I was amazed to see
That the appointed scripture reading for today
Is Matthew 25:
When you did unto the least of these,
You did unto me.
This comes in the wake
Of President Obama’s decision
To give temporary reprieve
To nearly half of the undocumented residents
Who have lived and worked in our country
For many years under the constant threat
Of being forcibly separated from their families
And sent back to countries that are no longer home,
No longer safe, no longer a place where they can survive
Or find work to support or keep their families safe.
The decision has created a firestorm of controversy
Among those who think he went way too far
For people who they believe deserve nothing but hot coals
And among those who think he left way too many
Out in the cold.
People on both sides of the controversy,
And every controversy like it,
Scream loudly that they are Christians
To justify their positions,
So for now let’s dispense with that title —
It carries way too much baggage
And means way too little anymore.
Let’s remind ourselves
That we are instead,
As the early church called themselves,
We are people
Called to live
By the commandment
That Jesus said encompasses all others,
To love the Lord God
With all our hearts, our minds,
Our souls and strength,
And to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are people
In our deepest hearts of heart
That to love our neighbor
Means more than to love the people
Who look and live like us.
To love our neighbor
Means to love the stranger
And to love our enemies,
Even if we don’t like them.
We are people
Whose faith requires us
To treat the foreigner
As if they were native-born,
Because we too once were strangers,
We too once were aliens in a foreign land,
We too once wandered in exile,
We too once did not belong.
We are people who have been adopted,
By the grace of God,
Not because we were the smartest kids in the orphanage,
Not because we were the prettiest,
Not because we were the most loveable
Or the best behaved, God knows,
Not because we deserved it.
We have been adopted into the family of God
Because the love of God
Knows no borders,
The love of God knows no boundaries,
The love of God knows no limits.
The love of God shows no partiality
Except for those who have the least power,
The least voice, the least hope.
Where would we be,
If we had not been adopted?
Where would we be
If Jesus had not been led
To reach out to the Gentiles?
If Peter had not been led to embrace the Gentiles?
If Paul had not been led to include the Gentiles?
We would be the ones left out,
Fighting to be counted as fully human.
Many here know what it feels like
To be denied the rights and privileges
Owed to every human being,
Every child of God.
We all wait with great apprehension
For the Ferguson verdict,
In fear that the worst of human nature
Will continue to have the upper hand.
But it is our work
In the midst of controversy and conflict
To speak and to stand
And to work and to sing
And to cry out for justice,
As Jesus people,
Not as Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Independents,
Not as conservatives or liberals, God forbid, or tea partiers,
Not as advocates for big government or limited government –
As Jesus People,
It is our work
To stake our ground
With the least of these –
Knowing that there is a cost,
That it may or may not be
In our individual self-interest,
It may or may not be in the best interest
Of our families or “our people,”
Whatever that may mean to us
Which is beside the point, anyway,
Because Jesus’ words
About separating the sheep and the goats
are not about individual deeds of mercy
leading to individual salvation.
They are about the destiny of nations,
The salvation of societies.
Nations which care for the least of these
Those that trample the least of these
Historically this has been proven –
Every nation in history
That has had extreme disparities
In income & wealth has perished.
Of course the choices we make as individuals matter:
Our choices make the church what it is,
And the choices the church makes
Make the nation what it is.
Part of the lesson is
That when we fail to recognize
the least of these as our kin,
and when we cut ourselves off
From our kin,
We cut ourselves off from the Source of all Life.
When we are at one
With our kin,
When one suffers all suffer,
When one rejoices all rejoice,
Then that is eternal presence of the Lord,
That is dwelling in the Light,
That is being connected to the Source of all Life.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
It is not always a clear and easy way of life:
What if the least of these don’t want you to help them?
What if they offend you?
What if you offend them?
What if they reject you?
What if they feel rejected by you?
What if they attack you?
What if they feel attacked by you?
What if they are the enemy you are supposed to love?
What if they see you as the enemy?
What if you are afraid of them?
What if they are afraid of you?
What if you don’t know their language?
What if they don’t know yours?
Jesus is in there,
In the midst of it all,
In the muck and the mire of humanity –
Jesus, Son of Man, the Human One,
Is there where it is as real as it can get.
I love this passage about the least of these,
And yet I really struggle with the part
Where the goats get sent to eternal damnation.
I honestly don’t know how to talk about it,
Because it seems so contrary
To so many things that Jesus said and did.
My gut reaction is, Jesus surely didn’t say that!
And perhaps he didn’t.
But I read something by Suzanne Guthrie this week,
A woman who I consider to be a contemporary mystic,
That helped me immensely:
Recently, when the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins came up in the lectionary, a friend said, “I don’t subscribe to that parable.” I laughed, because the whole spate of recent readings involving weeping, gnashing of teeth, binding hands and feet and tossing poor clueless folk into the outer darkness doesn’t at all sound like Jesus. Jesus sought the company of sinners, tax collectors and other exploiters and cheaters, prostitutes, women and children in general, contagious lepers and losers of all kinds. Would Jesus suddenly turn face at the moment of death?
Nevertheless, I like these doom parables because, like a dream, see myself in all the characters. I’m both a wise and a foolish virgin, I’m the fellow with the five talents, the two talents, and the one burying the single talent. I’m the crazy, irrational king that lost his mind over the guest without the wedding garment. I’m always throwing myself out into the outer darkness.
A good story moves the soul to action. The shock of the pit and gnashing of teeth helps dislodge me from my usual mediocre moral groove. But I also know that the good shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine sheep to gather up the one little lost goat balancing on a crag at the edge of darkness.
I felt set free to embrace the dark side of the gospels,
and the dark side of myself,
and to laugh along with Suzanne.
What an incredible insight,
that we need both light and doom
to shake us from our ‘mediocre moral groove.’
Daily at Beloved Community
we touch and are touched
by the least of these.
So I can always easily embrace this passage
until the last line,
and then, wait, what?
Surely Jesus didn’t say that.
Surely he wouldn’t.
Now it doesn’t matter. I can receive it as a gift.
We are all both – sheep and goat.
The Bible is full of promise
That the lion will lie down with the lamb.
So it isn’t so hard to believe
that the sheep will also lie down with the goat.
Like Jesus said,
He came that we might all be One.