A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 29 – Year A – 23 November 2014
David H. Knight, Priest Associate
Give us, O God the strength to build the city that hath stood
too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servant hood,
and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.
Last April, I think I shocked my doctor’s nurse. After Dr. Turner had completed my physical I said to her as I was checking out, “What is Dr. Turner doing a year from today?” She gave that look as if to say, “Have we got a weirdo here!” and said, “I don’t know, why do you ask?” I said, “Well, I’d like to come back and see him again. He’s a rather nice fellow and it’s probably not a bad idea to come back for another physical in a year. You see, I had been one of those patients who would get a physical once every five to seven years whether I needed one or not. I had every reason—like many men seem to have—to postpone going to the doctor. I don’t like needles, I don’t like having blood drawn, I don’t like being poked and prodded, and besides I always feared, he might find something wrong. Now isn’t that crazy? But now, now I see things differently. I have come to appreciate the value of a yearly physical. The needles don’t even really hurt and the one who draws my blood is so skillful at it I don’t even feel it. A yearly wellness check could save my life because it gives me a snapshot of my physical health. Even my insurance company thinks it’s such a good idea that they pay the bill.
You and I all need wellness checks to maintain our physical health. In the same way, we all need wellness checks to take a measure of our spiritual health and the health of our way of living as God’s people. Surely, we all want to be spiritually in a good place. We want to be healthy in our spiritual journey in this life. In today’s Gospel, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment is very much like a wellness check for us. It provides us a picture of our health in terms of our habits, the way we see others, and the way we live each day. Jesus said it about as plainly as he could to his disciples and to us as well. His words provide a foundation for the way we live and how we value others and how we value the God-given dignity of every human being. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In the service of Holy Baptism we celebrate this morning, we have joyfully welcomed Wit Ramsey into the congregation of Christ’s flock. In the Baptismal Covenant, John as the celebrant, asked of all of us, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Our response was “I will with God’s help.” The implications of that question to us reach into every corner of our human encounter.
Just the other day, Kris Adams and I were discussing this gospel passage for this morning as I was preparing for this morning. He came to me a bit later and said, “Hey David, have you seen that article about an Episcopal Church in North Carolina that has a new piece of sculpture out front?” He brought me a copy of the article that included a picture of the sculpture. It’s a powerful image. This sculpture is quite unlike anything one might see on the grounds of any church. The bronze statue depicts someone sleeping on a park bench. He is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured. Only the nail holes showing the wounds of the crucifixion in his uncovered feet reveal his identity as Jesus himself. When the statue was put in place last April, the reaction was immediate. St. Alban’s Church is located in an upscale neighborhood surrounded be well-manicured lawns and well-kept houses. Some people loved the statue. As you can imagine, others didn’t. One woman, upon driving by, saw what she thought was a homeless man sleeping on a bench outside the church and called the police. Yes, it was so realistic she actually called the cops. Some others thought it was inappropriate as well. A neighbor who lives a couple of doors down from the church said it creeps him out. The rector of St. Alban’s, the Reverend David Buck, however, says that “It gives authenticity to our church. This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need,” he says, “to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society.” The sculpture is intended to be a visual translation of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel we have just heard this morning in which Jesus tells his disciples as he tells us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” and likewise, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
Recently in the news we read that a 90-year old man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Arnold Abbot, was arrested along with two pastors Dwane Blackand and Mark Sims for violating a city ordinance that effectively outlaws sharing food with homeless people in public. As he was handing out plates of food, Mr. Abbott was told by the authorities to “drop that plate” as though it was a loaded weapon that he was holding, and go immediately to the police cruiser. Mr. Abbott, who has headed up a group known as “Love Thy Neighbor” has been feeding the homeless for more than twenty years. The city had previously tried to prohibit Abbot from feeding the homeless on Fort Lauderdale Beach in 1999, but then, in just early seventies, he challenged the city in court and won. He says he will go back to feeding the hungry on the beach even though he may be arrested again. We ask, “What might a wellness check reveal about the powers that be in that city?”
“Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I am reminded once again of our recent Wednesday evenings with Henry Massie studying Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird. There is that wonderful conversation that Atticus has with his daughter Scout on the front porch after supper in which he imparts such simple and profound wisdom. Atticus says to Scout, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In our concern for others, even the least of these among us, is this not true for us as well?
Praying for the least of these among us can be costly. C.S. Lewis once wryly observed, “It is so much easier to pray for a bore than to go see him.” It’s true, yet when you and I take it upon ourselves to join with the prayers of others that we agree to share in some way with their tribulations. When we pray for those who are the most vulnerable, our own preparation of heart will help us cultivate the compassion to identify with those in whom we see Christ himself. Our role then becomes to witness to Christ’s understanding of their condition.
The point of Matthew’s gospel passage today is simple enough. Whenever you and I visit people who are sick and see their faces, it is a good thing for us to look for the face of Jesus in those faces. We think, for example, of those doctors and nurses and military people who travel to parts of Africa to help treat people affected by the Ebola virus, who risk their own lives, yet who are met with fear in the voices of politicians who call for their isolation as happened to one nurse who had just returned to the States and was even told she was not contagious. Where is the gratitude for what these people have tried to do to respond to the needs of those in need? What kind of a wellness check is this for the political powers that be?
Surely, with help and effort on our part, you and I can learn to see things more clearly. We can learn to see more clearly in the faces of the hungry, the homeless, the face of Jesus himself.
I remember the words of my friend Thom Blair who once said, “Learning to see Jesus’ face in all of God’s people is work enough for any lifetime. It is a calling we all share, it is a lesson we all have the opportunity to learn, it is a test by which we are all tried.”
Jesus’ words to us in today’s gospel are a reminder to us of how important it is to submit ourselves to a wellness check of our spiritual health and of our faithfulness to God’s call to us to respond. The words of Walter Russell Bowie in that powerful hymn written in 1910 remind us that
Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair;
lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare—
yea bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.
This coming week, through some chance encounter along our path, you and I will have an opportunity to look for Christ in someone’s face. It may even be that we might be called in some way to serve Christ in that person. How might our hearts be open that we might in some small way, perhaps, proclaim by simple words and by example, the Good News of God in Christ? This past week one of my calls was to our own Bunny Knapp at Cedarfield. We were standing in her kitchen as she was preparing tea for us. On the wall in her kitchen I noticed a nicely framed picture of two beautiful children embracing each other. The caption by the picture read “Once we discover love is the answer, no one can teach us to hate again.” I said to Bunny what a beautiful picture with its message. She agreed and spryly quipped, “And I only paid a dollar for the picture!” How true the words in that picture are. Is it not also true that once we discover love is the answer, no one can teach us to ignore ever again the least of those who are God’s children?
An interesting thing has begun to happen back at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. The rector is now reporting that the Jesus the Homeless statue is drawing more followers that detractors. Now, more and more, he says, people come, and sit on the bench. Often they rest their hand on the bronze feet of the homeless person and pray.