“When Did I See You?”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 18, 2016
University Baptist Church
“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.
It clothes the naked.
It feeds the hungry.
It comforts the sorrowful.
It shelters the destitute.
It serves those that harm it.
It binds up that which is wounded.
It has become all things to all.” Menno Simmons, 1539
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells about God’s priorities. In the end, we will not be like donkeys and elephants, but like sheep and goats. I wonder if they used animal metaphors to define their factions after Jesus did. It’s not about what we say and what we wear. It’s about what we do. As the writer of Revelation said, “Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” This is where the rubber meets the road for Christians. Jesus says that whenever there are hungry, poor, imprisoned, thirsty, naked, our duty is to help them for they are Christ alive today. Today’s scripture is a wake-up call to all of us. A too often ignored scripture that bears repeating, and ingraining into our imaginations. It’s known as the Great Criteria. It’s about seeing the unseen. Bringing to light that which is hidden. It’s about restoring faith that God actually cares for the outcast.
There are three tasks for the church outlined by Jesus. There is the Great Commission, the Great Commandment and the Great Criteria.
The Great Commission is “Go ye into all the world and preach my Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commandment is “Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbors as yourself. Upon these commandments, rest all of the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40). Then we have the Great Criteria: see Christ in everyone, especially the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned. There are whole church institutions built on the Great Commission. This is the church growth movement. But the Great Commission is idolatry without the Great Commandment and the Great Criteria.
When I arrived interviewed at Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco twenty-two years ago, they told me how they had spent an entire season looking at Matthew 25. They recited it over and over again, like we do with our affirmation. Only it caused them to look at the world in a different way. It caused them to open their building to the Central American immigrant homeless community. It caused them to have their building open at all hours of the day and night as a community center, and the home of several congregations.
I must say that we do a pretty good job of opening our building in a similar fashion. We all know that four congregations share space, that tango dancers and writers and musicians and therapists and restorative justice activists all use this space that is entrusted to us. Sanctuary means “making a place for” people in need. Sure, it helps us pay our bills, but I think the best reason to open our doors is to see Christ. When was the last time you saw Christ?
The disciples were doing their level best to be faithful followers of Jesus. They were trying to keep up with his priorities. They were trying to make sense of his befriending of the outcasts and sinners. It bucked the trend of successful religious movements. It made them more suspect, more of a fringe movement.
You see, there were untouchables in his society. Anawim is the Aramaic word for the outcast, the untouchable, the stranger. These were ones that respectable people, especially religious folk would seek to avoid. Jesus spent time with lepers, debunking religious and health taboos. He welcomed women into his inner circle, a no-no in patriarchal religious movements, especially at certain times of the month when they are automatically unclean. He ate with tax collectors and publicans. He called into question the injustice of the banking system as he turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He even had us pray to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Each Sunday, we repeat his radical words about wealth redistribution. This made him popular with a certain class of people and made him dangerous to another class.
And to put icing on the cake, just in case folk didn’t get it in the first three years of his ministry, he said this in the last week of his life:
“Come unto me...inherit the commonwealth of God that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.” And the righteous sheep said, “I don’t remember seeing you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. When did I see you like that?” And Jesus responded to them, “Just as you did it unto the least of these who are my sisters and my brothers, you have done it unto me.”
Jesus is not only saying, “remember the outcast.” He is saying, “See them. Hear them. Touch them. Befriend them. And when you see them, welcome them, you see me. That’s how you account for your life.”
Do you know that the only Biblical description of the last judgment is this passage of scripture from Matthew 25? And we are not judged by whether we believed or said the right things. We are judged by how we acted toward the Anawim, the stranger, the outcast. We are judged by our blindness and our inaction. “Oh when shall I see Jesus and reign with him above?” asks the old hymn. The answer from today’s scripture is we see Christ everywhere, if we just open our eyes and our hearts.
Last night, we heard Dennis Warner sing a song likening us all as beads on a string. All with our own color, our own shine, our own particularity. And all of us are important. “We’re all beads on one string. Every man every woman, boy and girl, beads on one string, we’re one world.”
We know we are to see God in the people who are hungry and naked and thirsty and in prison. But when did we actually see someone in prison? Some people feel imprisoned by systems of racism or classism or sexism or heterosexism. But I’m talking about literal prison. Most people in prison in Jesus’ time were not criminals, but political prisoners. And if they were in prison, they were not there long. They were thrown to the lions for sport. To visit someone in prison meant that you were also a suspect—guilt by association. It’s a whole lot easier to clothe the naked with the excess from our closets. We have whole social service industries that will help with that. Heck, they’ll even call us and pick stuff up at our doors. Whether the stuff actually goes to the poor is another story, but we feel good about doing our little part—cleaning out our closet and cleaning out our consciences of guilt. It’s important to bring food to a food shelf. Cub even makes it easy for us. We can buy a bag of prepackaged food at the checkout. I have always wondered what was actually in those paper bags. Is it $10 worth of food? I don’t know. I don’t have the time, or energy or interest to look in. But boy it feels good to donate.
But to visit a person in prison is something else altogether. Maybe we’re concerned about what we might see. We might see an evildoer. We might see an uncivilized person. We might see someone down on their luck. We would likely see someone who has darker skin than most of us. We would likely see some fathers and some mothers. And these people will always have the stigma of prison in their backgrounds. It will restrict where they can get jobs, housing, and trust. It will also restrict their ability to vote, serve on a jury or otherwise participate in the legal process. They are marked with a big scarlet P for prisoner, whether they are innocent or not. Prison is designed to dehumanize. Visiting a prisoner gives them a taste of normalcy. And it makes those of us on the other side of the bars uncomfortable with our freedom.
