New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 26, 2017 – Reign of Christ Sunday
I should warn you before I begin: one of my weaknesses, character flaws, (and there are more) is that I can be self-righteous, ride a high horse. Even revealing that piece of information displays my so-called righteousness and no one else’s. And this passage from Matthew feeds right into it. This is one of the rare occasions when I’d like to look like a sheep when I know I can be a goat more often than I’d like to acknowledge. So. Here goes.
On Black Friday, a day I try hard to avoid because of its commercialism (self-righteous once again), an acquaintance posted about being stuck having to go to work that day and asked if anyone else was in the same position. At first I could hardly believe what she said. Her apparent obliviousness to what day it was, let alone that there were people who had no choice but to work today and yesterday as well, was astonishing to me. Have we really gotten to the point that those who work in the retail and service industries are now invisible to us? Do we now just assume that their work makes our lives possible? It took all I could to still my self-righteous fingers from typing a response I would instantly regret. Instead, that sometimes irritating stillspeaking God, what some might call our better nature, got right to work on me.
While I was still shaking my self-righteous head in disbelief, David returned from an early morning shopping trip, telling me of the long snaking line in Kohl’s, the pajamas that got left behind because of it, and the trips to JC Penney’s and Sears. In Penney’s David asked the cashier how they were doing. “I’m doing okay, I guess,” they replied. “You guess?” David asked. “What does that mean?” “Well, I had to be to be in at 8 this morning, and I was here until 10 last night.” This cashier, among hundreds of thousands across all kinds of stores, would probably be putting in a full day today as well. And J.C. Penney’s is probably headed in the same direction as Sears. Not this year, maybe not next year, but it’s not looking good.
Later that morning I left for Calvary Baptist to have a Thanksgiving lunch with whoever showed up. Many were Hope Dining Room and Empowerment Center regulars. I got in line behind a dad and his two young children. Thinking about getting through a buffet with two kids, I said to him, “If you need some help, just let me know.” He said, “Oh you mean with the holidays? Yeah I could use some help alright.” Meh-eh-eh. (Goat sound) Boy did I put my foot in that one and how. I quickly backpedaled and stumbled over my attempt to make my offer of help sincere: “You bet, that too, and if the kids need any help with their plates.”
After we got our food we sat at the same table, introduced ourselves, and started eating. At one point the dad asked me, “Do you live in Newark? Do they have any programs or any place where I could get winter coats for my kids?” And then I knew what I had to do. “Would it be alright if we went to a store and I bought coats for the kids?” The dad blurted, “Sure, fine, thank you, yes, I can’t believe this, thank you.” I told him how my church had saved Christmas for us the year my dad left, because my mom had to work two jobs, and we were on food stamps for a while. Because of the quality and the sales and my short memory, we went to Kohl’s, home of the now even longer snaking line for the cashiers.
It didn’t take long to find what we needed. The little boy ended up choosing the first coat he tried on after he tried two more and the young girl was happy with the first one. Then we got in line. And stood in line. For half an hour. The kids were great. They kept themselves amused for the most part. We talked about what sports they like to play. Dad talked about his oldest child who is 11 going on 20, about wanting to marry the mother of these two younger ones, who is an LPA and was working that day, about his hopes not for his own life but for his children.
When we finally reached the Promised Land of cashiers, about 20 of them, we wondered how we would know when it was our turn. We were about to rely on a screen that would tell us which one was open, when the cashier directly to our left said to us, “Over here! I’m the best cashier there is!” And she promptly handed candy canes to the children. “I don’t have these every day but because I am the best cashier there is, I have them today.” As she rung up the coats, she asked, “Do you have any coupons?” “No, I don’t, but that’s okay”, I replied. “Well, because I am the best cashier I’m going to use these coupons I have here”, and saved me about another $15. And I thought of the other cashier at Penney’s who was doing okay, they guessed, and hoped their day improved, wondering if maybe that’s the store we should’ve gone to.
When Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, he’s talking about judging the nations. But what are nations but interconnected people, individual lives connected to hundreds, even thousands of other lives. It is those who are treated as least, who are judged as less-than-human, who are pushed to the margins of human experience and acceptance who are members of Jesus’ family. You’d think we would’ve made that list shorter by now but it just keeps getting longer and more complicated.
When Jesus said when you serve these members of my family, you serve me, what I think he was getting at is empathy, which is something this nation could desperately, sorely improve on. Empathy builds connection, joins us to members of Jesus’ family, keeps our hearts soft. Empathy is hard because it means we have to acknowledge our fear and pain and wounds and the bad choices we’ve made that we’d rather not feel let alone expose. Empathy means we have to be vulnerable. Empathy means we have to leave our self-righteousness behind. When we encounter someone who has been victimized, marginalized, pushed away, or is just having to work the day after a holiday, empathy says, “Yes, those feelings are real, and I know what that’s like.” And “I know how scary it is and how much it hurts to be disconnected from others.”
Empathy isn’t something we can demand or even expect from others. It’s a gift we give to someone else. It’s something we’ll probably do poorly before we get better at it, because empathy requires practice. Hard places are hard and ironically, loving and listening to the one who is in the hard place is also a hard place. Sometimes it can feel like a competition for empathy—who deserves it more, who’s suffering the most. And so empathy needs to hold hands with gentleness and forgiveness.
When we love those who are hardest to love, and let’s face it, Jesus isn’t easy to love some days, we become connected to that infinite chain of love that enables love because someone first loved us. And it is love indeed that makes a family. Every single last one of us. Amen.
Watch this poignant video about connection. Well worth the 16:37 minutes.