November 26, 2023 ~ Reign of Christ Sunday
Rev. Beckie Sweet
(from the Wittier Friends Church)
I dreamt death came the other night,
And heaven’s gate swung wide;
An angel with a halo bright
Then ushered me inside;
And there to my astonishment
Stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As “quite unfit,” “of little worth” and “spiritually disabled.”
Indignant words rose to my lips
But never were set free;
For every face showed stunned surprise
~ Not one expected ME!
The whole subject of judgment makes most of us feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? In today’s scripture text, from Jesus’ last discourse prior to his crucifixion, Jesus tells his followers that they will be judged at the end of time. And that judgment will NOT be based on how smart we are, how clever our inventions, or even how eloquent our witness may be. But rather, Jesus tells them and us here, we will be judged by whether or not we have directly worked to alleviate individual suffering and structural injustice. We will be judged not on resisting doing evil, but rather for failing to do good, and not serving those in need.
Now there are a lot of other images of Jesus that I would more quickly choose to dwell upon. Jesus as Friend, Bread, Light, Redeemer, Reconciler, Bridegroom, Vine, Shepherd ~ ah, but along with that Shepherd image comes judgment. You see, it was not uncommon for shepherds in Jesus’ day to watch over (care for the needs of) both sheep and goats at the same time. But sheep are docile creatures and goats are somewhat hyperactive. So, it was common practice for such shepherds to separate the sheep from the goats in the evening, so that the sheep could sleep more peacefully.
The problem that I have with this sorting and judging exercise, is that I don’t see myself fitting neatly into the sheepfold or the goat pen! I haven’t had a 100% success rate at caring for those in need. However, I have tried to address many of the needs I have recognized. I often wonder what happens when the majority of those being sorted end up in the middle?
“Lord, when did we see you? Those who were judged asked Jesus. I’ve been thinking about ways we see – really see. Do we come to know God with real understanding if we do not see God reaching into our mundane everyday lives? Unless we long for God, expect God to show up here, how do we come to understand God’s presence at all?
Rabbi Abraham Heshel has said, when our vision is impaired by negative habits of seeing, or when we’re prone to seeing only what we’re used to, we can be limited by our expectations and experience, our fears and failings – and we miss so much. In order to see God in others we must move beyond superficial seeing. Giving voice to those in need, Susan Halcomb Craig wrote:
I was hungry and you blamed it on the costs of war.
I was hungry and you circled the moon.
I was hungry and you told me to wait.
I was hungry and you said, “so were my ancestors.”
I was hungry and you said, “God helps those who help themselves.”
I was hungry and you told me I shouldn’t be.
I was hungry and you had foreign debt payments to make.
I was hungry and you said, “The poor are always with us.”
God, when did we see You hungry?
Alex Haley, who was born right here in Ithaca in 1921, and who was the author of Roots, tells the story of how his father had his life changed by an act of kindness. Alex’s father was the youngest of eight children, living in a sharecropping family. Everyone in the family was needed to help with the crops. After several years of schooling the family pressed each child into service on the farm. Fortunately for Alex’s father, his mother intervened, and he was allowed to stay in school. When he was ready for college, he chose the Lane Institute. He worked as many as four jobs to pay tuition, in addition to full-time studies. It was all physically and emotionally wearing. The summer prior to his final year in college, Alex’s father worked as a porter on a train and happened to meet a man early in the morning who couldn’t sleep and wanted to talk. This man was impressed by a black porter working to earn money for college and tipped him the unimaginable sum of five dollars. By the end of the summer, Mr. Haley had to decide whether to convert his summer earnings into a mule and begin to sharecrop, or to stretch to complete his last year in school. He took the risk of completing college. Alex Haley tells us what happened next: “When Dad arrived on campus, the president called him into his office and showed him a letter he had just received. The letter was from the elderly man whom my father had met on the train, and it contained a check for $518 to cover Dad’s tuition and living expenses for one full year.” The kindness of an unknown friend made all the difference in the life of Alex Haley’s father, Alex Haley himself, and every succeeding generation of that family.
“Lord, when did we see you?” Why didn’t we see you in the couple and child living in the car parked so obscurely on our block? Why didn’t we see you in the child walking home from school “inappropriately dressed for the weather?” Why didn’t we see you in the ex-con looking for a break? Why didn’t we see you in the overweight woman turned away for lack of medical insurance, who was too sick to walk home? Why didn’t we see you in the family in the grocery store trying to choose between tomato soup and toilet paper? Why didn’t we see you? Why didn’t we see you?
CLOSING PRAYER (by Robert W. Castle)
O God, who is old, and lives on a hundred dollars a month, Help us to see you.
O God, who is fifteen and in the sixth grade, Help us to see you.
O God, who is three and whose belly aches in hunger,
Help us to see you, as you have seen us in Jesus Christ.
O God, who sleeps in a bed with your four brothers and sisters,
And who cries and no one hears, Help us to touch you.
O God, who has no place to sleep tonight except an abandoned car,
an alley, or deserted building, Help us to touch you.
O God, who is uneducated, unskilled, unwanted, and unemployed,
Help us to touch you, as you have touched us in Jesus Christ.
O God, who is chased by the cops, who sits in jail for seven months waiting for trial,
Help us to know you.
O God, who is unorganized and without strength to change your world,
Your city, your neighborhood, Help us to join you.
O God, who is fed up with it all and who is determined to do something,
Who is organizing people for power to change the world,
Help us to join you, as you have joined us in Jesus Christ. Amen.