A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 29, 2016 (Memorial, Graduation)
Matthew 25:31-45 CEB
Again this past week I found myself at a sermon crossroad, or sermon dilemma. Would I prepare a sermon on Memorial Day, remembering and honoring those who have passed from us? Or, would I prepare a sermon on graduation, honoring and speaking to those of our church family who are graduating this month? Or, would I somehow try to combine the two and speak to both? Well, I chose the latter—an attempt to combine both themes and seek to find common ground between them. And when I got down to the bottom line, it really was not that difficult.
For, you see, one of the characteristics or attributes that makes for a comforting funeral or memorial service is the same characteristic or attribute that makes for a successful life as one graduates and sets off into the world. And then, after I realized the commonality between the two, the passage that came to mind was Jesus’ Parable of the Judgment of the Nations.
One of the key teachings we see in this parable has to do with relationships. Now, in considering the parables, we need to bear in mind that they were not intended to be taken 100% literally, historically, or factually true. Parables are earthy stories that point toward greater spiritual truths. So we should not read this parable literally as though a time will come when Jesus will sit on a throne somewhere and divide humanity into two camps—the good and the bad, the saved and the lost, and so on, and throw the unrighteous into a lake of fire. Our scientific minds won’t let us go there.
Rather, in parables such as this one we need to look for the deeper, spiritual meaning Jesus was seeking to convey. One such spiritual meaning in this particular parable is the importance of human relationships and relating to others as persons of inherent dignity and worth and deserving of our respect and care, even those who are marginalized, on the fringes of society—the hungry, homeless, destitute, sick, and imprisoned. One of the points Jesus is trying to make is even “the least of these” is deserving of our respect and care.
The curious thing about this parable is it doesn’t demand that one believe or confess anything. The criterion for being “saved” in this parable is whether one has loved others, given one’s life in loving relationships, especially to the disadvantaged and downtrodden. And when we relate to such people in genuine respect, love and care, it is as though we are relating to Jesus himself.
Someone who served as a wonderful living example of this was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is an encouragement to each of us to look into the eyes of others with respect, love, care, and human compassion. As you know, Mother Teresa spent her life loving and caring for poor lepers of India, “the least of these” whom few would be willing to love.
Now, I will readily confess that I am nowhere near the person that Mother Teresa was; few, if any, of us are. That is to say, that I haven’t always related to others in the exemplary way this parable calls for. Perhaps you haven’t either. I think some of the factors that keep us from relating to others in the way that we should are fear, not wanting to get too involved in the problems of another, feeling inadequate to address the real needs of others, and so on. And so, this parable of the Judgment of the Nations proves to be difficult for us. It makes us uncomfortable, because we realize that we do not reach out to the poor, homeless, sick, and imprisoned in the stringent way this parable calls for. But such are the nature of the parables of Jesus—they challenge us to move beyond our comfort zone and call us to a different, higher, more human, reality that we currently know.
With all of that having been said, when we think about Memorial Day and remembering those who have passed on, we realize that one of the most important attributes that make memorable the lives of those we remember is the way they related to others. The funeral or memorial services and eulogies that are “easiest” for me to plan are for those church members and friends who gave their lives in loving, compassionate, serving relationship to others. And when I prepare my funeral or memorial service thoughts, what I have to say is so much richer if the person has given themselves in service to others and related to others in a genuine, caring, compassionate manner. Likewise, the most popular and most inspiring eulogies given by family members are those that reminisce about quality relationships—family camping trips, coaching Little League Baseball, being a Girl Scout leader, a volunteer for non-profits and social service agencies that seek to improve the lives of others, and so on. The best memories of those passed from us have to do with loving relationships.
But also, when we think about graduates and setting forth into the world, we also realize that one of the most important considerations for graduates to keep in mind is the importance of human relationships. Indeed, one of the most important lessons we can learn in life is that money, success, climbing the corporate ladder, and a prestigious position don’t really matter if one isn’t rich in human relationships and relating to others in a loving, caring, compassionate, respectful manner.
Allow me to cite two examples to illustrate the point. Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla. In 2013, they announced that they were donating 99% of their stock, or $992 million, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that supports several non-profits. I think they have done a similar thing since then. It appears that Mark and Priscilla realize that making money is not the only goal in life. It is reaching out to and relating to and sharing with “the least of these” Jesus spoke about.
And then consider the example of Prince Harry, grandson of the Queen of England. In recent years, Prince Harry has taken up the mantle of a true humanitarian by reaching out to and relating to servicemen and servicewomen who have been wounded in action or are suffering mental illness by his establishment of and participation in the Invictus Games. But the point here being, in spite of his privilege and status, Prince Harry is reaching out to and relating to a different sort of Jesus’ “least of these.”
So, my word to any and all graduates of our congregation is never forget what is really important in life—human connections, respecting and relating to others, caring for and serving the needs of others in whatever way you can, and never forgetting the “least of these” Jesus spoke of who are on the fringes of society.
The bottom line is when all is said and done, and when we reach the end of our days, what really matters is the human relationships we have nurtured and how we have respected, related to, cared for, loved, and served others. Being truly human and seeking to be a help to others—no matter how small in the eyes of the world they might be—this is what really matters in the end. At least that is the way I see it. Amen.