The Most for the Least
I pause as I begin this sermon this morning mindful of the sacredness of this gathered body, composed of two distinct groups of people united in mission. The two congregations: Pleasant Chapel and Peace. The two denominations: The Church of the Brethren and the United Church of Christ. The two settings: one rural and one suburban. My roots sink deep into the soil of your denomination, Pleasant Chapel, for I am a Bethany graduate who was ordained in the Church of the Brethren for twelve years. And it was the Church of the Brethren that gave me wings to fly in to the United Church of Christ a year or so ago. And so to preach to both congregations, to both denominational affiliations feels so natural, and I am humbled to have the chance to pastor a church which shares this partnership with the Global Foods Resource Bank.
In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, there is a story that Jesus tells which has guided the mission of both our denominations. It is a story which cuts straight through to the heart of our faith. There is little nuance, little subtlety. It is direct and succinct. “When the Son of Man comes…” it begins.
A middle eastern shepherd often tended different kinds of animals, and sheep and goats were common combinations. Both provided a decent income. During the day they would mingle together in the fields, but as the sun set they would have to be separated. You see, goats would become too cold in the nights and needed to be kept in a place of shelter, while the sheep with their wooly coats could sleep outside under the stars. And so the evening task of the shepherd was to gather the goats, and make sure they had a safe place to rest. Each night this was the shepherd’s routine.
And so, the parable that Jesus told hearkened back to a common role that his listeners, many of whom were shepherds, or who came from shepherding families knew. Separating sheep from goats, two distinct animals, no one breed any better or worse than the other, just different types of creatures with different needs in care.
But in the story that Jesus told on that day there was a twist, for one group of animals, the sheep were gathered at the right hand of the king at the place of honor, and the other group, the goats, were gathered at the left hand. And a pronouncement was made, the sheep were welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, and the goats, well, not so much. The sheep were called “blessed” and the goats, well, not so much. The sheep were validated for the acts of caring they had offered, and the goats, not so much. But what is really mind-boggling about this text was that neither sheep nor goats seem to know why they were placed in either category. Both are genuinely surprised at the outcome. Neither group remember the circumstances which led them to be chosen, or not chosen for eternal bliss.
I confess that this scripture causes me no tiny bit of anxiety. This is a brow-furrowing scripture for me. You see, while I am earnest about my desire to follow the teachings of Christ, I fear those things which I may neglect to do. I read this scripture as a grocery list of discipleship. Okay, Jesus said we need to “feed the hungry, provide beverage for the thirsty, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.” And I immediately want to run out and do each of those things: work in homeless kitchen (check), find someone who is thirsty (“Anyone here need some water?” check). And then I’ll head on over to Target and buy a few sweatsuits to pass out to those who might be cold (check). It is tempting, for us Type-A personalities, to see this story as a checklist and try to do everything on it so that we might receive tickets to the eternal kingdom.
And you know what? I have come to believe that this is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he told the story. No, I think that there was a bigger picture that Jesus wanted his listeners to understand, a grander vision that he had in mind as he shared those words under that hot middle-eastern sun. And that bigger picture was this: It isn’t about trying to cross or “t’s” and dot our “i’s” just to score points in a grand celestial game, but instead it is about what we do in the moments when we think no one is watching, what we do when we choose to serve our brothers and sisters humbly, what we do for the one who is the most despised or alone in our society. It is about serving the least, and seeing the least, and aligning ourselves with the least, and realizing that this is where we will find the living Christ today. And it isn’t about trying to gain attention or trying to please others. What we do in the company of the least of these, whoever they are or or wherever they happen to be, is where we learn how to be true disciples.
