November 24, 2014

The Sheep, the Goats, the Least—and Us


The lessons for this day may be found at this link.

“Dear Admissions Office, I am a senior at <fill in the high school>. When I was a junior, my <church/temple/other philanthropic organization> took a mission trip to <fill in the third world country> to build a school, repair the water supply, help reconstruct homes, or do some other meaningful and muscle-straining labor. When I arrived, I believed I could give so much to these poor, unfortunate people. I had so much, and they had so little. But—and here is the twist in my college admissions essay—I went thinking I was giving to them, but instead, they gave so much to me. It has changed my life. Please let me come to your school.”

I heard about these types of essays on a radio program talking about school admissions. This is the generic life-transforming essay that admissions officers say they get by the thousands. On one hand, I can see why they cast scorn at what has become such a tired cliché: the kids with so much receiving the generosity of those with so little. But on the other hand, this kind of experience is truly life transforming. It broadens perspectives. It opens minds. It makes the world much smaller. It makes the people more real.

I wonder what kind of essay I’d write if we had to submit one for admission to the kingdom of heaven.

* * *

Since the middle of September, we’ve been riding a long arc of parables in Matthew. These parables are designed to give a vision of the kingdom of heaven, and what we need to do in order to reach that kingdom. The path has not been an easy one. We’ve been told that we must forgive those who owe us money. We’ve been told not to look at the wages of others and be jealous. We’ve been shown that a son who won’t but does is better than a son that will but doesn’t. We’ve been admonished to stop killing the master’s slaves and indeed his own son lest we have our vineyard taken from us and given to those who can produce fruit. We’ve seen a robeless man thrown from a wedding banquet. We’ve been chastised for not bringing enough oil for our lamps as we wait for the Bridegroom. We’ve been given talents, and either used them or buried them. And today, the last Sunday in Pentacost and the end of the liturgical year, we say goodbye to Matthew with the separation of goats and sheep at the end of time, when the Son of Man comes in his glory. All along there has been ample wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Wow. This is a whole lot of heavy from the gospel that gave us Godspell.

The master in these parables—it’s no stretch to fill in “God” here—is harsh and angry and unforgiving. His judgment is swift and final. We have been weighed. We have been measured. And we have been found wanting.

I don’t know about you but the not-so-subtle messages over the last two months really scare me. In our own liberal construction of theology, we somehow square the misguided notion that we can be both comfortable and also responsive to God’s call. We live day to day with little urgency to change. We may even live in certainty that heaven awaits us, no matter what. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parables, however, makes it pretty clear that this is not the case. There will be judgment. There will be those that pass. There will be those that don’t. Get used to it.

When I’m scared, I try to look at things logically. I’m a guy who wouldn’t mind “inheriting the kingdom prepared for me from the foundation of the world.” I’m certainly not interested in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I want to be a sheep, not a goat. What, then, is the prescription for finding favor with God?

It’s pretty straightforward. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, house strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Simple. There are plenty of hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned people in the world. The world is what we call a target rich environment. All I have to do is turn my attention from my daily concerns to see all the problems. That’s half the battle, right?

Ah, yes, but the world is a really big place, and rather vague. My daily concerns are immediate and pressing and not vague at all. I read somewhere, perhaps in Matthew, chapter 3, verse 5, that I can’t pull the splinter out of my brother’s eye when I have a plank in my own. It follows logically, then, that I can’t focus on the problems of others when I have my own issues. QED.

Yeah, not so fast, Sparky. Everyone knows you can’t win an argument by mixing metaphors, especially sheep and planks. Try again.

Maybe it would help if I tried to identify with one of the actors in the parable. Am I a righteous person, or am I an accursed one? Well, for me, I aspire to be righteous but fear that I’m accursed. The problem is that the parable says that if you think you’re righteous then you are accursed. You have to be clueless, it seems.

But here’s an interesting thing. Both the righteous and the accursed in this parable are clueless. The righteous are clueless because they didn’t know they were feeding, clothing, housing, or visiting God when they fed, clothed, housed, and visited the least of their brothers. The accursed are clueless because they didn’t know that God is in each of their brothers, especially the least of them. Certainly it’s easy to do good when you know that you’ll get credit for it. Just ask the Pharisees.

So I’m not supposed to identify with the righteous, because to do so means I am definitely accursed. Okay, let’s assume that I am an accursed person. I’m pretty sure that this is the default way we hear this parable—that we are blind or indifferent to our neighbors’ needs and, for that, we are damned.

Is this a message of hope? Not very, but even Jesus is allowed to wag his finger occasionally. I am in a clean, tidy church in a clean, tidy village in one of the most affluent cities around. I worked pretty hard to get here. I like it here. But what it means is that I’m not reminded very often of the hungry or homeless. I don’t see them at all on my trek to work or my visit to the mall. I’ve insulated myself from these ills of society, and I know I need to do more than write a check or drop off groceries at the Food Pantry. I deeply and truly know this.

But somehow I’m pretty sure that’s not the end of the message, that this parable is intended to do more than just reprimand us and stop there. So again I ask, Who am I in this parable? Clueless righteous? Clueless accursed? There is a third option.

I am a “least of your brothers.”

I don’t say this lightly. I am fully aware of what I have and how fortunate I am. But, if I stop to think about it, I am also fully aware of my leastness. I get angry too often. I doubt myself. I am impatient and haughty and I don’t know when to shut up. I am a bigot. I am quick to judge and slow to forgive. I am overly proud. I enjoy standing up here preaching just a little more than I should. I am a least of your brothers.

And so are you. What are your leastnesses? You have them, just as sure as you breathe air. It is an essential part of you.

Why is this so important? I don’t think God is going to let you off the hook for doing grand good things, but I will give you this: you don’t have to look very far to find ways of doing many small good things, and a few bigger ones. Look around you. We are in a target rich environment.

If you, like me, want a prescription for “inheriting the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” then here it is: See each other. See each other with the depth of acknowledgement that says, I see the face of God in you, in spite of and maybe because of your leastnesses.

I may have told you this story before. I was walking just off the campus at UC Berkeley and passed a homeless man begging. He asked for spare change. I kept my head straight and walked on, figuring that this was the best way to avoid an uncomfortable situation. As I passed him, he yelled, “Hey, you, turned around! I’m a person here!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. I turned around. He said, “You don’t have to give me money, that’s up to you, but you can at least acknowledge that I am here.”

That’s what Jesus is teaching us in this parable. Guilt trips for choosing not to drop a coin a homeless man’s jar aside, Jesus is teaching us the practice of the encounter, the art of seeing each other. We can, easily, continue on in our busy lives looking without seeing, moving by and around and through objects in space as though in a fog, barely recognizing anything. But when we stop and see, and the objects start to take human shape, we open countless opportunities, not just to feed or clothe or house or visit, but to acknowledge God in each other, which may well be the greatest of the gifts you can give to the least of your brothers.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in An Altar in the World, says it this way, “No one made in God’s image is negligible in the revelation of that same God.”

No one is negligible, no matter how difficult or different, how dirty or boorish or proud or haughty they are. Everyone is important to the revelation of God.

In that simple act of walking head down past a homeless man, I neglected God’s presence in another human being. But I’ll tell you what. In his simple act of calling me out, the man acknowledged me. He may have had all of the trappings of one of the least of my brothers, but in that moment, I was one of the least of his brothers, and he saw that I was worth his time.

It may be a tired cliché, but I started out cluelessly walking across that campus thinking I had so much, and instead, in my leastness, ended up receiving a great deal from someone with so little.

It was life transforming.

I think I’ll put that in my essay.