I know the images offered in today’s Gospel lesson speak of a final judgment where ‘goats’ and ‘sheep’ are separated one from another. I know this. And yet I find it most helpful to hear this as encouragement even now to see and experience and respond to this world in new ways. Indeed, I hear Jesus’ words today reminding me that I simply don’t know when I will encounter the face of Christ next: thus making nearly all ground holy ground. And in the end, maybe that is precisely what these words are meant to do.
One day this past summer, I had driven the half an hour to my mother’s house for Friday chores and errands. By now it was early afternoon. I had taken her car out to fill it up with gas for her. Now, I have to say I noticed the trio as I drove north on 3rd Street. Two Latino men were trying to balance a very blonde Anglo woman between them. They were all three walking south on the sidewalk — although the woman did not seem to be doing well. In fact, as I drove by they were trying to pick her up off the ground. Well, my errand felt pressing — or maybe I just wanted it to be pressing — and so I kept going. Ten minutes later when I returned, I noted that they had not made much progress, so with no ready excuse to do otherwise, I pulled the Buick over and rolled down the passenger side window. I asked if they needed help. The younger of the two men had an almost audible look of relief on his face as the two of them steered her to the front seat of the car. She was insisting that she was having seizures which caused her repeated stumbling as she walked. The younger man gestured to me that she, rather, was drunk. It took me a few minutes, though, to put that meaning to the hand gesture he was using.
I asked what her name was. She said it was Brenda. I offered to take her to the hospital emergency room which was less than a block away. She declined saying she just wanted to go home. She said the hospital would only find something wrong with her and charge her a lot of money and she’s had these ‘seizures’ before and she knew she would be just fine. Almost against my better judgment I gave in to her request and drove her home to her apartment in subsidized housing just beyond the hospital.
I’m sure it was quite a spectacle to behold for the two old men sitting on the park bench out in front of the apartment building watching that afternoon. I pulled the Buick up close and stopped in a no parking zone. I walked around the car to the passenger side. I opened the door and steadied Brenda as she swung her legs out of the car. Oh, I knew our journey together could not end quite yet and so she leaned on me as we walked to the front door where she handed me her key card and I swiped it. We walked inside and rode the elevator upstairs where again, she gave me her key, and I opened the door. When we walked inside she flopped down on the sofa. I asked her if she needed anything else. She asked for my phone number. I didn’t give it to her.
As I headed past the lobby on my way out a few minutes later, I overheard the old women sitting there talking about me and my passenger. “I think she took her upstairs…” I heard one of them say. So I walked over to them and said hello and introduced myself. They had lots of questions for me for which I had few answers. One among them volunteered that sometimes she gets lost when she goes out like that. I suggested they let someone know Brenda was up there and someone might want to check on her later. And I went home.
I’ve thought of Brenda from time to time since then, wondering what has become of her. I think of her now and wonder: “Was that holy ground that afternoon? Was it, in fact, the face of Christ that could be seen in Brenda who apparently had too much to drink and got lost walking those few blocks home from the Dollar Store that afternoon?” It would seem so, wouldn’t it? And unlike far too much of the time, this time it was presented itself to me in a way I felt I could not ignore it.
The reminder today is straightforward, it seems to me. We will encounter Jesus in the ‘least of these’ — in the hungry and the thirsty. In the stranger and the naked and the sick and those in prison. Oh no, our faith is not only of the mind and of the heart, but is also for the hands and the feet. We live our faith in what we do. We live it in what we do in places that aren’t always pretty.
Perhaps most of the time we can ignore that this is so. A lot of the time I don’t have the courage to step towards it. Too much of the time, not unlike the story I offer above, I do just enough and then extricate myself as quickly as politely possible. Indeed, I don’t offer that story now to pat myself on the back for I really did so very little. I offer it only as a reminder that we don’t know when such opportunities will present themselves. I offer it now as a way to begin to wonder what it means to see the face of Christ and respond.
So let me give you a thumbnail of what I’m struggling with right now. Yesterday morning, my instant messenger ‘pinged’ on my cell phone long before dawn. Now I had watched in fascinated horror the evening before as the husband of an acquaintance (‘friends’ on Facebook really can be a misnomer, can’t it?) spilled his pain all over the screen. The story was hard to piece together, though, and I closed my IPad not long after as my alarm was set to go off early the next morning. At 4 a.m. I read in sleepy surprise what sounded like a suicide threat by the same man. I confess, I did not respond right away for I do not know the young man and in my less than wakeful state I couldn’t figure out how I would do that anyway— especially since he lives several states away. A little over an hour later, though, I realized I could, in fact, just reply to the message. Would it be too late? I couldn’t know so I simply responded wrote back assuring him of my prayers and that God wasn’t done with this story yet. A few hours later he replied with his phone number. I’m still trying to decide if I should allow myself to get more deeply embroiled in this. And yet. Isn’t he the hungry, hurting, heart-broken that Jesus speaks of now? Isn’t he ‘the least of these?’ Isn’t he also the very face of Christ?
It is important to note, I suppose, that Jesus doesn’t explain the actions of those who respond to such aching need in the world. In the end, he just looks to see who did and who didn’t. And yet, for all of us, too much of the time, we find ourselves weighing and wondering, don’t we? Somehow I doubt that I am alone in this.
So I return to where I began today not knowing fully if I am ‘sheep’ or ‘goat.’ I return to where I began and am grateful for Jesus’ words now which at least seem to be opening my eyes to see the needs right in front of me. At least part of the time. I return to where I began and hope that more and more I will do less wondering and weighing and simply give from what has been given to me. I return to where I began and pray that I will see ever more surely that all ground is holy ground for the face of Christ is everywhere. Especially where we least expect to see him. Oh, I do return to where I began and yearn for a world where you and I live more and more like this is so….
- It is a ‘judgment scene’ that is described today. It seems to be meant as a gift for us. Are you able to receive it as such? Why or why not?
- Think of a time when you were confronted with great need. How did that seem to be ‘holy ground’ for you? How did you respond?
- What difference would it make if we saw the face of Christ in all who need? For us as individuals? As families? As congregations? As communities? As a nation? How would we then weigh what matters?