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The Rev. Johann Vanderbijl: “A Five-Finger Sermon” (Matthew 22:1-14)

October 26, 2009

This week’s sermon by the Rev. Johann Vanderbijl of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr in South Carolina is titled “A Five-Finger Sermon” and is based on Matthew 22:1-14.  In this sermon, we can indeed picture that “five-finger sermon” used by Mother Teresa:

Psalm 11    Ephesians 5:15-21    St. Matthew 22:1-14

A Five Finger Sermon

In chapter 4 of her book, “Finding Calcutta”, Mary Poplin relates how Mother Teresa occasionally “taught the volunteers and visitors a Scripture by using her five fingers.  She pointed to each one and said emphatically (and please say this after me), “You – did – it – to – Me.”  Of course she was referencing the passage from Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus tells His disciples, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”  And when the puzzled disciples asked Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”  Jesus answered Assuredly, I say to You, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, (say it with me now) you – did – it – to – Me.”  (Mary Poplin, Finding Calcutta, IVP Books, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2008, 36.)

In the parable of the Wedding Feast our Lord Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to a king who arranged a marriage feast for his son.  Now, I want you to think about the wealthiest, most important social hot shot you can think of…someone you are not likely to ever meet in person.  Go through your mental who’s hot and who’s not list and come up with the name that’s at slot number one.  Imagine now that this person sent you, not a normal invitation card…not even one of those nice fancy cards with gold leaf borders and tissue paper and ribbon…no, this social skyscraper sends you his or her personal servant with a very personal message to come and celebrate this happy family occasion.  How would you respond?

Well, the recipients of the invitations in the parable did not respond favorably.  Some refused to go, others abused the servants and even killed some of them.  And when the king heard about this he did something quite amazing…look at verse 8.  Then (and listen carefully to this now) the king said to His servants.  “The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.  Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.”

Now, of course this is a parable and therefore must be interpreted accordingly.  The king here represents God Almighty, the Son represents Jesus, and the servants, represent the Old Testament Prophets as well as the New Testaments disciples.  The recipients of the first invitations were Jesus’ 1st Century audience…and in this case, it was mostly the ecclesiastical elite of the Jewish Church…the chief priests and the Pharisees.  Those who received the second invitations were no doubt the multitudes…the crowds…the so-called uneducated rabble…the riff-raff…the poor and the outcasts of society…the homeless and, no doubt, eventually the Gentiles.

Now, before we look at the recipients of the invitations, I would like us to focus on the servants…the messengers…the bearers of these invitations.  If we are to take the basic principles of this parable and translate them into the 21st Century, who would the servants be?  Who are the modern day counterparts of the messengers?  It’s us, isn’t it?  We are the bearers of the invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Son…you and I.

But how exactly are we to issue this invitation?  Down throughout the ages, the Church has put out so many different evangelism programs.  There have been so many seminars and Bible Studies and group discussions and “Evangelism for Dummies” manuals and so on.  And for those who are of a more timid disposition, there are pocket size tracts that can be left in bars or buses or public restrooms for people to read at their leisure and to provide them with an alternative to the graffiti and telephone numbers.

But are these methods the best way to go about inviting people into the Kingdom of God?  The Missionaries of Charity in India believe that the best way for them to communicate the reality of the Gospel message is by their deeds.  Now, of course, this is nothing new.  St. Francis told his followers to preach Jesus always and to use words only when necessary.  And isn’t that what Jesus meant when He taught in the sermon on the mount that we should let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven?  St. Peter certainly taught this principle when he told the pilgrims of the dispersion to conduct themselves honorably before pagans so that they may by their good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.  And I believe that this is the basis for much of St. Paul’s attempts in his letters to encourage his readers to walk circumspectly…to live lives in keeping with their high calling…to reflect the image of their Divine Parent through the way in which they behave…to engage in a personal editing or restructuring of one’s own future life story to include not only memorable events, but also events that may lead to the improvement of the lives of others…perhaps that’s what St. Paul had in mind when he told us to “redeem the time”…too many Christians simply let life happen and, all too often, they wake up at the end of a spiritually unproductive life realizing that it is now too late to do what could have been done before – if they ever wake up, that is.

