Matthew 25.31-46  A holy haunting

November 13, 2011 The Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

There are many passages in scripture that will haunt you for a long time when you allow them to get under your skin but none more than this one. Why is that? Well, for one if you let this passage get into your heart and mind, you will never be able to see your neighbor in the quite the same way. Whenever you pass the beggar on the side of the road with the tattered sign and the empty hand, something will stir inside you as you drive away. Wondering out loud, you may find yourself saying, did I just pass by Jesus? Then the ethical conundrums start rolling in your mind. What’s the right thing to do? Just asking that question with a seriousness of will is a sign that you are haunted by the possibility that the scripture is truly true.

When this Word that is true gets inside you, starts to work on you, nothing is quite the same. So I advise you: be careful. This is dynamite. Your life is at risk. Thoughts unbidden will occur to you that don’t have easy answers.

When I was in prison you visited me.

One kind, quiet woman was so convicted by that claim that she began visiting prisoners at the largest Federal Prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky, and before long she had the women’s bible study group join her in making casseroles for a monthly dinner at the church for the families of inmates who often traveled for days to visit their loved ones. When the death penalty was debated at the capital in Frankfurt she showed up for the first time ever, to testify to the humanity of the persons she had come to know in prison. She let this Word that is true get under her skin, and into her heart and it changed her life. She later told me that she heard the voice of God speaking directly to her through this passage.

When I was a stranger you welcomed me. When you meet a stranger who is be looking for something to eat or directions somewhere, or is simply unknown to you – if this passage is lodged in your heart – you will treat him kindly. If you turn away, this passage may very well haunt you and disturb your sleep.

A couple of years ago I received a random letter from someone I didn’t know telling me that her 96 year old mother had been moved from her only home in Pennsylvania to an assisted living home at Brighton Gardens down the street from the church. “She is now blind,” said the letter, “but a wonderful person who is very alone in a strange place. My family and I think it would it really good for her if she had contact with people who might read to her occasionally and offer her company.”  I have to tell you it is nearly impossible to ignore such a letter once the Word that is true gets under into your heart. I called the woman to tell her that I would alert my congregation and see what happens, and that I would visit her mother, a stranger in a strange town. Lo and behold, a group of people in our congregation heard that call and came forward – some with their children – to read weekly with Edith Krohn, a Jewish widow and highly esteemed psychologist. So began a two-year relationship that can only be described as love. Edith died last week. That small group and I attended Shiva at the home of the daughter who told us that random letter went to twenty congregations and was answered by one. The flourishing of love and affection between their mother and these former strangers has astounded them.

When the Word that is true gets into your heart, things like that happen.

When I was a stranger you welcomed me.

 When that Word of God is working on your heart, referring glibly to an immigrant laboring without official documents merely as an illegal doesn’t sound right any longer. You perceive “the illegal” differently. She is now the stranger bearing the image of Christ to you. This new perception evoked by the gospel transforms all our relationships into what the Jewish theologian Martin Buber described as an I-Thou conversation where the other becomes present to us not as “it”, but as Thou.

To the naked eye, everything looks the same and in a way it is the same. Yet, to the inner eye, Christ is present in your neighbor – in the undocumented laborer who is a stranger, in the sick, the hungry and thirsty, and the prisoner, the child with shelter or clothing. The divine is hidden in the mundane where God so often abides, visible only to the mind that is shaped by the gospel.

Perhaps this is what Matthew had in mind in his vision of the last judgment. That the followers of Jesus would be so shaped by his life, that over time we would gain the capacity to perceive the presence of Christ in this ordinary world, in all humanity and in particular the needy. With our perception so transformed it becomes ordinary practice to care for others in the same manner that we would care for Christ. In the end, it is a great surprise that our lives were anything other than ordinary.

According to Matthew’s vision, in the end we will not be asked what we believe nor what we profess or whether we are born again or where we stand on doctrinal disputes or political struggles. I won’t be asked about my sexual orientation, or if I am red, blue or green, conservative, socialist, liberal or libertarian. Then does what we believe not matter at all? Of course it matters, but probably not as much as we presume. What you believe is readily apparent by what you do, as it is by what you say, and maybe more so. To put it in the traditional Jewish language familiar to Matthew, the righteous deed reveals the righteous doctrine.

So in the end I think the question will be very basic, did you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, did you shelter the homeless and care for the sick, did you visit the imprisoned and welcome the stranger? It is a haunting question, and a holy one.

Until that final day, let us cast ourselves upon the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – whose grace is boundless and whose mercy is everlasting.