The February of the Soul

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Many years ago, my father walked into the living room and announced to our family that he had decided to undertake a mission of monumental significance: He was going on a quest for gooseberry pie. 

He explained that his mother had baked gooseberry pies when he was a little boy and he had fond memories of them. He would not rest, he declared, until an extra-large slice of gooseberry pie rested on a plate in front of him. 

In those pre-Internet days, searching for so idiosyncratic a delicacy required substantial quantities of creativity, diligence, and stamina. Nevertheless, no one in the family doubted my father’s prospects for success. 

He had driven a tank in the Second World War and he still moved through life as if he were riding in one. We pitied the fool who stood between him and his gooseberry pie.

Sure enough, my dad somehow found his way to a gooseberry pie and he returned home bearing it aloft in triumph like the spoils of battle. He cut a big chunk, ceremoniously placed a heaping forkful between his lips, closed his eyes, and chewed. 

After a minute or so, we could hear him say through a mouthful of crust and filling: “I remember! I remember!” My mother smiled and softly asked: “What do you remember, dear?” And he replied: “I remember that I hate gooseberry pie.”

I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. After a long absence, you return to a thing or a place or an activity—or maybe even a person—only to discover that it bears little resemblance to what you remembered. Memory sweetens some things and sours others, but it doesn’t leave anything untouched. 

I ran across an example of this phenomenon last December when I happened on an article that took a close, fresh look at the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life. 

The article pointed out that those of us who sentimentally recall the filmas a warm and fuzzy feel-good story may be surprised on re-watching it to discover that it consists of roughly two hours of villainous greed, failed dreams, financial disaster, wild desperation, deep depression, frantic anger, verbal domestic abuse, and attempted suicide. The article described the film as “a massive, non-stop, full-sprint submergence into darkness.” 

Indeed, a lot of our favorite holiday films have more and darker shadows than we tend to recall. Take, for example, the animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and its vision of a God who creates an island for misfit toys. Banishing stuffed animals to a remote and barren rock because they don’t fit in? Talk about dark.

I ran into the problem I’m describing a few weeks ago when I started planning this sermon. For reasons I couldn’t divine, I found myself strongly drawn toward the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. I knew, I somehow just new, that I needed to talk about it today, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Now, I try not to argue with the Spirit when it moves me, but that didn’t require much effort in this case. I count Matthew 25 among my absolute favorite biblical passages. And I’ve always thought that if someone asked for a distillation of the essential teachings of Jesus you could do a lot worse than to point them to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Matthew 25.

In fact, one of the things I love most about this congregation is that we strive to be a “Matthew 25 church.” We devote serious energy, effort, and resources to the service of the least in the kingdom. We keep an eye out for need; we rally; we show up; we put dollars in pockets and cans on shelves and clothes on backs and tools in hands and boots on the ground.

And the blessings we share bless us in return. Indeed, in my view, a church that doesn’t seek to be a Matthew 25 church misses a lot. It misses opportunities for shared joy. It misses chances at deep connection within the community of faith and the community at large. I’d even go so far as to say that a church that doesn’t seek to be a Matthew 25 church misses the point—the whole point—of being a church. 

So, imagine my surprise when I returned to my beloved Matthew 25 only to find it pockmarked by a two ideas that are theologically worrisome and that I had conveniently erased from my memory. And those ideas aren’t just a little bit troubling. They go right to the heart of things.

The first idea has to do with God offering us a carrot. We might  read parts of this passage as suggesting that, through good works for the poor and marginalized, we can earn our way into God’s favor. But any such notion is inconsistent with the idea of divine grace, which has no meaningful role if our salvation lies in acquiring spiritual merit badges. 

The concept that through good works we can earn God’s approval is also inconsistent with lots of things Jesus tells us elsewhere in the gospels. 

Consider, for example, his famous parable of the vineyard workers, where the master doesn’t pay his laborers based on what they “earned,” but based on his grace and generosity. Or consider Jesus’s admonition that the last will be first and the first will be last, suggesting that those who think they’ve earned a place at the front of the line may ultimately find themselves bringing up the rear. 

For these and other reasons, numerous foundational figures in the history of our faith—from Paul to Martin Luther to John Calvin—have rejected the idea that our salvation lies in compiling a resumé of good deeds. 

The second worrisome idea has to do with God threatening us with a stick. We might read some parts of this passage as advancing the mirror image of the last idea, as suggesting that if we don’t do good works for the poor and marginalized then we will find ourselves “in the hands of an angry God,” to borrow a phrase from our eighteenth-century Congregationalist predecessor Jonathan Edwards. 

The vision of an omnipotent forensic accountant—deploying an incomprehensibly sophisticated surveillance system to inventory our failings—may have appealed to the Puritans, but it hasn’t aged well.