But, you may argue, there are many people who live fairly moral lives and yet never seem to positively effect the lives of any one around them.  In his book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”, Donald Miller tells the story of a friend of his named Jena, who runs an organization out of Nashville that drills freshwater wells in Sub-Saharan Africa.  “They were organizing a group of riders to ride bikes from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., raising money and awareness about the global need for clean water.”  Needless to say, he was one of the riders, and he has many humorous anecdotes regarding his experiences, not only on the trip, but also about getting ready for it…lots of ice packs and so on.  But he also tells numerous stories about the lives of those who rode with him or those whom he encountered along the way.  One was about a woman who worked behind a counter at a gas station where he stopped to buy a Coke.  “She took my money,” he wrote, “ and asked what I was doing riding a bike in the middle of nowhere, and when I told her, she pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her pocket before I could give her a full answer.  ‘I can’t imagine how terrible it would be to live without clean water,’ she said.”  He later overheard her talking to another woman at the counter “explaining that her car had been repossessed that morning.”  And as he continued to listen to the conversation, he realized that she had given him her last twenty dollars.  (cf. Donald Miller, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2009, 157-158, 241-241.)

Now, the book is peppered with such stories, but the lesson Miller wants us to learn is that as people who believe that we are part of God’s great and wonderful story we should be living compelling lives…lives that testify to the greatness of the story we are part of…lives that are filled with meaning and purpose…lives that are attractive to those who are seeking…and that to do so does not necessarily have to be amazing front-page news type stuff.  A woman’s last twenty dollars touched Miller’s heart.  A widow’s mite touched the heart of our Lord.  Your Dollars for our Dalit brethren bought them food and clothing.  So much can be done for so little.

Just think about what a dollar can buy today.  (Show items used daily by parishioners – soda, coffee, cigarettes, beer, glass of wine, newspaper, etc.)

If you were to give up just one of these daily items to give that dollar to missions or outreach (a total of $365 per year), wouldn’t that be a good way to start living a compelling life?  Just a start, but a good one…

No, it is never easy to do things for other people.  Let’s be honest.  It is far easier to look out for number 1.  That’s just the way most of us are wired.  Indeed, even someone as saintly as Mother Teresa said that no amount of money could ever get her to do the kind of work she did.  So, how did she and how do the Missionaries of Charity get around this natural aversion to selfless action?  Well, it is their absolute conviction that they are serving Jesus “ in the distressing guise of the poor”…those who may be found in what Jesus called the “highways”.  In an interview Mother Teresa explained:  “It is He (meaning Jesus) whom we reach in the people who are unwanted, unemployed, uncared for; they seem useless to society, nobody has time for them.  It is just you and I who must find them and help them.  Often we pass them without seeing them.  But they are there for the finding.”  (Poplin, 39)  Or, in keeping with our Gospel reading for today, they are there for the inviting.

Dearest brethren, think of how differently you would view your life and the lives of those around you if you truly saw each person you meet from day to day as a hungry, hurting, hounded, hated, humiliated Jesus.  What if you were to view all those who approached you with a problem as if Jesus Himself was approaching you?  Or what if you were to view all those you come in contact with on a daily basis as people in desperate need of a touch from God…a touch you, as His representative, could very easily give?  Or what if you were to seriously set aside a regular time each day to pray for people you know need the Lord Jesus?  Such as Billy Graham’s “Operation Andrew” encourages us to do?  If Jesus intercedes for you, should you not be interceding for those before whom you are to model Jesus?

Poplin tells the story about “a new Missionary from outside India (who) came to begin work in Calcutta.  She was sent the first day to the Nirmal Hriday, the Home for the Dying, as is the custom.  Mother (Teresa) told her as she left Mass, “You saw the priest during Holy Mass, with what love and care he touched Jesus in the bread.  Do the same when you go to the Home, because it is the same Jesus you will find there in the broken bodies of our poor.”  When the novice came back, she had an enormous smile and said, “Mother, I have been touching the body of Christ for three hours.”  Mother (Teresa) asked what she did.  The young woman exclaimed, “When we arrived there, they brought a man who had fallen into a drain, and been there for some time.  He was covered with wounds and dirt and maggots, and I cleaned him and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!”

Dearest brothers and sisters in Jesus, as you kneel this day to receive the symbols of that Body broken and Blood shed for you, look down at your open hands…see your five fingers and meditate on Mother Teresa’s five finger sermon…you-did-it-to-Me.  And as you ponder on those words of our Lord Jesus, ask Him to show you how you too can live a life so compelling that others may see in your good works the reality of the presence of the One you profess to believe in and indeed to follow.

©  Johann W. Vanderbijl III    2009

Fr. Johann makes a very good point about living “a life so compelling” that we might witness to the lost and influence others – the lost to come to Jesus, and others in our churches to seek to serve Him more and more.

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