Archive for Helping the needy

Needy Goats, Needy Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by timtrue

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic

Matthew 25:31-46

1.

I went to Mexico this past summer with my oldest daughter for a Spanish-language immersion experience. For four weeks we lived in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town some 180 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Everyday we’d leave our villa at about 8am and walk the mile and a half or so to the language school, where we’d study for six hours then acquaint ourselves with the sights, sounds, smells, foods, history, and culture of interior Mexico. We’d return to our villa in the early evening to study and prepare for the next day, and maybe to blog about the experience.

Occasionally—if it was raining hard—we’d catch a bus or cab. But mostly we walked. We averaged a little more than five miles a day.

It is common, walking in Mexico, to encounter persons in need. Sometimes it’s a mother with small children just sitting there, on the sidewalk, in the shade, open coffee can in front of her with a few pesos in the bottom. Other times it’s a person offering small, hand-made curios for sale. On occasion we’d encounter a musician, singing passionately to an imagined audience in hopes of real money materializing on the cobblestones at his feet.

These were genuinely needy people.

And, of course, we wanted to help each and every person we saw. We were wealthy Americans, after all, and knew a daily quality of life they would likely never experience, even for a short time.

And, of course, we felt inward pangs of guilt every time we passed by a needy person without emptying our pockets of spare change—or because we had just emptied our pockets for the last needy person.

I’m sure you have experienced this struggle.

2.

Today is the final Sunday of the church calendar, the feast of Christ the King.

Today’s collect puts it this way: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This is that day: the day when we anticipate what it will be like to have all things restored in Christ, God’s well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose message above all else was, “God is love.”

What will this restoration of all things look like?

Our collective imaginations have played with this question. Will it be this world renewed? Will it look somewhat the same as it does now, but a richer, fuller, more vibrant world; a world without poverty, hunger, or need? Will we recognize mountain peaks? Each other? That blind musician I once helped? Buildings?

Or, will this world be destroyed and burned up? Will Christians be raptured away and all non-Christians left to face a new-world dictator? Will there be an evil man called Antichrist who is really under the control of a great and terrible beast? Will there be a terrible Apocalypse? Will zombies factor in?

Today we encounter the only detailed description in the New Testament of what this restoration of all things will look like.

And, in case we’re tempted to try and solve this riddle, today’s passage is meant to be evocative, not literal.

I mean, really, if it were meant to be interpreted literally, then we’d all have to be transformed into sheep and goats before facing Christ! And when in the eschatological sequence does that happen?

So, just what are we to do with today’s Gospel?

3.

I’m afraid that most of us, when we read or listen to this passage, identify with the sheep.

There are two teams, the sheep versus the goats. The sheep are Jesus’ team. They on his right and are welcomed to join him in that place where he will be their eternal captain. The goats, however, are on his left; they will be ushered to that place of eternal perdition—and we all know who their captain will be. . . .

So, show of hands, who wants to be a goat?

But—to reflect a moment—what about the goats?

Did you notice? They’re just as surprised as the sheep when Jesus addresses them.

To the sheep Jesus says, “Whenever you did these things to the needy, you did them to me”; but to the goats Jesus says, “Whenever you did not do these things to the needy, you did not do them to me.”

And both sheep and goats are surprised. Both ask, “Lord, when did this happen?”

It seems, then, that both sheep and goats did in fact welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and incarcerated; and both sheep and goats let opportunities pass them by.

Hasn’t each one of us done this? Hasn’t each of us acted on opportunities to help someone in need; yet also let opportunities to help the needy pass by?

I mean, if I’d given money in Mexico to every needy person I passed in the street, I would have busted my budget on the first day!

So then is this last-day scenario really fair? The sheep are remembered for the few opportunities they acted on; but the goats are remembered for the opportunities they passed by.

What about all the opportunities the sheep let pass by?

And there’s this: both the sheep and the goats are in the position of being able to help. Both sheep and goats are approached in life by the needy; both find themselves in the position of being able to do something about it when approached. Both are able to offer food or clothing; or to visit the sick.

But what about the needy themselves? What about those who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, the stranger, the sick, and the incarcerated?

They are not in a position of helping others simply because they are themselves in need. With respect to today’s passage, they are neither sheep nor goats. So what are they? Where do the needy fit in?

We identify with the sheep, not the goats. But I’m not so sure this is what Jesus wants us to do. For when we identify with one team over another, we end up drawing distinctions. We end up saying things like, “We go to church and they don’t”; we end up thinking ourselves better than they in some way—which is exclusive.

But Jesus calls us to love, to inclusivity; not exclusivity.

4.

