Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Least of These


A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Kevin Brown, (bishop of all Delaware), and I were having a conversation about the COVID pandemic earlier this week, especially in terms of the current surge or spike or whatever it is we’re currently in the midst of, which is bound to get even worse after the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Specifically, we were talking about the new restrictions being placed on us by the Governor – slipping us back from Phase 3 and into Phase 1.5 – as a way to help prevent the spread of COVID and provide early intervention to those who do test positive. 

I remarked to him that, throughout this pandemic, I have learned things I didn’t even know I needed to know. He laughed and agreed and said, “ministry never ceases to amaze me.” 

Today is The Feast of Christ the King. The gospel for today provides a very different image than the ones of royalty that are conjured by the term “Christ the King”. It is Jesus who provides the analogy of the King but does so in a way that is decidedly not kingly but needy – someone who is hungry and thirsty, a naked, sick, imprisoned stranger – and who is being tended to in his need. 

The disciples are understandably confused by this and ask him, “So, when did we see you in such need and tended to you?” And Jesus answers,  “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.”

“The least of these” – that’s what Jesus said. “The least of these who are members of my family.”  And then, true to Matthew’s style, he reports that Jesus underscores the point by talking about those who did not tend to the ‘least of these’. 

To no one’s surprise for those who have been reading Matthew’s gospel this past year – especially his parables – those who do not provide for those who do not have their basic human needs met there awaits “eternal punishment”. 

Which gives rise to an interesting question about ministry, which has to do with intent. Why do you do what you do? When you care for those in need, do you do it to make yourself feel good? Or, out of a sense of guilt? Or, fear of eternal damnation? Or, is it out of duty – because you’ve been told you have to? One more box to ‘check’ which will move you one row closer to God who sits on a throne in heaven? 

I hasten to point out that this is not what Jesus is saying. At. All. I’m betting he also didn’t say that stuff Matthew wants us to believe about being thrown into “eternal punishment”. That’s just absolutely antithetical to everything we know about the unconditional love and the abundant mercy of God as revealed in Christ, Jesus. 

Jesus is saying that ‘the least of these’ is ME – Jesus!. Whatever you do to ‘the least of these’ you do to ME. Jesus wants us to look at the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, those who are a stranger to us or who are sick and in prison and when we do, to see HIM. He wants us to see HIS face in he face of every person who has been denied a basic human right. 

Now, I admit, this is not an easy task. It’s much easier to act out of pity or to see ourselves as ‘better than’ this ‘poor unfortunate’ and tend to them as a sort of insurance policy to earn favor with God or that our ‘good deed’ will provide some protection in the future against our slipping into such and unfortunate lot. 

I learned this lesson from my field education supervisor when I was a seminarian intern at St. John’s, Bowdoin St, in Boston, MA. His name was Emmett Jarrett – “Fr. Emmett” as everyone knew him. A nose-bleed high Anglo Catholic who never read a psalm or piece of scripture that didn’t need to be chanted or saw a thurible that didn’t need another charcoal and an extra spoonful of incense. 

Sadly, Emmett died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer but he will live forever in my fondest memories which often return to bless me with the amazing things ministry has to teach us the things we didn’t even know we needed to know. 

St. John’s had a weekly ministry known as “The Thursday Night Supper”. It had started as a “soup kitchen” but had evolved into a full sit down dinner for those who were poor and/or homeless in that place in Boston where Beacon Hill rises to meet Government Center. It used to be a “blue light” district – filled with burlesque halls and bars, its streets lined with “ladies of the night” who were happy to take you upstairs and help you to forget your troubles. 

Many of the guests at the Thursday night supper arrived in what we referred to as ‘altered states of consciousness’. Some of it was drug induced, some in an alcoholic haze and for some it was both. One man I remember arrived that night in particularly bad shape. I can’t remember his name this very red hot second, but I’ll never forget his face. Or, the way he smelled. The pungent odor of the mixture of cigarettes, booze and filthy clothing and a body that had not been washed in weeks have a way of staying with you for the rest of your life. 

