We didn’t know it was you

November 17, 2002



We Didn’t Know It Was You (11/17/02)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

When former Beatle George Harrison died, he was quoted as having said, “Everything can wait except the search for God.” Of course, Harrison was the religious mystic of the group, so it won’t surprise anybody to discover that I always sort of identified with him.

I’ve always been obsessed with the search for God. And as those of you who are part of the Adult Sunday morning group know, I like to look all over the place for God—in all the religions; in the delicate relationships, both physical and spiritual, that connect us all and hold this world together; in the vastness of the cosmos; and especially in that strange world of quantum physics, where consciousness and hard science bump against one another in such amazing ways.

And sometimes I think I may be making the mistake that has plagued spiritual seekers throughout history. The old country song goes, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” I think maybe I often look for God in all the wrong places. Oh, I think God is very much present in all those places I’ve described, from the mysteries of the furthest galaxies to the incomprehensible power that binds protons and neutrons in the sub-atomic world.

But I realize that if I really want to find God, Jesus told me where to look. And I am convinced that even if Jesus walked the earth today, and had full knowledge of astronomy and quantum physics, he would still tell us that the place to find God has not changed over the past 2000 years.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story. It takes place in Jerusalem during the week prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. When approached the wrong way, as it usually is, this story is used by preachers to scare people into doing good deeds. But that’s a misuse of the story, because as we will see, it goes much deeper than that. These are the words of Jesus concerning the final judgment, as found in the 25th chapter of Matthew:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom 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.
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Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “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.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer, “Just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Here ends this reading of scripture. May God grant us wisdom for interpretation.

Many of you are aware that I loosely follow the Revised Common Lectionary. What that means is that when I preach from the Bible, I usually use the text that most mainline churches suggest for that particular week. I do this so I won’t go through and cherry-pick all the passages that agree with my personal view. Here at University Congregational Church we don’t concern ourselves too much with the church seasons, but December 1st is the first day of Advent, and a new church year begins. The reason I mention this is simple: you will probably not be hearing from our good friend Matthew for quite some time. The Gospel of Matthew has been highlighted over the past year—the church year that ends next week. The previous year—2001—highlighted the Gospel of Luke. While I feel free to speak on whatever subject I want, most of the sermons over the next year that are based on the gospel passages will be based on Mark’s gospel.

And that’s okay with me. I know that at this time last year many of you were glad to see Luke disappear for a while. Luke’s is the social gospel, with its emphasis on the poor and oppressed, and its extremely harsh words for those of us who enjoy the creature comforts of this life. So Matthew came as a relief at first, but I imagine that by now we’re ready to move on to Mark, even though I must warn you that according to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, the Gospel of Mark should be read as a, quote, “Hastily written revolutionary tract,” to be whispered among co-conspirators.

But today we say our goodbye to Matthew’s gospel, and I think it’s time to do so. What drives me crazy about Matthew’s gospel is the way everything is so black and white. Hey, you’re either a sheep or a goat. Matthew’s Jesus separates the world into good and bad, wheat and tares, good seed and bad seed, wise maidens and foolish maidens. And at the end of time the Eternal and Risen Christ sends a person either one way or the other.

The problem with reading Matthew so literally is that we get crushed beneath the weight of the perfection that seems to be demanded of us; and not only that, the world you and I live in just isn’t as black and white as the world Matthew portrays.

When I was in Chicago this summer, I realized how much I love Wichita. You see, I’m what you would call a “look ‘em in the eye” sort of person. When I pass people in the mall, I tend to look at them. When I walk down the street and pass by a stranger, I give them a little bow of the head and a quiet blessing. That’s the way I like to live my life.

You don’t do that on the streets of Chicago, at least not in the Hyde Park area where I was attending school. Almost everybody diverts their gaze. It is considered completely inappropriate to look a stranger in the eye. And I soon discovered why. There are many predators who walk the streets waiting for someone to make eye contact with them. If one of these predators manages to catch the eye of a woman, he assumes this is an invitation for a romantic interlude. If the predator manages to catch the eye of a man, he will immediately ask for some money. By the time I Ieft Chicago, I had reluctantly learned to act like everybody else. When walking down the street, I at all times looks down at a spot about two feet in front of my right shoe.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Because when I gave my natural nod and quiet little “hello” to women who were trying their best to pretend I was not there, it scared them half to death. They figured I must want something, and whatever it was, their best plan was to pretend they were deaf. And when I made eye contact with men, it ended up scaring me half to death, because those who were not averting their gaze were simply waiting for somebody foolish enough to look them in the eye. At that point they approached me and asked for money, often with the words, “Spare change,” which was more of a demand than a request.

One of the seminary professors told us that he always carried a bunch of $1 bills in his pocket so he could follow Jesus’ admonition to give to everybody who asks. Well, either that professor was rich or he got off the bus right in front of the seminary and didn’t have to walk the sidewalks, because I tried that for two days and realized I was going to go broke real quick. Several of us decided to try to find a compromise between our worldly needs and the words of Jesus, and we carried a limited amount of dollar-bills in our pockets each day. When those were gone, we figured we’d done all we could. Believe me, they disappeared fast. One day one of my classmates gave a $5 bill to the first person who asked her for money. I asked her if she’d just won the lottery, noting that this was going to be an expensive day for her. She said, “Well, I’ve been giving away five dollars every day. I decided to just get it out of the way early.”