Maybe the question we ought to be asking today is not whether I am a sheep or a goat; but, “With whom does Christ identify?”

Is it not with the needy?

Yes, Christ is the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, sitting on his throne in glory. But, at the same time, Christ is the person in need.

“Whenever you welcomed, fed, clothed, or visited those in need,” he says, “you did it to me.”

“I am the one in need,” he says.

And are we not, likewise, those in need?

Why do we follow Christ in the first place? Why do we commune at his table week after week? Is it not because we are in need?

Call it the fall, call it marred human nature, call it sin. Whatever you call it, however it is described, we stand in need of salvation, redemption, and reconciliation to God. And that is the greatest need of all.

Thus today’s passage confronts us with a great mystery. It does not have a simple, either/or answer. Rather, it is both/and:

Christ is both the divine King of all creation and the needy. He is both God and humanity. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both distant foreigner and next-door neighbor. He is both sheep and goat. He is both in need and helper. He is both Savior and the one being saved.

We meet Christ on this final Sunday of the church calendar as King.

We also meet Christ every day of the year: whenever we pass a person in need on the street; whenever we greet our neighbor; whenever we see our own needy reflection in the mirror.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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The Drama of the Call

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , , on December 11, 2013 by timtrue

Human lives are chock-full of drama.

From the very beginnings of life—both in the love act itself, from which conception occurs, and in the birth process—all the way to death and burial: drama is an omnipresent reality.

Recently I baptized a baby girl.

Put yourself in her shoes for a moment.  There she was, safe in her mother’s arms.  But why in the world was she in the middle of a crowded group of people with bright lights blaring all around?  And what were they all saying, chanting in unison, like a mantra?

Then, already on edge a bit from the unusualness of the situation, some big, burly, bearded guy dressed in a white robe with a scarf-like thingy draping over his neck (how odd is that!) takes her from her mother’s arms into his own: from soft, warm, familiar-smelling love into hard, knotty, hairy, wizened, unfamiliarness.  Maybe it’s love too, she thinks, for she trusts her mommy absolutely, and Mommy would never let anything out of line happen; but this is probably what Mommy means by the overused term “tough love.”

And if that isn’t enough, the big bearded unfamiliar man dips her, like she once saw her daddy dip Mommy on the dance floor, and pours water over her head.  Three times!

Then the people watching say amen and clap.  The whole thing’s just a bit weird, she thinks.

Drama!

Today a significantly tattooed man came into my office and told me his story:

I’ve been in jail for eight-and-a-half years and I’m still on parole and I can’t pay all my rent so my wife and me and my three kids were kicked out of our apartment and won’t be allowed back in till I pay the rent in full but that makes it look like I’m trying to run but I’m not trying to run except my parole officer don’t see it that way but I won’t get paid till Friday because that’s payday and did I mention that I do have a job but I’m just waiting on my paycheck and my wife works too but she just had an operation and needs to take a few days off to recover and so can I just have a hundred bucks?

And I wanted to say, hey, take a breath, buddy.

Instead I asked his name, to which he replied Manuel Gonzales.  Then I told him I didn’t have any money I could offer, but would he like a gift card to a local grocery store?  That would at least get him and his family meals through Friday, when he would allegedly be paid.  To which he replied that, yes, that would be helpful.  So I asked him for a form of identification, standard procedure, you know, to make a copy of it so I can keep track of what I give and to whom.  He agreed.  But the name on the ID card most certainly wasn’t Manuel Gonzales.

Drama!

Also today I experienced my most difficult visitation yet.

It began yesterday, actually.  With Prayer Book in hand, I routinely journeyed to the assisted care facility I had predetermined.  So far so good.  But when I entered her room, the ninety-something year-old parishioner I sought was nowhere to be found.  The bed was made, in fact, and the room quite tidy.  Not allowing myself to think the worst, I asked a nurse where said parishioner was.  “Oh,” the nurse replied, “she just went to the hospital.  Blood clot in her leg.”

It was the end of the work day, so I went home resolving to track down my nonagenarian friend today.  Which I did.  And I went to see her this morning.

When I arrived in her hospital room, in the MICU, she lay beneath a bundle of blankets unconscious from sedation.  Her son and daughter were with her, very glad to see me, but also with eyes puffy from apparent tears.  I inquired about my friend’s condition.  And that’s when the shock hit me, for the daughter answered that her mom’s leg had been amputated this morning, severed just above the knee.

I uttered a tearful prayer–barely able–and said my goodbye; but I will return to see her on Sunday after church, and I’ll bring Eucharistic elements with me.

Drama!

It’s omnipresent for us humans.  And I count it one of the greatest privileges to be involved, sometimes even immersed, in it.