Skip to site content

Do the Work

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on November 20, 2011.

Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46     

I’m not much of a fan of reality TV but I’m smart enough to know it has less to do with reality than it claims. Nevertheless, I’ve got my favorites and there are also a few I hate. The rest I ignore as best I can. But some are intriguing don’t you think?

Here’s how CBS describes the show Undercover Boss:  “Each week, Undercover Boss follows a different executive as they leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies. While working alongside their employees, they see the effects that their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organizations, and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies run.”[1]

Honestly, Undercover Boss comes across a lot like Jesus’ vision of the end of time when the final tallying of the effect of one’s faith is revealed. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.” At that moment it will all become clear that the Boss of the universe has been hidden among us all along, watching us, taking notes on how we’re taking faith and making it real.

On that day, nothing will be hidden. On that day, no more can be added or taken away; no opportunity for “do overs.” [Who knows? Maybe the reality show is about us and we just don’t know it.] On that day, divine judgment will hang on two observations by our Boss who’s scrutinizing our work: “I was a stranger and you took me in,” and, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Everything else will burn away like the proverbial chaff. The criterion for judgment is simple:  I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger and sick, and you gave me food and drink and welcomed me … or you did nothing. Both the sheep nations and the goat nations will ask the same question in wonderment: “Lord, when did this happen?”

I

It’s clear from reading this vision in Matthew 25 that Jesus’ emphasis is on doing the faith. That challenges our spiritual notions that right belief is all that’s needed. “Just walk down the aisle and receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord,” we have told people.

While we’ve been diligent witnesses, we’ve not been faithful in helping people understand that faith must be a lived experience shaped by the values of Jesus, not just some spiritual truth that is internalized in the heart. This is what Elizabeth O Connor meant when she wrote her book, Journey Inward, Journey Outward. She meant that our faith is both inward and outward and that while we are saved by grace, our salvation makes demands upon us in the way we live. We’re called to be witnesses and to work for God’s kingdom.

Let me explain … in the first half of the twentieth century, Dorothy Day labored among the poor in New York City. She was a relentless organizer working to speak prophetically to the conscience of the church appealing to the church to focus its energies on alleviating the pain of poverty. Day was a powerful living example of what she preached, but she was widely known because of her writing. Here’s how she described the works of mercy codified by Thomas Aquinas based on this text from Matthew:

“The spiritual works of mercy are to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.

“The corporal works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.”[2]

Dorothy Day recognized that to have a conscience for the poor, one must have a deep and abiding sense of God’s hope. St. Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see they do not remain the way they are.” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Any religion which professes to be concerned with the souls of people, but is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that cripple them – such a religion is a dry-as-dust religion.”

II

Fritz Eichenberg was an outspoken artist in Germany in the years between the war to end all wars and the Second World War. He was a wood carver who used his art as a poignant political expression against Hitler’s rise to power. He knew he could not keep silent in the face of the rise of Nazi Germany so he fled to America where his art was edgy and provided a sharp commentary against the world’s injustice regarding the poor.

Richard Dunn is one of my longtime pastor-friends. He and his small Baptist church in Enid Oklahoma joined with the other churches in town in contributing to the needs of a Catholic soup kitchen. Like most facilities that serve the poor, the old kitchen was too small, too poorly laid out for the volume of meals they served every day, and there was an obvious need for a major effort to rethink what they were doing so they decided to wipe it all away and build a new site for their program of feeding the poor in their community. So that’s what they did. It was a true partnership that the churches of Enid would do this no matter whom got the credit.

But that’s not all because they chose to adopt Eichenberg’s famous carving Jesus in the breadline as a commissioned work to be carved onto a large black marble slab that was erected in front of the soup kitchen for the poor they built. The kitchen is called, “Our Daily Bread.” The carving is of a line of homeless men standing on the sidewalk patiently waiting their turn to receive a free meal. Standing compliantly in their midst is Jesus, who the artist seems to imply is not just standing in solidarity with the poor, but likely is one who is also hungry. Jesus does not merely observe poverty he experiences it. That truth should give all of us much to think about. 

III

In 1985, Tony Campolo was put on trial for heresy. Campolo was the subject of an informal heresy hearing in 1985 brought about by a story he told in his 1983 book A Reasonable Faith. Campolo’s story became a hot button issue, and the controversy caused Campus Crusade for Christ and Youth for Christ to block a planned speaking engagement by Campolo. The Christian Legal Society empowered a “reconciliation panel,” led by noted theologian J. I. Packer, to examine the issue and resolve the controversy. The panel examined the book and questioned Campolo. The panel later issued a statement saying that although it found Campolo’s statements “methodologically naïve and verbally incautious,” it did not find them to be heretical.

Out in West Texas, at one of those regional skirmishes over the rumors there were liberals teaching in our seminaries, one of my good friends got up in front of the hundreds of people present and made a clear statement that “if there aren’t any liberals at the seminary, we should get some,” and he sat down.

Campolo was in trouble because of these words of judgment by Jesus. For several years he had been taking students from Eastern Baptist University to Haiti where they worked among the poor in a country that’s often described as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Campolo believes in his heart that Christians should work hardest where it’s the worst.

On one of those trips, on the grass landing strip at the airport in Cap Haitien, Haiti, the students had walked out to a the twin-prop plane that would carry them back to Florida where they would catch a jet home. A young Haitian woman ran out of the bush to the plane and in her tears she told them they must take her infant with them. The child would only starve in Haiti and this mother knew the child’s only chance was to be taken by one of these students. Campolo held her back so his students could climb into the plane. He could barely constrain her as she pleaded with him holding out her baby for him to take. He refused and was barely able to get onto the plane himself as she continued to cry out to him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!”

Even as the pilot began the engines she cried out to the students for them to have mercy and to take her baby. She held her baby in one arm while banging on the side of the plane is the motors revved. The pilot slow began to turn toward the airstrip and she ran alongside the plane and while the students could no longer hear her screams, they could read her lips as she implored them to take her baby.

Campolo then saw through the searing heat of the moment and saw what was really happening. The woman’s face was transformed and in her pain and anguish he saw the face of Jesus. In her desperate plea for mercy, he saw the Savior. In her face, in the clarity of that moment he realized that in the faces of everyone he meets, there is the face of God. That’s the power of Eichenberg’s carving, Jesus in the breadline. Jesus stands in line with the poor in solidarity with the poor, with their despair, with their sense of loneliness.

“Lord, when did we see you like this?” we ask in wonderment.

[1] http://www.cbs.com/shows/undercover_boss/about/

[2] Dorothy Day, Writings From Commonweal, edited by Patrick Jordan, Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2002, 103