I found myself drawn in by the HBO miniseries “The Night Of” which aired for 8 weeks in July and August. It recounts the story of a grizzly murder in New York City and the imprisonment of the prime suspect. Throughout the series, we learn of the characters: the lawyers, the victim, the suspect, the other inmates, the prosecutors, the police, the family of the suspect. Ultimately there is a trial, and I will not give away the events. What the series shows is the way that prison changes the suspect, his family, his friends, even his advocates. It’s like the suspect gets caught up in a system and for his own survival, he needs to make choices that he might not make in the outside world. The series plays with several layers of truth. By the end, you are not sure whom to root for. For we are all somehow compromised by the system, its rush to judgment and the fallout from all of the confusion and blaming. And so we muddle along, victims of various levels of imprisonment, hoping not to look in the mirror for fear of what we might actually see.
You know, there’s a conundrum in scripture. You remember how the unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ body for burial, sensually wiping the costly oil with her hair. Judas, the bean counter of the disciples, rebuked her saying how they should use this money for the poor. Jesus rebuked Judas saying that the poor will always be here, but he—Jesus—will not. This seems to contradict today’s scripture. It kinda lets us off the hook. Don’t worry about the poor and the outcast. They always will be here. But Jesus will not be here always, so we need to put our devotion upon Jesus.
Here’s how I reconcile today’s scripture with that one. Yes, Jesus will not always be here: the person Jesus who is anointed for burial. He will die a mortal death like all of us. It will be quicker for Jesus because he has been so audacious as to speak the truth to power and those in power seek to silence him. This one person, this Jesus we will not have forever. But Christ will be here forever. Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s the designation of Jesus’ God-character. It is the constant presence of the poor and the outcast and the prisoner. They are the face of Christ today. And yes, they will be here constantly. When did I see you?
They will be the naked and hungry and thirsty and thrown in prison because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the wrong color skin or didn’t have the funds for a lawyer. They will be the ones who are misunderstood and mistrusted by organized religion. They will be the scapegoats for the difficulties we all face, the target of fear and smear campaigns. This is the face of the poor that we will have with us constantly. And here’s the rub. That’s where we will find Christ: in and amongst them. And as we unlock our own compassion, not pity which feels sorry for someone’s sorry plight, but compassion that walks alongside them and asks the hard questions about how we solve these problems. When we have compassion on them, then we find a bit of Christ even amongst ourselves. We are slower to judge. We are fixated on meeting immediate needs and then asking the harder questions about how we might solve the systemic problems that keeps them in such dire straits. This is the impetus and the power of the Gospel message which we celebrate today.
When did I see you poor or hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in prison or sick? Whenever you have done it for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me. Treat everyone as you treat me, says Jesus. Because when you see someone, anyone, even your worst enemy, you see a part of me.
When did I see you? Do we really see each other? Do we see beyond our assumptions of another? Do we see below the façade that makes nice-nice on Sunday mornings, or the armor that holds the demons at bay? Some of us don’t want to be seen and some of us long to be seen. The key for a Christian is to seek to see those that the powers and principalities would have you not see.
During the Iraq war the occupiers of the Oval Office restricted images of U.S. war dead. There were not pictures of coffins coming home in our newspapers. Songs of questionable patriotism were not permitted to be played on airwaves. And even now, there is scarcely any news coverage of the hundreds of thousands of people lining the route of the pipeline in South Dakota which threatens not only Dakota burial grounds, but the water supply of those who depend on the Missouri river for their lives. When did I see you? It’s not hard to see these things if you are on social media—one of the great advantages of the computer age. But you have to be on the right sites and have the friends who are going to point you to the places where the action is taking place. Depending on the corporate media to tell us the whole truth is to be in a kind of prison.
Jesus asks us to see him. No, Jesus commands us to see him in the Anawim, the ignored, the outcast, the poor, the naked, the prisoner.
Martin Luther King said that the work he was doing was not only to release captives from prison, but to remove the rest of us from the prison of indifference, which is the same thing as spiritual death. When was the last time that you were tempted to look away? When was the last time that you sought to ignore what was in front of you?
We people of privilege are in a prison of myopia. We only see what is nearest to us. We don’t see people in prison, because we make believe that we are really free. But when one of us is bound, then we are all bound. This is what Jesus was getting at. We need to see Christ everywhere, especially in those who are the Anawim—those that are easiest to ignore, those who are easiest to exclude. Those who are the easiest to scapegoat. Jesus said love your enemies, even that part of you that makes other people into enemies. That prejudice that you hold, that I hold, that we hold, because we are citizens of this broken world. But Jesus’ message is that because we see the hungry, the sick the naked, the prisoner, we cannot be content with letting them stay there. We need to be changed by the encounter. And that change is the good news that Christ came to proclaim.
Rev. Mark Sandin said recently, “I grow weary of Christians who on Sunday profess their love of the one who said, “when you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” and then spend the rest of the week supporting politicians and platforms that step on the “least of these.””
May we see Christ in everyone and may we respond in such a way that we live up to the name Christian. This we pray in the name of Christ who is with us always. When did I see you we ask of Christ? We see Christ everywhere.