Saturday, November 22, 2014

"...The Least of These..."

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Girardian Lectionary site, as well as Fred Niedner and Terry Cranford-Smith.

The ink to the article I read in the sermon is here.

MATTHEW 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

This past two Sundays, as we've journeyed through the 25th chapter of Matthew, we've seen some different ways to look at parables like the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents. And I said something last week, and maybe the week before, about our reading today – that it isn't a parable but a prediction of the end of days, a foretelling of the Final Judgment. 

I have always really liked this passage. I have quoted that whole “I was hungry and you fed me” part hundreds, if not thousands, of times. This passage gives me a chance to count myself among the sheep and point to other people as goats, and feel good about myself. After all, I am a fan of social justice. I think the right things about the poor and marginalized. I like that, in this passage, Jesus makes following him not about what creeds or doctrines we believe, what prayer we recite, or what church we go to, or how wet we got when we got baptized, but about how we treat the poor, how we regard the forgotten, how we reclaim the marginalized.

I can say, confidently and without equivocation, that in regards to our reading today, I am a sheep.

Except sometimes I am not. Sometimes, in regards to our reading today, I am a goat.

Yes, I have participated in feeding the hungry. If I am honest, though, I have, much more frequently, ignored the hungry. I have, on occasion, participated in giving the thirsty something to drink. But I've also not done that. I have welcomed the stranger, but more often I have feared and excluded the stranger. I've given clothing for the underclothed, and I've also ignored their shivering. I've provided care for the sick, and I've also said, “I'll pray for you!” as I walk away and forget all about them. Yes, I've visited people in prison, heck, I've visited Death Row at a maximum security prison! Surely that gets me some Brownie points with God, right? But I've also actively chosen not to go, not to visit, not to care.

Could it be that I will be approved or condemned based on what kind of day I'm having? Am I a sheep or a goat based on some kind of divine calculus, is there a percentage of sheep-ness I need to achieve to make the cut?

And, if everything is based on an algebraic formula of sheep-to-goat-ness, if I am approved or condemned based on how often I have fed as opposed to how often I have not... why even be a Christian? Doesn't it become a matter of following rules to obtain God's favor rather than relying on the grace of God through the risen Christ for my salvation?ybe I was wrong

And and, what's with this dividing people up in the first place? Us versus them, Jesus, really? What about that passage in Galatians – the same Bible that today's reading is in, by the way – that says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”?

And and and, you're telling me that, one, neither group knew which they were – sheep or goats? And the sheep, whose life is defined by compassion, did nothing while this entire other group perished at the hands of the One they served?

Maybe I was wrong last week. Maybe this passage has less to do with how time will end, and more to do with how we spend the time we have.

Fred Niedner looks at this passage and imagines that, in that moment of separation, the sheep look across the gulf...

“...their eyes wide not with rejoicing or satisfaction, and surely not with gloating, but with astonishment and the kind of fear the compassionate have when they see others in danger. For over there, on the other side, among the goats, are so many of those for whom they have cared all this while, and now what will become of those others? Are they to be separated forever? Who will care for them now?

“The sheep know about many kinds of starvation, illness, and imprisonment. They have fed the hungry with bread made from wheat and given water to the thirsty. They have visited those with pneumonia, cancer and AIDS. They have visited in penitentiaries. But they have ministered to others in need as well. They have provided sustenance for to fill spiritual hunger and the awful thirst for meaning, the very cravings that drove the goats to selfishness and seemingly unconcerned arrogance. The sheep have welcomed and befriended the goats when the goats were so estranged they'd become strangers even to themselves. And the sheep kept visiting the cells of those imprisoned in hatred, the goats who hated everyone, and themselves most of all. And the naked who lived without any chance of another's love to clothe them, or to adorn their faces with gladness, those the sheep had clothed with their own humble garments of affection and care. To those sick to death with the boredom of their world's routine, the sheep had come with the bread of encouragement.

“The sheep had given so much of themselves to those others. How could someone now separate them forever from those others? How could the Son of Man in this moment call them "blessed?" How could they rejoice over their inheritance as they looked across the chasm, toward those who remained lost, sick, naked, and imprisoned in their own pitiful selfishness? How could they ever again sing a glad song?”

In Niedner's retelling, the “Sheep and Goats” becomes, not a foretelling of the end of the world. Rather, the sheep remind Jesus of who he is and why he came, and ask him – well, compel him, really – to go and find those lost sheep, those goats who didn't know they were goats.

“'...You cannot end all this in a stroke of vindictive justice. Son of Man, we cannot in this moment do nothing. We must go across to them,' the sheep insist. 'You must let us go to them."

