The door bell rang as I worked alone in the office in the late afternoon. A man stood in the threshold with a young child. “Do you remember me?” he asked. This man had come asking for gas a few months before. I had told him to follow me to the gas station one exit down the highway, where I paid for the fuel. Once we were there, he also requested that I buy some hot dinner at the deli for himself and his family. I did. “Yes, I do remember you,” I replied. “Can you help us?” He asked. “We’ve been living in our car” (he pointed toward a rusty mini van parked in the front) This time, I said no. “I’m sorry,” I responded, “we have small fund and usually aren’t able to help more than once.” He stared at me numbly as I continued: “You could try Community Emergency Service tomorrow – they give away fresh food to anyone who asks on Fridays.” My heart grieves at each encounter with folks in need, whether I decide to help or not (it is never enough, even if I buy some food or gas or a bus pass, or give a jacket…) For days afterward, I ask myself: what should I have done in that situation? As an individual person of faith? As a representative of all of you in this congregation? I almost always feel that I fall short of offering the kind of basic care, hospitality, and dignity for those in need that Jesus lived and taught.
Judgment …. is framework for today’s text from Matthew. Right or left? Righteous or accursed? Heavenly pastures or hellish fires? What do we do with this? I don’t know about you, but I think God accepts us all, that God never gives up on the process of saving us, that is, of making us whole. I don’t believe in hell, at least not the “eternal torture” model. (that view of hell, by the way was popularized primarily by medival writers like Dante and Milton, not by the Bible… this particular Gospel passage is the ONLY depiction in the New Testament of a final judgment.)
In his parable, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis imagines hell is a colorless shadow of real life. Those who inhabit hell are ghostly figures. A great gulf lies between heaven and hell, but there is a bus that traverses the divide. Anyone in hell is free to board the bus to the foothills of heaven. Those who make the trip realize that heaven isn’t a paradise of cloudy bliss. Heaven’s real-ness is painful to the ghosts – even the grass is so sharp and solid that walking hurts their feet. In order to stay in heaven, these ghosts must continue traveling toward what is real. They must choose to accept the agony of coming to terms with their wounds and broken relationships, and being made whole again. It is hard, scary work to make that kind of change. Many people choose to return to the grey transparency of life without God and sacred community.
When it comes to the tale of the sheep and the goats, I read it not as a literal representation of an event that will occur, but, like The Great Divorce, as a kind of parable. Parables are sacred stories designed to teach us and change us, to help us see and live differently. What’s paradoxical about today’s parable is that no one in the story sees what is actually real. Neither the sheep nor the goats recognize Jesus, And neither of them understand the significance of their own action or inaction. Jesus says to sheep: “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.” The goats, Jesus declares, did not care for him in any of these ways. The response of both groups is the same: When did we see you??? This parable judges us, not for the sake of condemnation, but in order to help shake us free from the hell of our own illusions. It judges not only our action or inaction, but our inability to see God’s sacred reality—that Christ is in us and with us, especially in the spaces of inequality and difference.
On her blog, artist Jan Richardson describes the process of creating the image Christ in the Scraps, printed (with permission) on our bulletin cover. She had plans for an art piece in response to today’s Gospel. But as she began working, she found her eye drawn by scraps of colorfully painted paper, left over from her own previous works. She writes: “I turn the scraps over in my hands. Sorting, choosing. Finding the pattern. I think of how my deepest regrets—what few I allow myself— are most often attached to occasions when I didn’t see. Didn’t know how to see, didn’t yet have the eyes for seeing. The realization of it—the dawning knowledge of where my vision was lacking—is itself a kind of punishment. But an invitation, too. To learn to look more closely. To take in what I have rushed past” She continues: “Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists here is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of health, lack of freedom. Christ chooses these places, inhabits these spaces, waits for us to show up. Waits, too, for us to recognize those places in ourselves. He knows that if we haven’t recognized the poverty within our own souls, and how he dwells there, it’s hard to see him and serve him in others without being patronizing. (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/11/19/christ-among-the-scraps/)
In her poem, The Place I Want to Get Back To, poet Mary Oliver sketches a brief moment of kinship with deer in the woods. She describes spending a lifetime seeking to absorb the meaning of this holy encounter. She writes: “what can my life bring me that could exceed that brief moment? For twenty years I have gone every day to the same woods, not waiting, exactly, just lingering. Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated.” (from Thirst) Spiritually, Oliver takes up the posture she needs to see what is real, though she knows that such moments of true connection are fleeting. When Jesus said: “just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” I think he meant to say that his that rare experience of communion. that he is the creation of beauty that emerges out of the ragged scraps of our encounters with each other and with the creation.
Stacey and I are part of a group of Lilly residents and mentors who get together to discuss our ministries on a regular basis. In one of these conversations, someone brought a “case study” – which detailed an encounter with a person in need. When she told this man that the church could not help, and referred him to another agency, he got up to leave and muttered under his breath, “you better go pray for yourself”. He tossed these words out it in anger and disgust, but mulling them over, I take them to simply express a truth. In this world of such painful inequities, we need prayer more than ever— as in, deep, honest, self-reflection, which leaves room for the holy reality that is Christ to speak to us and transform us.
During the prayer time today, Stacey is going to briefly introduce us to a prayer practice called “the Examen”. I am planning to “go and pray for myself” using this daily exercise during Thanksgiving week and throughout Advent. (Yes, an Advent discipline!) I encourage you to join me. Mary Oliver knows that she might never get to relive her moment of revelation, yet she makes a home out of it: “If you want to talk about this come to visit. I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.” (from Thirst) Gratitude is about seeing and encountering what is real. Gratitude is the strange mix of pain and joy that comes from opening ourselves to be judged and changed and healed. Gratitude encompasses our rare moments of kinship in Christ, as well as our longing for true and lasting communion. Amen.