One of Us – November 26, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday After Pentecost
November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

It’s a dilemma I face regularly. Sometimes I face it several times in one week; other times several weeks will pass by before I face it again. A stranger comes into the Chittim-Howell House and asks for a priest. The stranger typically starts by telling me about how they arrived at this place in life: a job loss, a sick person in the family, a break-up in a relationship. Once the visitor has succeeded in eliciting my sympathy, they then tell me what they have really come for, and it is always the same thing: money. Sometimes they need the money for food; other times they need the money for rent or children’s clothing or medicine. They have tried Person-to-Person, they have called 211, they have exhausted all their options, and the Church is the only place they can go, and since we’re a Church, they know we can’t turn them away.

It helps that St. Paul’s has a policy: we will give out gift cards for food assistance and occasionally, when circumstances warrant, we will purchase something else someone needs, but we will never give out cash or write a check for rent. Any one person can only receive a certain number of gift cards in a certain time period, and the funds for the gift cards come from my discretionary fund, not from the operating budget. But it is hard, at times, to hide behind a policy. I got into this line-of-work, after all, to help people. Who am I to tell a person in need that there is no money for them when my check is paid every month, when I am never lacking for food to eat, when I always have a warm place to sleep? I suspect that some of the folks who come by want the money for drugs, but I also know for a fact that some of the others really have hit hard times through no fault of their own. And I am keenly aware that, though there are many parishioners who would never ever want to see their hard-earned pledge dollars going to someone begging at the door, there are probably just as many parishioners who cannot imagine me ever telling anyone no.

When I was a teenager contemplating a call to the priesthood, passages like the Gospel reading we heard this morning absolutely terrified me. I was pursuing ordained ministry because I had spiritually experienced the powerful and ineffable beauty of God and wanted to bask in that beauty and share it with others. I was aware, however, that many Christians believed the primary purpose of the Church was to address social problems and care for those in need. A child of privilege, I felt condemned when others highlighted the rampant inequality in modern society, but I also found myself exhausted by constant calls-to-action. Alleviating poverty seemed like such a massive and impossible task—what was the point of even trying? As I sought to rationalize my inaction and carelessness to myself, I would often get flustered and defensive. For a few months in my sophomore year of college, I had the bad habit of walking to McDonald’s several nights a week to spend my parents’ money on a McFlurry. On one particular night, I recall counting the number of homeless individuals between my college campus and the McDonald’s twenty blocks away. There are so many homeless people on this street, I remember telling myself, that if I gave money to each one of them I would never get where I was going and I would soon run out of money altogether.

I still think that passages like this morning’s Gospel reading can be terrifying. Notice that in this morning’s parable Jesus separates humanity into two groups—the sheep and the goats—and sends the goats off “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I don’t think this passage should be read any more literally than Biblical passages that advocate hating one’s mother and father or tell us to cut off our body parts if they cause us to sin, and I am wary when Christians of all stripes try to characterize opposition to their social or political priorities as sin worthy of guilt and punishment.  But I have changed many of my views about how we as a society treat the poor and the vulnerable. I still think poverty and inequality are complicated problems that have no easy solutions. If one of you gave St. Paul’s a million dollars to help the poor, we’d be grateful, but we’d still be very far from ending poverty in Norwalk and the surrounding area. Yet I no longer wonder if helping those in need is a pointless waste of time. I have changed mainly because over the years I have actually gotten to know some of the folks I used to theorize about abstractly. It is much harder to turn the other way when you have heard another person’s story and witnessed their humanity up close—when you have glimpsed the powerful and ineffable beauty of God in them.

The parable we heard this morning is a parable about the Incarnation—about God taking on human flesh. It is less a threatening blueprint about how to handle various situations in order to avoid damnation and more a bold theological statement about how God shows up in our fellow human beings. Over a decade ago, the television show Joan of Arcadia imagined God appearing in various guises in our daily lives, asking the question in its theme song, “What if God was one of us?” This morning’s parable proclaims that God was one of us—not just in the person of Jesus, but also in our fellow human beings—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. We feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoner not out of a rote sense of obligation but because in doing so we honor the God in one another. We best serve those in need not by fixating on a rigid list of rules but by seeing and responding to the holiness in other people.

Is God only present in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner? I’m not sure if that’s even a productive question, for who among us has never before been hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or the stranger? Jesus, I think, means to tell us that God is present in all of humanity and that in disrespecting any human being we actually disrespect God. This parable calls us to consider how we treat the poor, the hungry, the refugee, the disabled, and the prisoner in our time; because the reach of this parable extends beyond the specific populations it names, this parable also beckons us to lament the many additional ways in which God has been mistreated. Given recent news, I would like especially to call to mind those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment. The past few weeks have shown us, over and over again, how we human beings can horribly abuse the God that is in each other.

Condemning the harmful actions—or inaction—of others is at times important, but focusing solely on the ethical behavior of individuals may distract us from addressing larger problems in the wider society, problems in which we are all complicit. If I believe my only responsibility to a poor person is to buy him a sandwich when he asks, I lose sight of my responsibility to work for a world in which poverty no longer exists; if I assume that I lack prejudice because I refrain from making racist comments, I fail to acknowledge the system of white supremacy that has persisted in this country for hundreds of years; if I think my only allegiance to a victim of sexual assault or harassment is to denounce the perpetrator, I overlook the larger rape culture that fosters further acts of harassment and assault. We cannot possibly be aware of or attend personally to every individual who is suffering, yet Jesus suggests that when we let anyone go uncared for, it is as if we are ignoring him. We are urged to ensure that all people are safe and healthy, not only the people we happen to run across; the task Jesus gives us is to rebuild society as a whole. May we be tireless in working for a world in which all the victims of suffering are heard and cared for beyond measure–not because we fear the punishment of an angry God, but because we know an always lovable God is present everywhere and in everyone. 

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