Rev. Martha Jacobs
Looking at Each Other and Seeing Christ
Ps 95:1-7a, Matthew 25:31-46
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Sitting at the table during Thanksgiving dinner with my brother, I was reminded of our antics when we were kids. My brother, Ralph, who is about 3 years older than I am, used to goad me into wrestling with him in the living room. Well, of course, if you asked him, he would say that I enticed him into it….So, that part is open to interpretation. We were very close and would plot together, as well as fight with each other, as siblings often do.
Indoor wrestling was not something that my parents, particularly my mother, wanted us to do, because inevitably we would knock something over. But, when she wasn’t looking, we would quietly start to wrestle and then would eventually get louder and wilder. I remember, one time one of us kicked a table and the lamp fell over, putting a hole in the lamp shade. We looked at each other and knew we were in trouble. So, we plotted to not tell my mother by putting everything back in place, carefully turning the shade so that the hole was to the back.
That worked for about a day, until my mother discovered the hole. Somehow we could never keep anything from her, whether or not she was around when it happened. And yes, we were both punished… and, yes, it didn’t stop us from wrestling in the living room again, when she wasn’t around. But that is the only time I remember our actually breaking something. Somehow, my mother, like most parents, seemed to have the ability to know what we were up to even if she was not physically in the room with us. We did eventually realize that we could not get away with too much. But, sometimes, I think she just ignored us, allowing us to be the kids we were!
So, what does this parable have to do with my brother and me trying to pull one over on my mother? Well, this parable by Jesus is what ends our liturgical year. It is the final reading before we begin Advent, the time of waiting and preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. So, the placement of this parable right as we end the liturgical year, reminds us that, similar to my brother and me realizing that we could not get away with too much without my mother figuring it out, God will be watching us even though God will not be physically among us, at least not for the next several weeks.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon on this topic, reminds us that once Jesus is gone, the sheep and the goats go from knowing they are being watched by their shepherd to having lots of free time for being with the other people in their lives, “including the ones who did not count – the little ones, the least ones – the waitresses, the nursing home residents, the panhandlers, the inmates, the strangers at the grocery store.” These are among the people that matter – the least of these.
Dr. Taylor reminds us that God will know “how we behaved when we thought God was not around,” and that it will matter. It will matter not just in church, but in our everyday encounters with others, who are all children of God. Dr. Taylor reminds us that, “we are called to look at each other and see Christ.” That is the simple and the challenging ministry to which we are called as Christians.
It is simple, because if we look at how Jesus treated people, we know we need to do the same. Jesus’ ministry “is marked by compassion for others. That compassion led him to acts of mercy – the very acts that he talks about in this parable.” Jesus does not ignore them – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. He stands in solidarity with those who are most in need of compassion. That can be the easier part of our work as Christians.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew, sees God as Immanuel – “God with Us” – and as such tells his community, and us, that deeds of love, of compassion, and of mercy are needed now – not in some later time and place. But rather now, because God is with us whether it is today, tomorrow or at some later time in the future that we can’t see or know. Matthew reminds us that we are to serve God and Jesus, now, with love, compassion and mercy. And, that can be the challenging part of our work as Christians.
It is easy to be compassionate to those we know, those we love, those in our immediate sphere. It is much more challenging to be compassionate to those who we don’t know, aren’t so sure of – Those strangers who we pass on the street, on the train, in school, those who look different, dress different, believe in God in a different way than we do. The sacred part of us, the God part that is within us, requires that we open our hearts to the stranger and that when we look at each other, that we see the Christ that is within each one of us.
Recently, someone who is interested in becoming a part of our church asked me if we really mean what we say over the door to the entrance to this sanctuary. She asked if we really welcome all people – no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. My response to her, without hesitation – absolutely – no judgement. Hospitality – extravagant hospitality – is at the heart of the United Church of Christ. It is at the heart of our ministry here at FCC and as we reach out to the world beyond our doors, it’s sometimes hard to maintain that hospitality.
But, hopefully, whether we are selling Christmas trees or helping someone who needs assistance with paying their rent or their utility bill, or providing a warm place for our Muslim friends to worship, or providing food for our homeless guests, we are practicing hospitality. When we put pj’s, gloves, hats, and scarves on the tree that will be down the hall that will go to children who are connected to the Northern Westchester Community Center, who are total strangers who we will never see and never know, friends, that is exactly the kind of extravagant hospitality we are called to do.
Seeing Christ in the faces of those we will never see but know are out there and are struggling and in need, that is the extravagant hospitality – the extravagant love that we are called to offer others – all others, no matter their culture, their race, their sexual orientation, their physical ability, their political party or their height, weight, or hair or eye color. When we look into the faces of both those we love and those who are strangers in our midst, we need to remember that the face of Christ is staring back at us. God is whoever we encounter in our lives and we need to ensure that we welcome all to our table – all to our church – all to our hearts. And, the grace that comes from that extravagant hospitality is beyond measure and often comes with surprises that we least expect.
Beverly Zink-Sawyer raised an interesting question that provoked me in my reading in preparation for today – She asks, “What could be more surprising than a God who comes to dwell with us in the form of a poor, helpless child born in obscurity to peasant parents?” … “What could be more surprising than a God who comes to dwell with us in the form of a poor, helpless child born in obscurity to peasant parents?”
This question prompts me to wonder if we are open to the surprises that come to us when we think God is not watching. When we stop to think if someone is deserving of our hospitality, that is when we lose sight of Christ and the work he has called us to do.
When we care for the least of those who are among God’s family, we will also have cared for God.
Some resources used:
Sermon Seeds, 11/26/17, UCC website
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4