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Tonight at Northmont

Tonight at Northmont I preached on a passage that I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about.  Matthew 25:31-46 is an often-quoted passage where Jesus tells everyone that as they did to the “least of these” they did to him.  Their treatment of the least of these is then the criteria at the final judgment.  This passage was especially brought to my attention during the Generous Orthodoxy Conference when Jim Wallis mentioned that this was “conversation passage”.  After he said John Franke and I had a discussion about that, because both of us were under the assumption that Jesus was specifically referring to Christian missionaries when he said “the least of these”, not just anyone.  But John made an interesting comment, “Even if that wasn’t the intent, I wonder if it’s an appropriate use of the text”.

So, I took a look at the passage.  I read five commentators on the passage, all of whom I respect: Donald Hagner, Craig Bloomberg, Craig Keener, Doug Hare, and Karl Barth (probably the biggest name missing from that list is Dale Allison, but I don’t have his ICC Commentary in electronic format (yet!)).  Hagner, Bloomberg, and Keener all adopted the interpretation that Jesus was referring specifically to Christian missionaries when he said “the least of these”, while Barth and Hare argued that Jesus was referring to anyone.  (Actually, Hare seemed to give arguments on both sides).  I honestly couldn’t figure out which one was right so I decided to adopt neither and instead have the community take it up tonight.  So, I preached for about 12 minutes guiding them through the passage slowly and then I stopped, and asked them to turn to their neighbor and talk about the passage and who they thought “the least of these” is for our church community.  Then, after about a minute or two of discussion I shared with them quotes from Hare and Barth and let the discussion begin.  Not surprisingly, everyone agreed with Barth and Hare.  

What happened though was truly amazing, because what came out of that discussion was better than anything I could have preached.  People picked up on different things and took different angles on the text.  For some reason the part about visiting people in prison jumped out to a couple people, so we got going on that for a bit.  I never would have taken it in that direction if I had preached the whole way through.  

The biblical text isn’t trapped in the 1st Century; the Spirit was speaking loud and clear tonight at Northmont.  Even if this wasn’t the original intent of the author, the Spirit can still use it.  Now, part of the reason why I feel comfortable with this is this: the interpretation arrived at was grounded in the community.  This wasn’t just me talking; this was the whole community talking.  Second, the interpretation we arrived at, that the Spirit is telling us today that we will be judged based on how we treated the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned is well within the (I’m struggling for the right word here) framework of the biblical message.  This isn’t heresy, and it may not be a universal for all communities, but at least for Northmont, that was what the Spirit said to us tonight.  So to answer John Franke’s question about whether Jim Wallis’ use of the text is appropriate and suitable, I would say yes.

I think part of what I’m learning this year especially is that the role of the preacher should be to facilitate interpretation amongst the community.  It was important that I do the exegetical work of reading commentaries, doing the word studies, etc.  But ultimately those became tools which enabled the community to seek to understand the Word of God’s Command for our community tonight.  The other thing is that this method of preaching is more engaging for people because it involves them, the sermon isn’t something they receive; they participate in its creation.

If you want to take a look at my outline I worked with you can go to http://wbmthoughts.blogspot.com or http://www.wallyandnay.net/Brian/Sermons where you can get either the outline in PDF format, the PowerPoint slides in either PDF or PowerPoint format, or hear the audio of the sermon in mp3 format (yes, I’m a dork).  I’ve also posted my other three sermons from earlier in the year there.  

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