Sunday, November 20, 2011

At The Party of the Resurrection

One winter day in 1984 up in Lake Almanor, I’d just kindled a fire in the wood stove, when I heard a frantic flapping noise. Quickly opening the stove door, I was panicked to found a bird which had apparently gotten into the stove pipe. Luckily, the fire was small enough that only a few feathers had gotten singed, and so we were able to extricate the bird from a fiery fate! Reflecting on my agitated reaction to finding this creature, I wondered then, and have wondered since, how would I, how do I respond to human beings in similar dire, distressing situations? The Gospel reading on this last Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 25:31-46), just before we enter into the Advent season of a new liturgical year, confronts us about such reactions and responses.
Preparing us for the coming reign of God, the most important phase of which was Jesus‘ in-breaking into human history through human birth, Matthew’s parable is the third and final one in Chapter 25. Jesus has spoken to us over the past few weeks from Matthew’s pages describing, in brief glimpses, the dynamics of what’s needed to be part of the coming reign of God. “The reign of God will be like this: ten young bridesmaids...five of them...wise, and the other five...foolish…” “The reign of God is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them...each according to their ability…” And today: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all the nations will be gathered in front of him, and he will separate people one from another…” This last parable, sometimes referred to as an “apocalyptic vision”, i.e., a vision which uncovers or  reveals something, immediately precedes Jesus’ announcement to his followers that, within a very short time, “...the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Jesus’ death and subsequent being raised from the dead are the signs which will inaugurate the reign of God among us. 
To convey this message to his hearers, Matthew employs the language of animal husbandry, so well-known to them: specifically,  the image of sheep and goats. The first reading today from the prophet Ezekiel (34:11-16; 20-24) is further evidence of a tradition, long before Matthew’s time, of the use of similar imagery. But that isn’t the primary focus. Since “goats” didn’t carry a negative connotation in Palestine, the distinction between them and “sheep” isn’t the key element here. The emphasis in both Ezekiel and Matthew is on God, the Shepherd figure, as one who identifies with the flock, seeks them out, feeds them, protects them, strengthens and heals the weak and injured, and calls to task the unruly ones within the flock. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible Through Third World Eyes, says: “The judge who directs attention to the poor and outcast is numbered among the poor and outcast. The judge is not an abstract or aloof—or terrifying—deity. Rather the judge is Christ himself, one whose own life was actively identified with the poor and outcast, which is the surest possible sign [that] we could have that love for God (represented by such a One) and love for the poor (represented by such a One) are inseparable.
The sorting-out process which Matthew depicts as necessary for coming into the reign of God is rather simple. He envisions that at some time in the future every human being will appear before Jesus the Christ, God’s Anointed One. A evaluation will be made on how each of us has lived: either as one who took care of people, including the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, or as one who chose not to do so. Matthew’s Jesus says that just and righteous people tend to respond to others’ needs by providing basic things: things like a meal, a drink, clothing, company, a sympathetic ear. Simple things. Easy things, if one really cares. No questions asked. No preconditions. No strings attached. Just a loving response to need, whatever and wherever.
Jesus further hints that those who care and respond do so without calculating, without looking for some “payoff” or advantage, without expecting recognition or thanks. In fact, he says, most of the time it never even occurs to folks like this that what they’re doing for others is any big deal: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, etc…” Their response is rather like a reflex: there’s a need, and I try to take care of it. Simple.
People, on the other hand as Jesus notes, who don’t respond in this way also don’t even notice that there is a need: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, etc…and didn’t take care of you?” Sometimes people become so self-absorbed that they simply overlook or ignore cues to the obvious need in front of them. Sometimes they justify inaction by conditions and qualifications which they’ve previously set up in their own minds.
The truth is that any human being in need can be helped by someone, in some way, and should be helped, however one can do it. In the Gospel Jesus reminds us that people in need, even the least, are his family: the Greek word used is adelphoi = brothers [and, by implication, sisters]. John the Evangelist would later write in his first Letter: “If you don’t love your neighbor whom you see, how can you love God whom you don’t see?” And in this day and age especially, what holds for us as individuals also holds for larger entities: nations, states, governments, etc. Quoting Robert McAfee Brown again: “One important aspect of justice, José Miranda [a rather colorful Pentecostal minister in Florida] reminds us, involves the restoration of what has been stolen. Giving food to the hungry or clothing to the naked is not a charitable handout but an exercise in simple justice—restoring to the poor what is rightfully theirs, what has been taken from them unjustly. So Jesus' vision is not a plea for tax-deductible donations but a fervent cry for justice, for setting right what has gone wrong.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Catholic bishop and a remarkable human being, who died in 1999 at age 90, was often tagged by some merely as a “liberal theologian”. In fact, Dom Helder was a simple man who lived simply and had great love for simple things, especially for people and the earth. Like St. Francis, he proclaimed the Gospel by the way he lived and by how he treated other human beings, especially the weakest and poorest. Not that it was any easier for him as a bishop to deal with them than it is for you and me. Dom Helder once said: “Do people weigh on you? Don’t carry them around on your shoulders: take them into your heart.” 

A question which you and I might need to think about in light of Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel is this: if today were the last day of my life, would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, invite me to stand on his right hand or on his left? Can you or I become part the reign of God by giving food or blankets to homeless street people?? Or can you and I be excluded from God’s reign for neglecting drug addicts and winos huddled against downtown walls; or for not being much interested in angry people behind prison bars?? Only you and I can answer for ourselves. But one thing is sure: God in Jesus takes dead seriously each of our needs and continues to make Godself one with each of our hungers, thirsts, sicknesses, anxieties, and the things which may hold you or me captive. 

Through Baptism Jesus dwells in my heart, lives in my life, speaks through my words, reaches out with my hands. He daily invites you and me to eat at his table: a table where Jesus, the poor and humble One, serves the servants, where Jesus the Good Shepherd spreads a feast to which you and I can bring nothing except ourselves. A table where saying “Good morning!” to a stranger, or pouring a cup of water for someone thirsty, or passing a food dish to a hungry child, or merely listening to someone talk about his or her life and struggles, his or her “story”, true or fabricated, is regarded by Jesus as worthy of his finest blessing: “Come, you who are beloved of my Father, be part of the reign of God prepared for you…
In March, 1986, Dom Helder Camara wrote a poem, called At the Party of the Resurrection:
In the ordinariness of the day-to-day
I looked most intently
at the faces of the Poor,
consumed by hunger
squashed by humiliation,
and in them I discovered Your face,
O Risen Christ!   


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