Sermon presented at First Congregational Church of West Boyleston, MA; November 20, 2011…
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
I’ve found that the best place to work on my Christian witness is while I’m driving in my car, alone. Like, when someone cuts me off, I’ll spontaneously give them the fist of fellowship; and I’ve been known to utter a few very warm and heartfelt words when someone steals my parking spot. I also find that when I drive during rush hour, or when going to the mall during the Christmas season, that I pray every chance I get.
It’s so easy to let go, just a little bit, when we are wrapped in a steel and glass cocoon, when no one sees what we’re doing, or saying. We are safe from interference, from having to judge whether the inconsiderate actions of others are due to their merely having a bad day, or if their IQ really is less than the speed they’re driving. Since we’re invisible to those around us, why not let fly with a little emotion? Why not blow off a bit of steam?
Let us pray…
Lord, open our eyes that we may see the truth you have for us here today; place in our hands and hearts the key that shall unclasp and set us free. Open my mouth, Lord, so that I may be a faithful witness to your Gospel, that the eyes of our hearts might be opened, that your love for all of us, your children, is unlocked, made manifest, and prepared for sharing with all we encounter who seek to see, as you see us. Amen.
This morning’s readings have a lot to say about driving alone. Let’s start by looking at Matthew’s “judgment of the nations”, where the Son of Man takes the Throne and separates the sheep from the goats.
Now, what criteria are being used for judging who is a sheep, or a goat? Is the Son of Man looking at what we think of him? No. Is he judging whether we can drive without letting fly with a few choice words or hand signals? No. Is he concerned about whether we’ve been baptized, said our prayers every night, or dropped a few coins in the Salvation Army Pot in front of Walmart? No! Instead, we are being judged on whether we feed the hungry, or give drink to the thirsty, or welcome the stranger, or clothe the naked, or care for those who are sick, or visit those in prison. Why judge on this? Why does it matter so much to God?
I often used to see a man at the grocery store in a town I once lived in. He was older, white haired, probably middle eastern; and, no matter what the weather, he always wore the same heavy plaid shirt, old jacket, and frayed pants. He was clean and well groomed; but, you could see the pain and humiliation in his eyes as he stood on the sidewalk across from the store exit, watching us as we came out with our bags and carts full of food. He never spoke, nor did he indicate that he was hungry or needed anything. (If he had, I am pretty sure the store owner would have called the police.) So, he stood there, voiceless, unseen, even though his need was plain to those of us who looked.
Like many who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or in prison, this man was unseen by us. He was ignored and silent because we didn’t want to have to deal with him and what he represents. His existence was inconvenient. And yet, he is the very sort of person Jesus was most concerned about. This passage in Matthew is one where those who are separated to the right, the sheep, are those who did notice those without a voice, and responded; those who helped someone in need when they didn’t have to, when no one was looking, when no one cared. The righteous here are those who step up to the plate when it is inconvenient and not easy — because it is never convenient nor easy — to help those who have nowhere to turn. The sheep in this passage are those who saw the unseen.
I wish I could say that I went up to this man, shook his hand, asked his name, and invited him to lunch, but I can’t, because I didn’t, and it has now been years since I last saw him. It would be nice to say that I had good intentions, but Matthew is telling us that it’s what we do, not our intentions, that matter. Do we decide to see, then do we act upon what we see? So, I am a goat: I failed our Lord, and I failed this man.
Now, you could ask, why not just go back and look for him? Well, I could. He may well still be hanging around that store, but have I tried? No. I keep on telling myself that I don’t have the time: that I need to mow the lawn, change diapers or play with my son, that I need to shop at Whole Foods or perhaps watch a little TV to “relax” after a long day at school. These and other things always seem to have a higher priority. Apparently, being a goat suits me well.
But, there are some other things to notice in this passage, about what Matthew doesn’t say: First, nothing is said about doing these things publicly. It doesn’t matter whether others see what is being done, or whether witnesses are present, or even if those we minister to know who we are. All that matters is that God sees, God knows.
Nothing is said here about the fate of these unseen. Nothing is said about whether what we do has anything to do with their salvation. In fact, this passage doesn’t even say we have to succeed in trying to feed, or clothe, or heal, or visit them. Because you see, it isn’t about them. It is not their choices or their actions that are being judged, but ours. They did not choose to be as they are, or where they are. They did not choose to be unseen.
This passage ends with the unrighteous goats asking “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or sick, or in prison?” And the Son of Man answers “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Jesus is saying that they refused to see, not that they didn’t see. Without seeing, we cannot do.
Being unseen is not a choice made by those who have no choices, it is not some trait they can fix. They are unseen because those of us with choices are refusing to see: and they cannot fix us. For healing and restoration to occur, we must first choose to see, then choose to help, which brings us to the next point, which is that the “unseen” in Matthew are really not people who were unseen. Rather, to borrow a phrase from this morning’s reading in Ephesians, the unseen are those we did not see with the “eyes of our hearts.” We did not let what we did see affect our hearts, and so move us to action. We walled up our hearts, we did not allow our compassion and our humanity a chance to manifest.
And so, how different is this from my drive here to church this morning? I was once again walled off and safe from the judgment of the world around me, a faceless driver, lost in the race that has no beginning and no end. And yet, I was not faceless to the Lord, which brings me to my last point. We’ve talked about being unseen in the crowd, and we’ve talked about being unseen because of a refusal to see with our hearts, but there is also the unseen-ness of the ordinary.
We sometimes forget that Jesus was a very extraordinary, ordinary man. In Matthew, those around him, even his disciples, see him as a human being, and only as a human being. Most of the time, his divine nature is hidden from them. Jesus was born as an ordinary babe, with an ordinary mother, grew up as an ordinary child, and walked the earth in his adult life as an ordinary man. He knew real hunger, he experienced real passion and real anger, he was really bullied, he experienced real pain, and he died a real death. … All of these are things that every one of us experiences, and that’s the whole point. Jesus walked this earth as an ordinary man: it is an affirmation from God that our lives, our ordinary, often boring lives are important to God. It isn’t just the extraordinary moments that God sees and cares about, it’s the ordinary ones too.
What the “unseen” in Matthew experienced were ordinary things – we all experience hunger, thirst, and illness. From time to time we all find ourselves to be strangers, and we all face prisons – perhaps not prisons with locks and bars, but maybe the prison of addiction, or of an abusive relationship, or bullying at school, or of our own minds. We have all been, and are, one of the unseen.
And yet, the most giving people that I know, and that you know, are people who give out of their own pain, out of their own experiences of hunger, or sickness, or loss. Once we understand pain, we want to work to help or to heal others who are going through similar pain. Jesus knows this. We may be a goat today, but tomorrow we will be one of the unseen who is helped by a sheep, and in that experience we are given an opportunity to become sheep too.
So, when Jesus the Lamb of God, condemns us for not seeing the unseen, he is also saying that we are not seeing ourselves. To Christ, none of us are ever an inconvenience, never unseen. His walk in the flesh on this earth was a statement that we matter, even the ordinary, fleshy (and very human) human beings that we are. Jesus sees the ordinary, and so mandates us to, like him, give those who have been silent and unnoticed a chance to be heard and seen, because they are us.
So, in driving my car, I will remember (I hope) that the driver who just cut me off is an ordinary child of God, just like me. With God’s grace I will see them as Christ sees me: just another one of God’s ordinary and yet very extraordinary lambs: that even though their face may be unseen, the eyes of my heart will see them.
Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).1