Proper 29A – November 23, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Did you get the point of today’s gospel?
You might have missed it buried under all the wrinkles and folds of all that repetition.
The homiletic professors of old used to teach the tried and true method of a three-point sermon. That’s all you were allowed. The best advice I got from one of my professors was to never preach a sermon like the “Old Man River.” You know the song, from the Broadway play, “Show Boat”: ‘Old man river, he must know somethin’, he don’t say nothin’, he just keeps rollin’ along.’
At first blush, St. Matthew’s sermon on the teachings of Jesus appears to take one point and make it not three but four times . . .’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’.
Oh, when was that, Lord, that we saw you hungry . . . thirsty . . . etc.? The litany is repeated, this time in the negative . . . ‘for I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not feed me’ – just in case we didn’t get it.
So, what about the “it”?
What is the point of this little sermonic device that comes perilously close to sounding like the Old Man River? Well, the easy answer is this: when you did – or did not do – all these acts of justice for the “least of these” you are doing it for – or denying it to – Jesus himself.
Well, there it is, then. Well done. We all feel better now, don’t we? We all got the point of the gospel, the Old Man River Preacher can close her gospel book and we can all get on with the day.
Somebody say ‘Amen,’ before it’s too late and she changes her mind.
Hang on! Not so fast. Turns out, the preacher does have more to say.
The more subtle point to this gospel story lies in a word hidden deep in the repetition of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says this, “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.”
Did you catch that?
Jesus said, “ . . .one of the least of these who are members of my family.”
This time, it’s personal with Jesus. We’re not talking about ‘neighbors’ as in ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ We’re talking ‘family’, here. The original ‘family values’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the narrow, strict, culturally imposed ‘family values’ defined by and imposed upon us by the Religious Right.
Jesus is calling us to a higher sense of justice, not just the good feelings that come from helping ‘the least of these.’ While there is nothing in the world wrong with feeling good because you have helped someone in need, that’s not the point of doing good.
Jesus is saying something about ‘the least of these’ that speaks directly to his sense of family values – which has little to do with policing people in their bedrooms and everything with understanding the interconnected web of human relationships.
Jesus is telling us that everyone – even‘the least of these’ – is part of his family. The Greek word that’s used is ‘adelphoi’ or ‘brothers and sisters’. To be in relationship with Jesus is to be in relationship with God AND to be in relationship with others in community – those who are young and those who are old, those who are male and those who are female.
And . . and . . and, ‘the least of these’: those who are in need of food, clothing, and shelter; those who are sick; those who are in prison, and – get this – even those whom we have never met.
We have learned through our children who have been on Mission Trips that doing works of justice not only brings a sense of deep satisfaction, but as Gregory Solomon and Jeffrey San Filippo said so eloquently last week, that ‘good feeling’ of helping to raise the status of those who were strangers to you is so ennobling that you are inspired to continue to do the work in small ways with people you do know. There are often little miracles to be found in the little wrinkles of the fabric of our lives.
However, a hidden danger may also lurk on the inner crease of that wrinkle – of not doing a work of justice to ‘the least of these’.
In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass, a runaway slave and abolitionist activist, used today’s gospel to argue that injustice damages the perpetrator as well as the victim.
Douglass tells the story of Mrs. Sophie Auld, a woman who made her own living until she married, and had never had a slave until young Frederick came to live in her household. When he first met her, she was the very model of the Christian ideal, insisting that he look her in the face when they talk – something that was seen as a sign of disrespect and was severely punished in the south.
She even began to teach him the alphabet until her husband forbade her from doing so. He argued that teaching a slave to read was not only against the law and to do so will not only endanger the household, it will also “put ideas in his head” that will lead him to want things he can never have.
Douglass describes these simple acts of withholding human kindness from him as her descent from the pinnacle of Christian ideal into the outer darkness of hell. He writes, "When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach." That is, she obeys the gospel imperatives as we hear them in today’s gospel, and, of course, our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
Douglass continues, “The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.... Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness."
The point Douglass is trying to make is the same one Jesus is making in this morning’s gospel. Yes, we ought to do these works of justice for ‘the least of these’ because when we do them, we do them for Jesus. And yes, when we don’t do these things, we place our souls in peril of the ‘outer darkness’ – our hearts turn to stone and our inclination to generosity shrivels up and dies under a mean-spirited impulse of avarice.
More to the point of Jesus, we do these things – or we don’t do these things – not only for Jesus and to Jesus, but also “to one of the least of these who are members of my family.” See? You mess with ‘the least of these’ and you’re not only messing with Jesus, you’re messing with his family. And – here’s the bottom line – if you mess with one of Jesus’ family, you’re messing with one of your own.
I remember reading somewhere that St. Vincent DePaul taught the men and women in his religious society to expect and accept the anger they received as they distributed food and clothing to the poor.
He said something like, “Who do you think you are, giving them their daily bread which comes from God? No wonder they get angry at you! It’s not your Bread. More importantly, who do you think they are? They are not “the poor”. They are your sisters and brothers in Christ. ”
I have learned, over time, that whenever I put the article “the” in front of a particular demographic, I seriously diminish my ability to do effective ministry. I do not minister to ‘the poor’, or ‘the homeless’, or ‘the elderly’ or ‘the youth.’ Those terms are handy, I suppose, for social scientists and social workers and those whose professions are based in a problem-solution perspective.
I minister with people who live in poverty and with people who do not have homes of their own. I say ‘with’ because I am always more richly ministered to by people who have less than I than I fear I do to them. That’s not the point. At least, that’s not the point Jesus is trying to make.
This is the Feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the Season of Creation and the last Sunday of this liturgical year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. As unbelievable as it seems, Thanksgiving is less than a week away. Christmas is right around the corner.
Next week, we begin to prepare for the coming of Christ the King. But this is the King who does not lord his power over us; rather, this is the King who reigns over our hearts and minds and empowers us to do the work of justice and mercy. It is through his birth, and our baptism into his life, death and resurrection that a new world order – The Realm of God – is established.
We are all sisters and brothers in his name, and heirs through him of hope. Through King Jesus we are become a ‘royal priesthood of believers’, destined for the greatness of servant leadership.
You see, when we reach outside ourselves, doing the work we misname ‘outreach’ we are really reaching out to touch part of our own selves. By elevating the status of another, we ennoble ourselves.
We serve a sister or brother in need not because of their need or ours, but because all good things come from God. We seek to be in relationship with a stranger because we have this relationship with God in Christ, and every stranger is simply a friend we have not yet met.
And that, my friends, is the point. For of such is the Realm of God, the dominion of Christ the King. And I am convinced that the Realm of God can most often be found in the inconvenient wrinkles in the fabric of our lives; indeed, it is there where Jesus reigns most gloriously. Amen.
Note: I am grateful for the information on Frederick Douglass from a 2006 article in The Witness: Justice for 'the Least of These", Salvation for All by Dr. Karen A Keely.