Who are the Righteous?

Proper 29.A.17
Matthew 25:31-46
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

The following are portions of a Letter to the Editor, published in the New York Times several years ago—yet, I still find it relevant today. The author writes: (January of 1990). “Last week, as I entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two homeless people imploring a police officer to come with them. At first, the officer didn’t appear interested; however, upon hearing that the individual had come off of the bus—and was therefore a commuter, he quickly responded. Curious....I followed.

Ahead I saw a homeless woman running out of the doughnut shop toward the escalators, clutching a bunch of paper napkins. I couldn’t believe what I saw when we arrived. Lying in the midst of a cluster of homeless people was a semiconscious female commuter. Upon seeing the officer they all started talking at once—one man just kept yelling: “She pitched a fit. She pitched a fit.”

Cutting through this cacophony was a calm, clear voice saying “Officer, this woman has had a seizure.” I looked down to see the woman who had been running with the napkins. She was kneeling at the commuter’s head, gently wiping her face and mouth dry. “We did what we could to help her,” she said. It was then that I noticed their scarves and hats and gloves—whatever they owned—tucked around the woman, pillowing her head, supporting her back, cushioning her legs in an effort to protect her from harm while she was having convulsions. (It was then that I realized) that these people, with so little to give, had given all that they had. Easily 300 commuters an hour ride that escalator, yet none but the homeless stopped, none but the homeless helped.

As the police officer lifted his radio to request an ambulance, he ordered the homeless people to clear the area. Silently, one by one, they retrieved their belongings and began to melt back into the crowd. My instinct was to run after them—give them money—give them something, but I realized that their act could not be recompensed with money. Too late I thought to say the thank you that the officer never uttered or to express gratitude on behalf of the stricken commuter. She will probably never know the gifts bestowed upon her.

And so, (concludes the writer of the editorial) to those anonymous Magi, I offer my thank you belatedly. In this season of giving, I feel privileged to have witnessed your selfless act of charity.”

Jesus says: “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.”

Today’s gospel lesson is an antidote to our expectations of encountering God in the grand and the glorious. Counter to all of our assumptions, today’s gospel tells us that God is to be found in the simple exchange of a cup of water, an offering of napkins to assist an ill commuter, the beneficence of a dirty scarf, pillowed to protect a vulnerable head. It’s a reversal of expectations. God isn’t found in a palace, God is found on the second floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.

In the Gospel lesson for today the righteous who are listening to Jesus appear baffled and respond: “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 our Lord responds: “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.” If I had to guess, I would imagine that if Jesus were speaking these words to the homeless folks who assisted a commuter in need, they would look just as confused.

John Wesley, writing in the eighteenth century once stated: “One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is because they so seldom visit them.” One of the ironies of Christ the King Sunday is this—if you want to have an audience with the King, you don’t have to have an invitation, gilded in gold, you don’t have to know the “right” people, pass a background check or be certain that your purse doesn’t clash with your shoes. All you have to do is volunteer.

Offer to help at Dedham Food Pantry, donate your time at the B-SAFE summer program. Heavens, this week you can make wreaths or bake goods to assist with our Christmas Market—one hundred percent of the proceeds go to charity. Sign up to help a refugee family relocate to this area; knit a shawl to give to a person going through a time of difficulty (or an animal to give to a child recently baptized into the fellowship of faith). You can join St. Paul’s Circle of Helping Hands—a group of parishioners who reach out to others who are coping with challenging situations. You can donate coats and sewing supplies to NuDay Syria to assist those living in refugee camps. The opportunities are many—and Jesus is present in all of them.
Today, at our 10:00 a.m. worship service we have the joyous task of welcoming Luke Appel into our fellowship of Faith. Our task is to introduce him to Jesus—to teach him to know and love his savior and to recognize him in the faces of those around him. One of the finest ways we can do this is by living into our baptismal promises—specifically those asking us to commit to “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.” Children, it seems to me, learn some by listening to what we say to them, yet far more by watching what we do. It’s not merely what we say that’s important—it’s making certain that our actions connect to our values. That’s how we tell the real story of what we truly believe. Imagine the difference that can be made in Luke’s life, if he sees the connection between words of hope and sacraments of grace and lives lived out among him with acts of joy and charity. And imagine what kind of person he, in turn, will become.

In the end, it’s not the large acts of heroism that transform us into one of the righteous, it’s the small, gradual acts of charity which offer a window into the true nature of our soul. In the Gospel lesson, the difference between the sheep and the goats has nothing to do with what the sheep or the goats looked like, their bloodlines or even (quite frankly) their beliefs. What it all boils down to is what they did. They helped because they noticed and they cared. They are the righteous. They are the ones deserving of the Kingdom. Go and do likewise, for the Kingdom of God awaits. In Jesus’ name. Amen.