This month, the WELCA Bible study in its “Gather” magazine had us learning about Moses and the Exodus of the Israelite people from Egypt. One of the lines in this Bible study struck both of the women’s circles, but in different ways. The quote reads, “When we are tempted to see Pharaoh as nothing more than a cruel and even crazy despot, we need to remember the diverse reactions Americans are having to our own increasing immigrant population or to those indigenous people who have been here far longer than we” (33). And indeed, between the two circles, there were two very different reactions to that statement. In one circle, the comment was made that this statement hit the person right between the eyes, and caused her to reflect on her attitudes toward immigrants. In the other circle, the viewpoint toward immigrants was that this was a political issue, and that immigrants are coming here illegally and taking jobs from Americans that need them. In light of today’s Gospel, I’m going to suggest a different way of looking at this and many other “issues” today that get filed under “social justice”. And that third way is this: before taking a point of view on any social justice issue, we need to first take the time to get to know the people involved in whatever the question is. For it is only after we have heard the other person’s experience that we begin to see that person as a person and not as an issue.
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is the culmination of several parables that we have read over the last few weeks about how we are to live as we are waiting for Jesus to return. Two weeks ago, we heard the parable of the bridesmaids, some of whom were prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom and some who were not. The message that we took away from that was that we are to be in the process of active waiting, doing what Jesus has commanded, and engaging in living while we are waiting. Last week we heard the parable of the talents, where Jesus is telling us that we are to take risks with the gifts that he has given us for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Finally, today we hear specifically what we are supposed to be doing: feeding the hungry; giving water to the thirsty; welcoming the stranger; clothing the naked; taking care of the sick, and visiting the prisoner. This parable literally puts the fear of God into us, and I’m sure that each of us has a list inside our heads: Feeding the hungry: OK, I gave to Loaves & Fishes this month—check! Taking care of the sick: OK, I went and visited my father or mother at the nursing home today—check! Clothing the naked—hmmm, maybe I need to weed through my closet again and see about donating some old clothes. Welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner—well, hmmm, maybe I need to find some groups who can do that for me and donate some money to them. OK, Lord, I’ve got everything checked off—I’m good! I’ll be one of the sheep when you come again!
While this is good in that it motivates us to think about these things and to give of our time, talents, and treasure to help out, there’s just one problem with our mental checklist. We are doing good deeds to people without really understanding what lies behind their physical neediness. We don’t know the people who we are doing these good deeds to, and so they become a faceless, anonymous other to us. We don’t actually look into their faces, love them for who they are, and see Jesus in them. Instead, we go about our usual daily lives, do our good deeds, and think, “Oh, I helped Jesus today because I donated some food to people who need it.” And when we do that, it makes it that much easier to lump people into something other than us, and then they become an issue that we need to do something about instead of real human beings with real, often times life-threatening problems that they need another human being to understand.
So, to help illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’m going to attempt to make people real to you this morning by showing this video. This was shown to us during one of our worship services last August at the Network for Biblical Storytellers Festival Gathering, and the haunting melody, plus the images on the video, have stuck with me since then. I hope that they stick with you, too.
When I actually see a picture of a small child crossing the border into the United States, and look at his face, he is no longer an issue that our government should do something about. Instead, he becomes a real person, and I want to know more about his story. Why did he come here? What made his parents or other family members so desperate that they would send him on a dangerous, long journey by himself to a foreign country where he might have family that would take him in? How can I help to protect this vulnerable child until he can be reunited with a family who loves him and can take care of him?
When I know and have the friendship of a person who is gay, then gay marriage is no longer an abstract issue that I have debates over with people who have different beliefs. Instead, knowing and loving this person makes me want to understand their life. How did they come to understand themselves as being gay? When did they come to that knowledge? Is it something that they felt like they chose, or is it something that they feel like is an integral part of who they are? How have they experienced, or not experienced, God’s love for them? How can I help them? How is God asking me to love my gay friend?
When I know a person who is suffering from poverty, then I want to know her story. Has she always been poor, or did she recently lose work? Other than bringing her food and giving her clothes, how can I help her? How do government policies like cuts to the food stamp program impact her life? Can she afford health insurance, and if not, how can I help her get the quality health care that she needs? These questions are no longer abstract questions that get debated back and forth between representatives of different political parties, but instead become real questions that become important to us because they affect someone who we know and love.
So, my challenge to you this week—and to myself as well—is to reflect on the question that the song I played for you asks: Would you harbor me? (I’ll have the link posted on the church’s Facebook page as well as my blog.) Reflect on each of the people that this song names. When you find yourself hesitating over a certain person—or responding with a “no” answer—ask yourself why. And if you find that you are rehearsing a political argument against that person, then I ask you to find a person from that group: immigrant, gay, Muslim, and so on. It could be a friend of a friend. Or, you could attend a meeting of that group here in Powell, or over in Cody, or up in Billings. Befriend that person who is different from you. Get to know them and their stories. In the end, your beliefs may or may not change—but you will hopefully see that person as a beloved child of God, and you may even see Jesus in that person. And it will be in that change that the Holy Spirit works in us that we may catch a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like. And it is then that we can truly look forward to the day when the kingdom of God will be fulfilled and all will be put right. Come, Lord Jesus, and come quickly. Amen.