Furthermore, such a notion seems wholly inconsistent with the loving, compassionate, forgiving God that Jesus describes to us and invites us to emulate. The God of the Prodigal Son. The God of the Good Samaritan. 

Indeed, it even seems inconsistent with the God depicted in the other parts of Matthew 25—a God who doesn’t just care about the sick and homeless and downtrodden and imprisoned but who stands in unity and kinship with them. This is just my opinion, but I find it impossible to square those sayings of Jesus with Jonathan Edwards’s vision of a divine Seinfeldian soup Nazi shaking his head at us and saying: “No grace for you!”

Still, these troubling parts of Matthew 25 don’t make me love the passage any less. We have lots of ways of understanding and interpreting those few worrisome verses that avoid the inconsistencies I’ve mentioned. 

For example, we might conclude that those parts are actually about hypocrisy, about how God judges those who claim to love Him but who in practice do not love his children. Or we might conclude that those parts probably represent later additions to the text, attempts by ancient scriveners to expand on and explain what Jesus meant.

In any event, those bothersome parts of Matthew 25 weren’t what puzzled me most about the chapter when I returned to it a couple weeks back. Instead, I found myself preoccupied with a different mystery. 

As I mentioned earlier, I felt strongly and unmistakably led to talk about this passage—but I couldn’t figure out why. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol(another dark tale, thick with ghosts and omens), I found myself wondering whether what seemed like a spiritual experience was actually the result of indigestion.

But, then, I remembered something. I remembered that I would be sharing this sermon with you at the end of January, with February looming. And that reminded me of all the hours that each and every one of us spends in the February of the Soul. And that took me right back to Matthew 25.

Now, if you hale from Orlando, or Los Angeles, or Honolulu the phrase “February of the Soul” may not mean much to you. But, if you’re from the north like we are, the very mention of February brings a wince and a shudder. T. S. Eliot may have been correct when he wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” recognizing the hard work of rebirth; but, surely, February qualifies as the most inhospitable month, and the one in which rebirth seems a very distant prospect, indeed. 

If you don’t know the name Verlyn Klinkenborg, you should. For most of his career, Klinkenborg lived in two worlds—on property in upstate New York, which he actively farmed, and occasionally in New York City, where he served on the editorial board of the New York Times, for which he wrote a column called “The Rural Life.” He’s authored several books, and his writing is extraordinarily and almost achingly beautiful.

Here’s what he writes about February: 

“Just now at home a certain winter weariness sets in. Every morning and evening I can feel the sun pushing back the margins of night. It’s a dull soul who hasn’t checked sunrise or sunset against his watch several times by now, struck by how early the light comes and how late it begins to go. But that just makes a day of heavy overcast and freezing rain feel all the worse, more of an impairment than it would have been when the sodden year was still shrinking. The rain falls as it has all winter, over ice and snow, as if to make a none-too-subtle point about the climate in this part [of the world], a point that those of us who live here start to take seriously only about now.”

Well, amen and amen. I’m a happy denizen of the land of slosh and snow and not particularly susceptible to the emotional toll that months of wintry sloppiness can take on the mind and body. But I know the weariness that Klinkenborg describes so well, and the longings and yearnings that go along with it. Perhaps you do, too. 

The bigger point, however, is that the February weather we experience here is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible struggle. We can find ourselves engaged in that struggle during any of the other eleven months as well. 

That’s how life works: The February of the Soul comes to all of us and comes reliably—but not necessarily in February.

When I find myself in the February of the Soul, I do all the things Klinkenborg describes. I wrestle with its none-too-subtle messages. I look for the light. I seek out ways to push against the shadows. And here’s the thing: That process often leads me back to Matthew 25.

You see, for me, Matthew 25 is a source of endless promise and redemption. Its central message tells me that God is present in this life, right here and right now. It tells me that God is present in everyone who needs help. And it tells me that God is present in everyone who gives it. Returning to Matthew 25 is like returning to a warm and welcoming cabin where the thoughtful owner has left notes reminding me where the light switches are located. 

The central messages of Matthew 25 reach down and lift me up out of the February of the Soul. I get a solid dose of its curative power when I listen to Robin talk on Sunday mornings about some good deed that the generous, lively, and warm-hearted people of this Matthew 25 church have done on our little peninsula, or in the state, or in the world. In every thank you note she reads from the pulpit, I hear a prayer that was received and fulfilled. By you.

My day jobs require me to scan half-a-dozen or so news sources almost every morning, and you can imagine why that might regularly land me in the February of the Soul. But the news routinely includes stories about the good that people do, too. A lot of them come to me through a publication of the Washington Post called “The Optimist.” The Optimist finds seemingly infinite sources of light in this dark, poor, beaten up, tired old world. 

Pull up a pew and let me tell you some. 

