"Seeing People as People"

Last Pentecost (Christ the King).A.20
Matthew 25:31-36
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Perhaps, like myself, you find it curious that Israel’s favorite image for a king is that of a shepherd. Think about it. Other nations saw kings as gods or other fierce creatures. Kings are associated with power, conquest and domination. Now, I’ll grant you, it’s true that a shepherd can indeed be fierce and war-like when protecting the flock from predators; but let’s face facts. A shepherd with a staff is a far cry from a bullet proof motorcade roaring through the city streets on its way to a state dinner. A shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep from harm and provide for their growth and happiness. A shepherd—a good shepherd thinks of his or her own needs last and places the needs of the flock first. This is the image Israel chose for their king. And that, I suggest to you, should give us all a moment for pause and reflection.

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, is oftentimes referred to as “The Last Judgement”. Here, we behold the Son of God, coming in glory and all the angels with him. It’s a splendid, regal picture. And now the judgement, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.

It’s an interesting parable, chock full of irony. Notice that neither the sheep nor the goats saw Jesus in the suffering and the needy. Both of them, sheep and goats alike, ask essentially the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?” I hear the goats asking the question as if they are planning to sue the Sovereign, reasoning that if they had known they were supposed to be looking for God in the smelly figures of the homeless or the gaunt faces of the hungry, they surely would have done so. Or—at least would have sent a servant to search for God there.

Likewise, I hear the sheep speaking these words to Jesus in a bewildered tone of voice. Because, you see, they, like the goats, never saw the sovereign. They simply saw people; people who needed to be fed, or protected, or visited, or respected. They just saw people and treated them like people. It never occurred to them that they should be looking for God. And they are commended for that.

Think about that slowly.

You see, this is not a story about seeing the divine in the “least of these.” This is not about looking for Jesus in the faces of those in need. This is a story about seeing people as people. If ever there was an appropriate lesson with which to conclude the liturgical year of our Lord 2020, this is it…with a story about the importance of seeing people as people. Not as groups, not categories, statistics, political parties, nationality or colors, but people.

Someone once suggested a good spiritual discipline for all of us to practice would be to go to a place such as an airport—(back in the days when we were flying); preferably an international airport such as Logan in Boston, or O’Hare in Chicago. Sit down somewhere and simply watch the people go by. There is the harried mother with three children under the age of 6, one of them is crying while one has sat down on the concourse to re-arrange the contents of her bag and the other is grabbing the mother’s hand and pointing at the Dunkin Donuts. The mother is angry and is snapping at the children. You’ll see the heavy-set person lumbering along the concourse, short of breath, and the fashionably dressed individual waiting in a gate area and reading something off of his or her iPhone XII—or whatever the latest version is. There is the elderly person being pushed along in a wheelchair and a man in cowboy boots passing by a woman in a sari. There are those sporting high heel designer shoes and others with untied sneakers. In the span of minutes you’ll see yoga pants and three piece suits; designer outfits and Walmart specials; pink hair and tattoos next to golf shirts and people carrying tennis rackets. Sit there long enough and you’ll see a bit of everything, eventually. But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person—each and every one, “Jesus died for you.”

Because it’s true. Jesus died for him, or for her, for the skinny one, and for the one sporting a muffin top; for that stressed Mom and the teenager rolling his eyes, for the one speaking Spanish and the other Mandarin. Each of them individual people for whom our Savior died.

The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places such as the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to advocate for more money for good programs such as Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way: all dollars and cents and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die?”

So, when we hear of statistics: of 255,000 dead in the United States from Covid-19 (more now than died in the American Civil War) and 1.34 million people worldwide—do your best to see faces instead of numbers. When we hear of those who are waiting in lines three miles long at food banks in Texas, we should try to picture the face of the mother with three children in the backseat sitting there for hours to get food for her family to eat. We should try to picture the faces of a family in Nicaragua who lost their home from Hurricane Iota this past week. All of them individuals, for whom our Savior died.

Care for the poor is one of the things the church has done well. Think of hospitals the world over, founded by Christians seeking to care for the ill; and schools to educate the poor. There’s the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 has over 185 communities committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken. In 1950 the Baptist minister Bob Pierce founded World Vision with the words, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Today World Vision is a billion dollar a year relief agency. Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire by the age of 29 who renounced his wealth to follow Jesus. He joined an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms and out of that context founded Habitat for Humanity that builds housing for the poor all over the world.

You can participate as well. In your Friday parish e-mail in the coming weeks you’ll see a list of charities to which you can donate this year. Consider giving a Christmas gift in the name of a loved one who has everything. What an opportunity to change the life of a person in need! There’s everything from Episcopal Relief and Development to the Heifer Project. It’s an invitation in the midst of a difficult year to make a difference in the lives of people—maybe just one person; but an individual in need. If Jesus is our Shepherd King, then we should do what we can to live into the best of our nature as sheep in the Kingdom of God; sheep who look beyond categories and statistics to see the individuality of those for whom our Savior, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, has died. In Jesus’ name. Amen.