I want to say that his name was Ronald. Ronnie, seems to strike a familiar cord. Ronnie seemed always to be in a perpetual bad mood. Most of the other guests moved aside when he walked into the room. If you didn’t and if he was particularly cross that day, you might find his fist in your face. Indeed, that night, Ronnie looked as if someone had crossed him and he had lashed out but they struck back and he was much worse for the wear. 

Well, at least, I wouldn’t want to see what the other guy looked like. Ronnie’s face was covered with scratches and bumps and bruises and the places where streaks of blood that had been wiped away by the corner of his coat sleeve told the story of his recent round of fisticuffs.  

The coordinator of the Thursday night supper was a delightful man and dear friend named Jack Flaherty. Jack also had the weekly task of calling us all to prayer before our guests were served their meal. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he would begin. It was amazing how quickly the entire room was overcome by a hushed quiet, especially when they were being treated respectfully and with dignity. 

Jack would welcome everyone and then read off the menu for the evening, always adding, “And, for those of you who, for whatever reason, don’t want to or can’t eat what we have prepared or if your child prefers, you may go to the table in the back of the room where we have the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in all of Boston which will be assembled to your liking right in front of you.”

Jack would then invite Fr. Emmett to say the grace at the end of which there would be a quiet, orderly, table-by-table procession to the buffet table where volunteers would help prepare each guest’s plate. 

This one night, however, the guests had no sooner said “Amen” to Fr. Emmett’s prayer when a commotion broke out in the back of the parish hall. It was Ronnie, but this time, it wasn’t a fight. This time, Ronnie was in the midst of a violent seizure. 

I remember Ms. Conroy, who is a nurse, bounding over people, Emmett hot on her trail, over to Ronnie who seemed to be over the worst of the seizure. Ms. Conroy knelt down next to Ronnie and took his pulse. As soon as he stopped seizing, Emmett knelt down at Ronnie’s head, cradling him in his knees and wiping his brow with a wet cloth someone had thought to bring. 

Ms. Conroy pronounced Ronnie ‘okay’ and to ‘give him some space and some air’ and ‘someone call Mass General for an ambulance’ as Jack called everyone back to their places and for supper to proceed. Emmett stayed with Ronnie, humming softly to him, and tenderly wiping his brow, telling him softly and gently that the seizure was over and help was on the way.

I could barely stand the smell from where I was standing. Just as I was wondering how Emmett could stand being that close for that long, Emmett did something I will never forget. Emmett bent down and kissed Ronnie’s forehead. Sweat. Grime. Blood. And, who knows what else. Kissed him right there. On his filthy forehead. In front of God and everyone. 

And then, I understood the words found in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. “When you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

In kissing Ronnie, Emmett was kissing Jesus.  

Later that week, in my supervisory session with Emmett, we talked about what had happened with Ronnie. Emmett showed me the passage from Matthew and pointed out that the word that had been translated as “members of my family” was not an accurate translation. The word used was “anawim” which means “beloved”. 

Those who are “beloved of Jesus” are the “anawim” – the least, the lost and the lonely; the outcast who suffer hunger and thirst, who are naked and sick and locked out of homes and locked into a life of misery and suffering. 

Here’s the thing: I didn’t learn that in a book or in a classroom. I don’t know if I would have learned that lesson quite as well as I did by being in the midst of it. It’s a lesson that I didn’t even know I needed to learn but it has stayed with me, lo these more that 30 years later. 

That’s the thing about ministry. It never ceases to amaze. 

So, when you gather this Thursday for the holiday we know as Thanksgiving, I hope you reflect on this passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. 

I hope you consider those things that make you grateful, yes, but I hope you also spend some time considering how to put your gratitude – not fear of eternal punishment – into some act of selfless kindness and generosity. I hope you consider how you might find Jesus in places and faces that might initially give you pause or repel you until you train your eye to see the face of Jesus; to see the anawim, the beloved of Christ. 

For this is the King we serve. Christ Jesus, the King of Unconditional Love who calls us into ministry that never ceases to amaze. 


No comments: