you dreaded—that the church would have nothing to say, your church would have nothing to say, about the people cowering in the shadows or hiding in the basements of this country because they came here illegally, or were brought here as infants by those who did.
But this is what we have to say. It is for us who are disciples to see those who are unseen. Whatever that means for your politics is a matter of no interest to the king on the throne. What matters a very great deal is whether we see those who are unseen by the rest of society, and act to give them the care they need.
And maybe you thought, or you feared, that the church would have nothing to say about those who are made vulnerable to real suffering and justifiable fear because they have no possible path toward basic medical care to keep the body that they have fed and clothed well when it gets sick.
But this is what we have to say: When the son of man comes to sit on the throne of glory, and sets the sheep on one side and the goats on the other, we are not going to be asked how good our intentions were. We are not going to be asked how well balanced our account books were. We are going to be asked what we did to take care of the ones who were sick, and to make sure they indeed did have care.
And maybe you thought, or you feared, that your church would have nothing to say about the seeming damburst of men who have been outed as those who were more than willing to use what power they had over women when they thought their abuse of that power would remain unseen.
But this is what we have to say: It is exactly because each human person carries within them the dignity that comes with being made in the image and likeness of God that how you treat someone when you think no one is looking is the character test God is going to weigh in the balance most carefully concerning you—no matter how powerful, or how protected, you think you are.
There is something more to this matter of how we disciples treat the unseen children of God that comes directly from this last point. Make no mistake about the gospel lesson you heard this morning; it is a lesson about power. And it is not about the power of the judge; it is about the power of every last one of us to act as disciples in the world.
Every one of us here has power. You may not feel that way. You may not recognize it in yourself. But you do. All of us do. If you want to start feeling powerful, start being generous. Start giving, not just a little, but a lot. You will start to see the true nature of the difference you can make—and that is what power is.
Every last one of us has the power to help feed someone. Every one of us has the power to help clothe someone who is cold and on the street. Every one of us can take care of someone who is sick, or visit someone who is in prison—a prison of the state authority, or a prison of their own making.
What I meant when I said that the news was catching up to us this morning was exactly this. If you read those same stories about abuse and harassment and outright assault through the lens of the teaching Jesus is setting before us this morning, it doesn’t take a lot of work to see that the point of contact between them is exactly about what you do with the power you have when you think no one is looking.
If you regard people who find themselves in the despair of the prison, or the fear of the hospital, or the sorrow of the shelter, or the vulnerability of the office—if you treat those people just like the rest of society, unseen and unworthy of care, then you forget that right in front of you, there to be seen, are the children of God—indeed, the very presence and image of God.
So if, instead, we see those people—all people, here and everywhere you go—as the children of the unseen God, living in our midst, then chances are we will act toward those people in ways that will mark us down as disciples on that last great day, whether or not we think anyone is looking. Amen.