• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

The Kingdom of God is like Undercover Boss

"Parousia", a three-week sermon series on Matthew 25, and Jesus’ words about the coming kingdom of God

Week 3 of 3, preached November 22, 2020, for the 9:30 am Worship


Context

For these last three weeks of the Christian year, before we turn to Advent, we are hearing three different parables of Jesus from Matthew 25 that describe the Parousia … the some-day arrival and the right-now presence of the kingdom of God.


Two weeks ago we heard Jesus imagine the Kingdom of God is like a TV show, The Bachelor. Ten bridesmaids wait for the groom. Five prepare. Five do not. Jesus calls us to prepare, to trim our lamps, and to be ready to burn bright when things look like the hope, wholeness, honesty, and compassion of the Kingdom of God.


Last week, we heard Jesus imagine the Kingdom of God is like the TV show, Shark Tank. The master gives three servants large investments and sends them to grow something. Two do, and one does not. God gives us an abundant lifetime and begs us to use it, to risk it to change the world to be more like the Kingdom of God.


This week, we hear the third and last parable from Matthew 25. Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord from…


Pray


Scripture Matthew 25:31-45

31 “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. 32 All the nations, peoples will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you all that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’


37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’


40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’


41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’


44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’


45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’


46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


Sermon The Kingdom is like Undercover Boss

In the TV show Undercover Boss, one of the top executives of a company goes undercover as a new hire in the basic operations of the company. In the pilot episode, the CEO of Waste Management spent a week sorting cardboard at a recycling line, picking up trash by hand, emptying neighborhood trash cans into the back of a trash truck, and cleaning out porta-pottys. Then, at the end of the show, the “new-hire” reveals his true identity to some of the others he worked with through the week. In that Waste Management episode, one is promoted, another’s suggestion is implemented, another is given a different job because of his positive attitude, and one manager is reprimanded for treating hourly employees too harshly.


This week, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is a bit like Undercover Boss. At the end of the show, the Son of Man gathers up the whole company and says thank you to some of them for their diligent service of him when he was hungry, thirsty, sick, poor, a stranger, a prisoner. They are confused. When did we do those things for you, sir? “Ah,” the Son of Man says. “I was undercover, as the least around you. When you were compassionate on them, you were doing that for me.”


Others in the gathering begin to squirm. He addresses a different group, scolding them, for mistreating him. They are defensive. “We never mistreated you, sir.” “Yes, you did. When you ignored or mistreated the hungry, thirsty, sick, poor, stranger, or prisoner, you were mistreating me.”


Imagine for a moment a milk crate preacher? When it's not a COVID world, he grabs his milk crate and a Bible and heads toward a busy corner of a downtown intersection on a football weekend. He will be calling out to the people walking by sharp questions and making points. In his head and heart, anyone who has not yet accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and savior is doomed, so his goal is to use whatever words necessary to make people believe.

All over Christianity, especially in America, belief in Christ is perceived by many as the measure of a person’s standing with God. That same football game often has a poster that simply says John 3:16…. Which reads, “For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Many Christians and Christian preachers hear that line, “Believeth in him.” Belief appears to be the key.


There are other places in scripture which we translate as faith in Christ, belief in Christ, and hear belief as a condition, a requirement, a pre-requisite for those hoping to have the fullness of life, or eternal life, or to be in the heavens. So this street preacher goes about his weekends trying to create belief in Jesus, believing belief is what saves people.


Across the corner imagine a disheveled man sitting wedged up into a nook in the wall where he can be under an awning and also in the sun. His metal shopping cart is nearby with every possession to his name. He is constantly hungry, eating scraps and leftovers. He is quite ill as well. His body is ill. The malnutrition has cost him the full function of his heart, lung, kidneys. He was once so hungry, he broke into a store for food, and that cost him years behind bars. When he was released, no shop owner would hire him because of his record. Now his mind is ill as well. All these years under the judgment of society, isolated, alone, he whispers things to himself, which just makes other people keep walking by.


He used to offer to work. Then he switched to begging. Then he wrote a sign. All were equally ignored. So now, he sits and receives whatever is dropped in his box by random folks passing by.


On one corner, a street preacher in leather shoes and a coat, a home with a refrigerator, eyeglasses… thinking he is in his right mind and feeling good in his heart about his work today, barking at everyone within earshot to believe.


On the opposite corner, a homeless, sick, hungry man, just sitting there, waiting for the next person to give him something to eat, or take him to a place where he could get a shower and do some laundry, or just someone to learn his name and hear his story and really help him.


You can ask Jill and the boys. For years, when I heard a public street preacher, I stopped. There were times when I engaged them in public debate. I would ask them if they know the Greek word for Hell. Its Gehenna, by the way, and all it meant was the garbage dump outside the city walls, where things were burned, and where jackals and wild animals gnashed their teeth pulling food from the piles. I asked them if they know the Greek words for belief in Christ. They are "pistis christou" by the way, and the word for Christ there is a genitive. That was the case used in Greek to show possession. So really a better translation of "pistis christ-ou" is not faith IN Christ but faith OF Christ… meaning Christ’s faithfulness. Anyone who has the Faith OF Christ inherits eternal life. Only Christ has Christ’s faithfulness, but Christ can apply that faithfulness to all whom God chooses.


Usually, though, they just kept talking louder and louder over the top of me, quoting bad translations, and sometimes they dismissed me as a false prophet. I walked away from those moments upset that preachers preaching Christ were so publicly misrepresenting him, and that scripture, which I study and love so deeply, was being misquoted and launched at people as a threat.


I don’t engage street preachers anymore. Whenever I hear one of them, I will remember this parable. In it, Jesus imagines the greatest issue, and it isn’t belief. As the son of man gives approval or disappointment to all nations, all communities, all peoples, the main differentiator is not belief, but did they care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, help the poor, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give water to the thirsty.


Now, whenever I hear a bad street preacher, I ignore them and look around for someone who is hungry, thirsty, sick, alone, hurting, and give them my full attention instead. Because in so doing, I believe I am getting to spend time with God.


To this God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Benediction

Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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