Lord, When Did We See You? (8:30am)
Topic: Compassion Scripture: Proverbs 14:21, Proverbs 14:31, Matthew 25:31–25:46
Although I know how this story turns out, there’s a part of me that imagines a different ending. The sheep—the good ones—say, “Thank you, Lord. We’re glad we had the spiritual insight to recognize you in the downtrodden, and to act accordingly. Too bad about those goats.” But of course, that’s not how it goes. Both groups are equally clueless. “When did we see you, Lord?” Neither side, if we can put it that way, had any inkling that they were serving Christ in their neighbor. They just served their neighbor. Or not. Neither side could foresee that there would be this final exam where Jesus would say, “Surprise! That was me.” I can almost envision the ones who hadn’t served the “least of these” saying, “Well, Lord. If we had known it was you—we would have helped. We thought it was just these, um, problem people. You shouldn’t disguise yourself that way.”
Jim Wallis of the Christian organization, Sojourners, tells the story of Mary Glover. Mary is a volunteer at their weekly food distribution center in Washington, DC. Mary is poor herself, but she’s there every Saturday to help. In fact, she says the prayer for the volunteers each week before the center opens. With a long line of hungry, needy people waiting outside in all kinds of weather, Mary prays, “Lord, we know you’ll be comin’ through the line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.” Jim Wallis says no scholar “gets” Matthew 25 better than Mary Glover.
The parable, though seemingly severe in its finality, is of course a preview of what might be, not of what must be. Ebenezer Scrooge implored the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, when he was shown in advance the horror of his own demise, if he persisted in his scrooge-like ways. “Spirit! Why show me this if I am past all hope?” The parable isn’t intended to describe an ironclad outcome, positive or negative. It’s meant to tell us what’s precious to the heart of God. It’s meant to encourage ministry to them while we have life and breath. Here we have the seed of the theology which declares, God is so close to the marginal that it can be said God is embodied in them. Through them, we minister to God, and—if we will accept it—God ministers to us.
It has inspired Christian mission in some of earth’s most challenging places. Is the parable also a way of saying, “Follow the empathy”? Listen to the impulse that whispers, “I ought to help that person.” Act on your capacity to place yourself in another’s need or suffering, and to feel what they’re feeling. Recently a member of our church acted on his empathy. Here’s his email, to a church near a physical rehab center in Florida:
“Hello. My name is Matt Litwiller. I am a member of First Presbyterian Church in Normal, IL (http://firstpresnormal.org). A member of our church (Karen Zappa) was recently in Florida on vacation and fell down some stairs and severely broke her leg. She's ok, but is in the Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Miami trying to rehab to the point where she can fly back to Illinois. Her husband and daughter are back in Illinois for work and school, so Karen is feeling a little bored and lonely! Her husband Mark will head back to Florida when she is ready to travel. I taught a confirmation lesson today on "why bad things happen" and talked about how Presbyterians take care of each other and then our sermon today was about the good Samaritan, so it occurred to me that maybe a PCUSA church in the Miami area may be willing to reach out to Karen and see if they can offer her some comfort and maybe a cross-word puzzle! ; -) So, I am reaching out to you to see if maybe your church has a women's group or maybe a deacon's ministry that might be willing to connect with Karen? Many blessings to you! ~Matt
We want to thank Matt for showing us this good example…for researching the church down there, reaching out to the pastor, setting wheels of ministry in motion. The pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Miami responded swiftly, and their deacons have visited with Karen.
Empathy is a force for good. Michele Borba is the author of a book called Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. She is described by a colleague as the most empathetic person he has ever met.
Borba is concerned by what she views as a diminishing ability to feel the needs and suffering of others in our world today. She is convinced that empathy can be caught and instilled in young people during their growing years. In her book, she tells the story of Chesley, a boy who grew up in Denison, TX, in the 1950’s. Chesley’s family would discuss current events around the dinner table, and his parents would encourage ideas for a better world. When he was 13, Chesley was shocked by the Kitty Genovese case. It seemed incredible to him that so many could stand by while a neighbor was murdered. He vowed then and there that he would do all he could to help a fellow human being if the opportunity presented itself.
Many years later, Chesley had realized his boyhood dream of becoming a commercial jet pilot. His US Airways plane struck a flock of geese as the plane took off from LaGuardia. Calmly and courageously, “Sully” Sullenberger “landed” his plane miraculously on the Hudson River, and then walked up and down the aisles of the airliner to be sure everyone had gotten off safely. He was the last one off the plane, as boats rescued everyone on board. His empathetic upbringing had formed his character. Michele Borba offers practical suggestions in her book.
Have a family meeting to determine your family mission. Order pizza, turn off all devices. Discuss what your motto should be. “Our family steps in to help.” “We are kind, not hurtful.” “Our purpose is compassion.” The motto can be personalized, taped to the fridge, a mirror, or a device, so it is seen continually. For a child, it can be a powerful shaper of his or her self-concept: “I am a helper.” “I am compassionate every day.” What would your personal or family motto be? Some have mistakenly thought this parable is meant to scare us into being good. Some are terrified that our eternal destiny is based on works, not God’s grace. Don’t do that with this story. We are surrounded by grace, in and through Jesus Christ. We live with God now and forever by what God has done, not by what we have done.
The parable serves to encourage not anxiety but empathy. We can grow in our ability to care—our capacity to feel, and to recognize Christ in everyone. John Buchanan served for many years as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. It’s a congregation that has many helping ministries there in the heart of the city. Regarding this famous passage, Buchanan declared, “It redefines the very heart of our faith: the incarnation, God come down to dwell among us in Jesus. ‘That’s just the half of it,’ Jesus says. ‘I am present wherever there is human need. You will see my face in the face of everyone who needs you: the stranger, the abandoned child, the lonely old, the homeless poor, and your own family. As you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.’”