April 15, 2018: Rev. Anna Fulmer Duke
I let this year’s confirmation class choose the Scripture for today’s sermon. I gave them endless possibilities, and they chose this passage. For me, it speaks to a depth of faith, and how they know that Christian faith is not just about what we believe but how we live. This passage is probably familiar to many, but I heard it anew this year, reading papers our confirmands wrote and learning from them. Our confirmation class is comprised of seven youth, from seven different schools.
One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to read Confirmation papers. You might be thinking, reading papers—that sounds like a doozy. But this year, I got to read five papers written by our seven confirmands, and it was amazing. Often, you don’t get to read about what people are really thinking, but through these papers, I was able to hear about these confirmands’ role-models in faith, how they live out their faith, interviews they had with long-time church members, and what they believe. This is fun, because I get to see such a variety of explanations and creative outlets. This year, we had two pieces of artwork, two musical pieces, and three written explanations. But one caught me completely off-guard. On Tuesday, March 27 at 8:16 pm, I received an image of Spider-Man on my phone with the words, “Finished.” I was caught off guard. What does Spiderman have to do with your faith? God doesn’t go swinging from web to web. I was on bated breath. I was pretty nervous because if there really wasn’t a good explanation….how was I going to tell this awesome youth, she was going to have to rethink her entire project. I had to wait a full week before I got the explanation. And it made complete sense. Spiderman is often considered a superhero, but for Katy Rice, God is her superhero. Through all the tough times in life, God is there. God shows us we are not alone.
God is our superhero. Yet, through this passage, we find God not in spandex swinging on spider’s web. We find God in the face of our hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned neighbors. It seems completely opposite of what we expect. God is in disguise. But if we are wise enough, if we have developed our spidey-sense or God-sense, maybe we can pick up and see anew where God is today.
It’s your first day and you are sick to your stomach. What if no one talks to you? What if you have to sit at lunch alone? You get dressed and get ready for what? You are not sure. You walk into a room with a sea of new faces. You search the faces hoping you see a kind one, an open one, one that will welcome you in. You know that it might be hard to make friends, especially in a place where people have grown-up together and know each other. You wait for a moment breathless. Yet you are surprised. Everyone comes up to you, introducing themselves, welcoming you in. Instead of facing a sea of hostility, you are welcomed in and soon feel like the group. These moments—are glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. What are we doing to create these spaces?
We have all probably been the new person—whether it is because of a move, a new job, a new school, a new opportunity. If you haven’t been in the uncomfortable situation of feeling new and out-of-place in a while—I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone. Because it is hard to move, to leave old friends behind and start again. Being the new person, is a quick way to know how it feels to be a stranger, and to hope for welcome. It is often through our experiences of being a “least of these” that we see the importance of caring for others. I remember my first experience of being excluded by a group of girls I thought were my friends. I didn’t get invited to the birthday party. I remember my mother telling me, “Remember how this feels. Remember, so you never do this to someone else.” When we have experienced difficulty, often we have greater awareness and compassion—we gain spidey senses.
Yet, the people in today’s story aren’t really aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Both groups of people—the sheep and the goats are clueless in very different ways. Neither realizes what they have done—the sheep who have cared for the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned are flabbergasted—when did we care for you, O King? The goats ask, when did we see you O King hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned and NOT care for you? If we had known, O King, we would have surely done it. But that’s the cincher. This King notices. In fact, this King is where we least expect him. God is here, particularly in our neighbors who need us. Jesus is in the face of the needy, but we aren’t supposed to care for the needy because Jesus is looking—we are supposed to show compassion because we see another’s suffering.
Here Jesus is creating a new social structure—one that is not based on what I can do for you, but one where I freely care for my neighbor without expecting anything in return. Greco-Roman culture centered around a patronage economy—I will care for you and then you will become my debt slave—working your wages off year after year. Here Jesus mixes up who we might think is righteous and unrighteous.
We so easily can focus in this passage on whether or not we are a sheep or a goat. But there is a third option in this story. Sometimes, we are the least of these—sometimes we are hungry, sick, imprisoned, strangers, thirsty, or naked. If you haven’t been yet, wait, because you will be. We all experience moments when we are vulnerable—when we feel broken down, alone, and afraid. I think most of the time, we are in this space of feeling like we could use a little help, a friend. But here, Jesus does not separate people into three groups, sheep, goats, and least of these. He separates people into two groups—sheep and goats. We are all the least of these, but simultaneously, we are either sheep or goats too.
We all have things going on in our lives. Maybe for you it’s that parenting is really hard and no one told you it was going to be so hard and bills are piling up, and how will you even pay for another when its way too tight with one? Maybe it’s the stress of aging parents. Maybe it’s the stress and cost of getting older and dealing with health issues you can’t afford to. We all have complicated lives that are too much to handle, too busy, too stressful, just too much. Here though, Jesus seems to say, forget about yourself. Stop focusing on yourself and start worry about each other. Start worrying about your neighbor and caring for her. Listen to someone else’s troubles—care for someone through their troubles. Don’t do it, so you can dump your problems in return. Do it to show love. To love is to live.
Peter Parker is an ordinary teenager, who rejection, inadequacy, and loneliness…until one day he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Suddenly, he has extraordinary gifts, the ability to cling to most surfaces, web-shooters, and spidey-senses. With these superpowers, he still experiences rejection, inadequacy, and loneliness. But he also learns that with “great power there must also become great responsibility,” so he uses his powers to help and to do good in the world. We all have great power; each of us has great gifts. No matter if we are 8 or 88. Attune your senses, so you can hear and see what your neighbor often tries to hide. See your neighbor as God sees them, beloved and beautiful. Care for your neighbor—use your gifts, your spidey senses for good, to feed, clothes, visit, welcome, and love. Not because God is watching, but because it is your calling. You will meet God there.
Growing up, it is easy to feel like an outsider—to feel like you don’t fit in and will never fit in. You worry about saying the right thing, doing the right thing, making the right choices. Unfortunately none of these feelings go away the minute you turn into an adult or the moment you choose to become an adult member of the church or the moment you become Spiderman. Instead, as Christians, we must constantly practice not focusing on ourselves—focusing instead on Christ and on our neighbors. It is not easy. You will sacrifice. You will be counter-cultural. You may be taken advantage of. But our crux of the Christian faith is that it is not about us. It is about God. It is about Jesus. It is about love, loving our neighbors. Over and over we must learn and relearn this. Amen.