There’s the story of LeGrand Gold, a 48-year-old Utah man bedridden and dying of stage four colon cancer who realized that he would never achieve one of his bucket-list items: to meet Dolly Parton. His wife mentioned his dream on social media and somehow the message got forwarded on. Imagine Mr. Grand’s surprise when his phone rang and it was Dolly herself, chatting him up, singing to him, and fitting his name into her songs.

There’s the story about Damar Hamilton’s community toy drive, which took on a whole new meaning after the Buffalo Bills player collapsed on the field, and which has now raised $7 million. 

There’s the story about the public school staff members who saw that their beloved custodian was walking to work, so they bought him a car. 

There’s the story about the rapper who helped open a free grocery and clothing store inside the impoverished school that he and his siblings once attended. 

There’s the story about the St. Petersburg man who sits on a park bench every morning at 6:30 AM with a standing invitation for anyone to join him, talk with him, and share their troubles and concerns. 

There’s the story of Paige Hunter, an English woman who came close to committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. She returned to the site of her struggles, and over time posted more than 1,000 notes and signs there offering help and compassion to anyone who was in suffering and in despair. 

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was saved by an angel named Clarence. We’ll probably never know how many people have been saved by an angel named Claire.

Some of my favorite stories involve kind acts directed toward animals—the least of the least in God’s kingdom. 

There’s the story of the shelter in Adams County, Pennsylvania that late last year found itself packed to the ceiling with dogs, cats, ferrets, and other creatures. Calls for help went out, and people rallied. Through tireless efforts, workers and volunteers found good homes for every last animal and, on Christmas day, they discovered that the shelter was blissfully empty. Silent night, holy night indeed. 

There’s the story of 11-year-old Evan Bisnauth of New York. Evan goes to shelters to read books to the animals—sometimes at stretches of six or so hours—because it helps socialize them and make them better candidates for adoption. Videos of him reading poetry and novels to dogs have gone viral. And he ends every reading by telling the animal not to give up hope.

Late last year, on a day that felt a little dark, I found some serious light in a story posted by my Facebook friend Charlie Geyh. I’ve never actually met Charlie—a mutual friend of a mutual friend introduced us through Facebook a few years ago and we’ve enjoyed each other’s online company ever since. We’ve never been in the same room or maybe even in the same state at the same time, but we have lots of interests and viewpoints in common and I count him as a pal. 

Charlie happens to be the nation’s leading expert on judicial ethics, which might make you think he’s about as much fun as Jonathan Edwards, but nothing could be further from the truth. During COVID, he sometimes taught his law school classes through a Zoom filter than made him look like a walrus. And, in addition to an occasionally goofy sense of humor, Charlie and I share an interest in a guy named Batman. You see, Charlie has a cat named Bruce Wayne.

So here’s Charlie’s post, which I offer to you with his greetings and blessing:

“On Wednesday, I spent six hours at a veterinary hospital north of Indianapolis. I watched the staff cheer an elderly Basset who was learning to walk with a new wheely cart; race to aid a mixie who’d been struck by a car; console a bereaved woman whose cat had died; share a man’s joy at the news that his dachshund was getting better; sooth a panicky something-doodle who wanted to be anywhere but there; and share stories of how much the imaging technicians loved my ginger (cat), Bruce (Wayne), who was diagnosed with a seizure disorder that is fully treatable with phenobarbital. I was struck by how this compassion, empathy, and care for animals with claws and fur coexisted with rage, frustration, and judgment for animals with pants and piercings. How the presumptions of innocence and goodness that we freely give our pets, we withhold from each other, even as we dedicate the season to a spirit of good will and swear our allegiance to scripture directing us to forgive each other’s trespasses and treat each other as we would ourselves. As I was leaving the hospital, a bro with a buzzcut came in with a pittie mix that he wanted a vet tech to scan for a microchip, and began to weep when none was detected. He had been alone for Thanksgiving when he found the pup on the street and was hoping that the dog was unclaimed because he really wanted to adopt her. The vet tech teared up right along with him, gave the dog’s new owner a gentle pat, and returned to his desk, scanner in hand, with a smile that warmed the room. Maybe there’s hope for us yet, I found myself thinking hours later as I stood in line at CVS—a thought that distracted me momentarily from the more immediate concern of how I would explain to the pharmacist that I was there to buy barbiturates for Bruce Wayne.”

That’s what Matthew 25 tells me. That maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for us yet. And that, if there is, it lies in the things that we do for the least in the kingdom, for the mixies and the pitties, for the disconsolate and the panicky, for the people who need a phone call or who need a kind listener on a park bench or who need a note on a bridge, for every last and least and lost person who finds themselves on an island and worries that they don’t fit in.

In the nature of things, the February of the Soul gives us islands.

Matthew 25 gives us bridges. 

Matthew 25 gives us company. 

Matthew 25 gives us hope.

And hope, my friends, and hope will not disappoint us.

Praise God that it is so. And the people said: Amen.

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