By The Rev. Sherry Deets
Last Sunday in Pentecost – November 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
The portrait of Christ as King is a fearsome one in our gospel reading for this morning. All the nations of the world have gathered before him and behold his majesty. From the throne, the king uses his authority to separate the people. To illustrate the separation of one individual from another, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd who separates his flock of sheep from the goats who are grazing in the same pasture. The sheep receive the place of honor and inherit God’s kingdom (25:34).
Now, if you were a disciple in those days, you understood this metaphor immediately. At night, when the shepherds came down from the hills into the valleys, they would divide the sheep for the sheep pen and the goats for the goat pen. The disciples understood this metaphor and it was familiar to them. Jesus continued, “The sheep will be on my right, and the king will say to them, ‘Come into my party. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me.” They said, ‘When did we ever do these things for you?’ The king replied, ‘Whenever you did these things for the littlest people, you did it for me?’ Then the king addressed the goats on the left. ‘Depart from me into eternal damnation. I was starving and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was lacking clothing and you did not clothe me. I was in prison and you did not visit me.’ They said, ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently. If we only had known your true identity, it would have made all the difference. If we had only known it was your face behind the face of the refugees; if we had only known it was your body in the infirmary; if we had only known it was your body starving in Africa; if we had only known it was you, it would have made all the difference.’
There is an example from church history. It is the story of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who was riding high in life. As a friend would say about him, he was a high type of person, with a high type life style, and he was riding high on his horse one day like a knight in shining armor. St. Francis was feeling very good and very cocky and very confident, but underneath it all, he was also feeling very empty. As he was riding along on his horse one day, he stopped and there was a beggar at his feet. Francis looked down at the beggar and the beggar had leprosy. His body was filled with open sores and wounds from the leprosy. Francis looked down, got down from his horse, bent down and picked up the man and looked into the man’s face. He then did something unusual. Francis put his arms around the beggar, put his face against the open wounds, and hugged the man. Francis embraced him, and then pulled his head away, and he looked into the face of Jesus. Francis then became St. Francis. A revolutionary change had occurred in his life and he devoted the rest of it to serving others. This story is an invitation for us to reach out and to hug, embrace, pull close into us, those who are hurting in the world.
This story is an invitation for us to embrace a suffering humanity, just as St. Francis did, just as Jesus did.
In contrast to St. Francis is looking for God in the most obvious places. In the beauty of the sunset on Puget Sound, in the face of a beautiful baby, in the bounty and fullness of nature. We often see God in the obvious places. We search for God in the obvious places, upstairs. Sometimes, oftentimes, God is found downstairs, in the dark, dingy basement. What does this mean for us? What does it mean to embrace a suffering world?
First, it recognizes the love of Christ inside of us. You cannot be this kind of loving person unless the love of Christ is living in you. It is not you. It is not me. It is the love of God living inside of us. You can’t embrace hurting people unless the love of God lives in you.
In one of Walt Whitman’s poems there are deeply touching words that speak to this:
Each of us is inevitable,
Each of us limitless,
Each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.
I ask you to hear these words and to meditate on them, especially that last sentence: Each of us here as divinely as any is here. What does this mean for us in our world today? How does this speak to events such as the “occupy movement”? How does this speak to us about our current political environment? ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently’. When was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or in prison?
Now, to break this down further, because thinking globally can be a bit overwhelming, notice that in the story Jesus is actually talking about small things. “I was hungry and you gave me food,” the King says to those on his right. For most of us, our opportunity to please God will not be the result of some benevolent act that impacts all of humankind. It will be a small act of caring directed toward an individual. W. W. Lax was a British Methodist minister, and he tells a story from his own experience that underscores this point. He served 40 years among the people who lived in the East End of London. Once he was asked to visit an elderly gentleman who lay very ill in a one-room flat. But when the preacher called, the man rebuffed him by turning his face to the wall and refusing to speak. While the minister was trying to carry on a conversation, he noticed the poverty of the room, the inadequate heat, and no evidence of food. When he left the house he went to a nearby restaurant and arranged for a lamb chop dinner to be delivered to the little apartment.
He called again in a few days, and the crusty patient was a little more receptive. On the way home, the preacher left another order for a lamb chop dinner to be delivered. By the preacher’s third visit, a radical change had occurred in the man’s attitude. He was congenial and smiled several times. And he listened as the minister read the Scripture, talked about faith in Christ, and prayed before he left. A meeting took the clergyman out of town for a few days, and when he returned to London, he learned that the old man had died. However, a neighbor reported to the minister that the old man’s dying words were these: “Tell Mr. Lax it’s all right. Tell him that I love Jesus and that I’m going to God. But be sure to tell him it wasn’t his preaching or praying that saved my soul. It was those delicious lamb chops.” “I was hungry and you gave me food, and as you did it unto one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me,” says the King. In small things love is revealed.
Shane Claiborne is an extraordinary man who founded the Simple Way in Philadelphia and has tried to take seriously what Jesus said in our Gospel lesson. He has tried seriously to feed the hungry and to take mercy and generosity to the “mean streets.” In his book, The Irresistable Revolution, he tells of some of his experiences. He tells of a crowd that had packed tightly around a late-night food van–and a woman who was struggling–trying to move to the front where she could get some food. When it became possible, he asked whether it was really worth the fight to get some food. She responded:
“Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself.
I get them for another homeless lady–
an elderly woman around the corner
who can’t fight for a meal.”
You have heard the story of the old man who was walking the beach early one morning when he saw a boy picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. He asked the boy why he was doing that, and the boy explained that if the starfish were still on the beach when the sun got hot, they would dry out and die. The old man said, “But the beach goes for miles and miles and there are millions of starfish. How can you expect to make any difference?” The boy looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it into the sea. He said, “It will make a difference to that one.”
None of us can do more than to scratch the surface of human need, but together, together, we can make a huge difference. As Whitman writes: Each of us here as divinely as any is here. Amen.
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