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, The Preaching Life says this, “One thing is for sure. You cannot win the truth like a scavenger hunt, checking off one hungry person, one thirsty one, one sick one, and one in prison. You cannot toss a quarter in a cup or throw a dollar bill at an old woman in the grocery store and call it done, ‘There! There’s my good deed for the day, my ticket to eternity is with the sheep!’ You cannot use people that way, and besides, emptying your pockets may not always be the right thing to do.” [Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 137]
But even beyond this, I think there is one more startling revelation that we can learn from the parable. And it is an admonition that we dare not ignore. The goats who are placed at the left hand of the king have not been deliberately cruel. They didn’t do anything purposefully to hurt others. They didn’t speak maliciously. They didn’t steal. They didn’t incite violence. Their sin, the thing which threw eliminated them from a chance for eternal life in the hereafter was this: they were apathetic. They simply passed over the needs of the least. They failed to look. They failed to serve. With their tunnel vision and their ability to ignore, they lost their chance to mingle with the living Christ--the Christ who came to them in the beggar, and in the prisoner, and in the stranger. The goats didn’t overtly wound their neighbors, they just neglected to notice them. The sin was in the omission. The sin was in avoiding the faces of those who were considered “the least.”
In the spring of 2002 I was at a retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan called The Hermitage. The war in Afganistan and Iraq had only broken out a few days before. It was an agonizing time for our country in the wake of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Our country was at war in a nation that I wasn’t even sure I could locate on a map, let alone understand. I had watched the bombings and the smoke on CNN and had worried and wondered about the safety of so many people—both civilian and military personnel, Afghanis, and Iraqis, and Americans all. Like many people concerned for issues of peace in the world, I felt helpless, and I felt angry. That evening I walked into the common area of the retreat center and saw, a framed portrait hanging on the wall. I’m sure many of you have seen it as well, for it is a portrait which has graced the cover of National Geographic and has been referred to as one of the most poignant pictures of the past thirty years. It is a photo that was taken by Scott McCurry in 1984 of an Afghan girl. A child who was a refugee forced out of Afghanistan after the death of her parents. A young girl who had traveled across the border to Pakistan and settled in a camp there. In the photo this child’s crystal clear aquamarine eyes stared out from beneath the dark folds of her robe, full of anguish and innocence. And one of the nuns at the retreat center in a shaky cursive hand had posted a 4x6 card right under this photo which said simply, “This is the face of an Afghani child. May peace prevail.” I stood with those eyes staring deep into my soul. Eyes which indicted me. Eyes which haunted me. Eyes which reminded me that I was not allowed to ignore my brothers and sisters in this world who were in war zones, or hungry on street corners, or alone in alleyways. I was not permitted to be a passive witness to suffering. I was not allowed to be ignorant.
This, I believe, is what Jesus wants us to learn. As disciples of Christ we cannot afford to be apathetic. We cannot afford to avert our eyes from pain, for in doing so we do not see Jesus. We cannot choose to isolate ourselves from our neighbors, for by doing so we isolate ourselves from the Christ.
But I have to warn you that looking comes at a cost. Gazing into the eyes of the least of these is a risk. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “I will tell you something you already know. Sometimes when you look into those eyes all you see is your own helplessness, your own inability to know what is right. And sometimes you see your own reflection; you see everything you have and everything you are in a stark new light. Sometimes you see such gratitude that it reminds you how much you have to be thankful for, and sometimes you see such a wily will to survive that you cannot help but admire it, even when you are the target of its ambitions. These are all things we need to know—about Jesus, about our brothers and sisters, about ourselves—but we cannot know them if we will not look.”
This morning we gather as one body to worship God, to pause in gratitude and joy for our shared mission. But, we also gather to together focus our eyes together on the least of these, in a people who reside with Christ in Mozambique where 63% of children go to bed hungry at night and where 1 in 4 adults are infected with HIV/AIDS. And then we turn our eyes toward Uganda, where the life expectancy rate is 53 years old, and where malnutrition causes tiny bellies to swell. This morning may we turn our eyes to look at the faces of these brothers and sisters in Christ. And may we know that it is our responsibility to serve those who have so little, and need so much. It is not just our responsibility it is our duty.
There is a story that has been told throughout the years. It is a classic tale offered by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those early Christian mystics who lived in the third century in Egypt. I believe it speaks to the truth of the imperative of service. Let me share it with you:
Past the seeker, as he prayed, came the crippled and the beggar and the
beaten. And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and
cried “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and
yet do nothing about them?” And out of the long silence, God said:
“I did do something about them. I made you.” [Spirituality of
We are made to see. We are made to see the least of these, and to know that in seeing them we see Christ. May it be so for us this morning. For God made us for such a time as this.