“The son of man studies them and calmly says, 'You cannot go across. It is too late. For you there is no more time.' For a moment there is stillness.

“'Then you must go,' declare the sheep. 'Son of Man, you must remember now how your own heart quivered in horror in the instant when you saw in Cain's eyes what came bursting from his heart, and his strong hands were upon you. Son of Man, you must remember the moment when the soldiers pinned you to the cross, pounded in the nails, and you were condemned. You must remember the thirst out of which you cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Remember the torture of abandonment! You must go to them, Son of Man!'

“A deep and heavy silence comes over the judgment scene. The Son of Man says nothing. He looks at the sheep, his own eyes now wide, looking like theirs. Then he turns, and he steps across. How could he not heed their voices? He had taught them to talk like that. They were using his own best lines on him. He would go. He could not judge from vengeance. He would have to go -- to Bethlehem, to Calvary, to Antioch, to Rome, to Kansas City, to Calcutta, yes, even to hell. He would spend eternity, if it took that, like a shepherd forever in search of lost sheep, working restlessly to slake the final thirst and break down the last prison. Some might hide from him forever, but his heart told him, and the look in the eyes of those sheep told him, he could never give up. If he was to be king, he must be a shepherd king, a tireless, searching king, a king with holes in his hands and crowned forever with thorns, scouring endlessly the depths of hell, looking, calling. . .”

I'm not saying that we've been reading this passage all wrong, that we aren't called to feed and clothe and welcome and visit, please don't hear that. What I am saying is that nobody is ever just one thing – even the worst of us do good things, and the best of us do terrible things on occasion.

What I am saying is that we get nowhere in life, nowhere especially in our faith journey, if we exist in a realm of “us versus them.” After all, what is it that the praying Pharisee says in the 18th chapter of Luke? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” And that tax collector the Pharisee mentions? “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus tells the story and concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We get nowhere by being better than someone else.

In the end, I can't get away from the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing... “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison...”

Rather than adhering to a set of laws which governed their actions – laws of love on the part of the sheep, and laws of fear on the part of the goats – these groups acted out of what was already in them, be it love or fear. It isn't what they do or do not do that makes them who they are, it's who they are that makes them do or not do what they do.

And this brings us to another dilemma, doesn't it? If I am a goat, and if I can't just look at this passage and decide, “Well, I'll do good stuff and be OK,” what hope is there?

I have to go back to that Max Lucado quote from last week. “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never told us to be the light of the world or the salt of the earth. He said we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

What it comes down to, I think, is a choice. Be foolish and unprepared like the five foolish bridesmaids, and live in fear of lack like the five supposedly “wise” bridesmaids... Live in fear like the third servant, who buried the talent, or live seeking gain and recognition at the expense of others like the other two servants, and certainly like the traveling slave owner... or turn our gaze outward, away from ourselves, and see the opportunities for grace in the world.

NPR recently reported on an assisted living home in California which shut down last fall. Many of its residents were left behind, with nowhere to go.

The staff at the Valley Springs Manor left when they stopped getting paid — except for cook Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, the janitor.

"There was about 16 residents left behind, and we had a conversation in the kitchen, 'What are we going to do?' " Rowland says.

"If we left, they wouldn't have nobody," the 34-year-old Alvarez says.

Their roles quickly transformed for the elderly residents, who needed round-the-clock care.

"I would only go home for one hour, take a shower, get dressed, then be there for 24-hour days," says Alvarez.

Rowland, 35, remembers passing out medications during those long days. He says he didn't want to leave the residents — some coping with dementia — to fend for themselves.

"I just couldn't see myself going home — next thing you know, they're in the kitchen trying to cook their own food and burn the place down," Rowland says. "Even though they wasn't our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time."

For Alvarez, the situation brought back memories from his childhood.

"My parents, when they were younger, they left me abandoned," he says. "Knowing how they are going to feel, I didn't want them to go through that."

Alvarez and Rowland spent several days caring for the elderly residents of Valley Springs Manor until the fire department and sheriff took over.

The incident led to legislation in California known as the Residential Care for the Elderly Reform Act of 2014.

"If I would've left, I think that would have been on my conscience for a very long time," says Rowland.

We may well choose to waste the one chance we get to live as the flesh and blood of Christ on this earth by living a whole life unmoved by compassion for another human being. But we who claim the name of Christ may also choose to visit those others on their sickbeds of selfishness and to feed those who are starving to death because they have no idea how to give of themselves. We may choose both at different times and for different reasons, but through the Holy Spirit, God calls upon us to strive daily to grow into Christ, to become more like the One who gave himself for the poor, the marginalized, the despised, the forgotten.

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