I don’t know what the answer is, because right and wrong just aren’t as easy to discern as Matthew would have us believe. Barbara Brown Taylor is considered one of the greatest non-fundamentalist preachers in the United States. She has spent quite a bit of time wrestling with the very passage we are discussing this morning—the sheep and the goats in Matthew. Considering my struggles with this text, I really identify with her words about a trip she made to Washington, D. C., and how this passage haunted her when she was confronted with all that poverty. Listen to her words:

Matthew gives me a pain. Life is never as clear-cut as he makes it out to be; I cannot sort things out the way he does. Worse yet, whenever I am supposed to preach on a passage like this one, God seems to turn up the heat. First there are all the homeless people in Washington, twice as many as in Atlanta, standing on every street corner and pushing their paper cups in my face, begging for change. I handed over my quarters until they were all gone and then I avoided the people with the cups, just walked right past them as though they were not even there. Was that the right thing to do?

Then Tuesday morning a man offered to wash my car in exchange for enough money to buy some work boots. I said yes, although the price doubled before he was through. Tuesday afternoon he came back to offer me a wax job because he needed a hard hat, too. I said yes again. Wednesday he came back for Thanksgiving grocery money and I said no. Was that the right thing to do?

Wednesday night I was standing in the checkout line at Kroger’s with a twenty-five pound bag of dog food when a woman greeted me from behind. “Hello, honey,” she said, and I turned around to smile at someone I had never seen before in my life. “Could you give me a dollar to buy some hot dogs?” she said, and my face fell. She had a bunch of celery in her cart. “I just wanted to buy something for my supper,” she said, and I handed her the dollar bill with an exasperated sound that I regret even now. Was that the right thing to do?

Don’t her words just resonate with you? I suppose I get approached more than most people, because I’m a minister, and everybody knows ministers are easy marks—they have to follow Jesus. But it’s hard. I feel for Cathy, who like my wife Leigh, has spent years working in a church office. People come here all the time wanting money. And it is so hard to know what to do, because if word got out that the church was handing out cash, believe me, we would have a line at the front door.

And frankly, 95% of the time it is a con. A few Sundays ago, after the service, a man came in, smelling as if he had not bathed in some time, and asked if he could have two dollars for lunch. I saw the dilapidated old car he was driving and observed his shabby clothes, and decided his need was real. After him a woman entered and said she needed to talk with me. She had an elaborate story about how she was going to the Mayo Clinic, and gave me more details than I cared to hear about her condition. She was traveling from Dallas, and she had stopped for the night. She showed me an envelope from the Mayo Clinic. And then she asked for me to pray with her. Which I did. And then she told me her purse had been stolen as she ate breakfast that morning, and could I loan her some gas money? She took my name and address and promised to pay me back.

What do you do? What if it isn’t a con? In this case, since I didn’t get paid pack I feel pretty certain I was taken, but how can you know at the time. And according to Jesus, we are supposed to give even if we think we are being conned. You give to everybody who asks. But I’ve got to be honest. Most of the time, when I try to follow the commandment to give to all who ask, I don’t walk away feeling good about myself. I walk away thinking I should go down to the tattoo parlor and have the word sucker emblazoned across my forehead.

So what do we do with this passage from Matthew? Well, I think we may be able to take some comfort from something that is hidden within the story—something that is perhaps even more important than the strict rules it seems to establish for us to follow.

Notice the final judgment in today’s passage. Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the good people from the bad people. How does he decide who goes where? Think about it. Jesus doesn’t say, “Now, all of you who have confessed me, Jesus Christ, as their personal Lord and Savior, go the right to receive your eternal blessing. And all of you who failed to confess me as your savior, go to my left, to be with all of the eternally damned.”

He doesn’t say that. That is not the criteria. When we look at this passage, one thing jumps out. The people who end up being eternally blessed don’t know what it is they have done to receive the blessing! They are entirely amazed that Jesus has placed them among the sheep. They keep saying, “When did we do these wonderful things for you? We don’t remember feeding you, or clothing you, or visiting you!”

And the people who are sent off with the goats—they don’t know what they’ve done wrong! In fact, they aren’t condemned for doing terrible things. They are condemned for doing nothing. They keep saying, “We didn’t ignore you when you were hungry, or fail to give you clothing. We just ignored all those people who were suffering, but honestly: we didn’t know it was you!”

We didn’t know it was you. When we divert our gaze from a stranger, we are looking away from Christ—we are looking away from God. The surest place to find God is in the eyes of the people we meet. And this brings us full circle to where we started, with the late George Harrison’s statement that “Everything can wait except the search for God.” Because while we may well find God in the magnificence and mystery of the universe; and while we may well find God in the heart of subatomic particles; it doesn’t mean a thing to find God in those places if we don’t find God in the people who have been placed beside us on this beautiful, fragile planet.

Barbara Brown Taylor says we should read Jesus’ words not so much as a call to charity as a call to kinship. I hope she’s right. Because we can’t give to all the people who need our help. We can’t visit all the prisoners who are lonely and suffering. We can’t feed all the people who are hungry. But we can give to some of them. And we can care about all of them—even those who might take advantage of us. We can realize that all people—even those we cannot touch personally—are still our brothers and sisters. And we can orient our hearts toward a future where we all live in right relationships with one another; a future the Apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ; and Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

This is our true call: not to fix the world, but love it. And that, it seems to me, is what the gospels are all about. If we would only recognize that we really are children of the same God; and if we loved one another as God calls us to; then even when we exhaust the supply of charitable dollars we carry in our pockets, the world will fix itself, and the orientation of our hearts will keep us securely numbered among Christ’s sheep.