Not the Jesus I know: thoughts upon having the Hell scared out of me

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The young man took my hand in a gesture of friendship as we stood next to one another in the middle school auditorium. All around us, other pairs of strangers asked one another the same question.

We had just finished watching a performance of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a travelling evangelical road show that has been touring the world for over thirty years. The play consists of a series of vignettes acted out by local volunteers. In each scene, an individual achieves or fails to achieve salvation before dying abruptly, by violence, accident, or overdose. Those who succeed ascend to a glittery silver-lame heaven, where they are greeted by Jesus. Those who fail get dragged off into the flames of hell by Satan, who in this production bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul.

The entire production is designed to scare the hell out of you, literally.

In this particular performance, the saved include an American soldier, a battered spouse, a bullied teen, a church-going family, and a pair of construction workers. The damned include a drug abuser, a murderer, a porn fan, and a working mom too busy to attend church.  Are skipping church and murder really comparable in the eyes of God?  Maybe; for as the playwright frequently reminds us, it is not on the basis of our good or bad behavior that we are judged, but solely on whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior.

Hence the question.

The young man asked with such evident kindness that I smiled and replied, “Yes.” He smiled back, but I felt a twinge of pain at my well-mannered dishonesty. I had told the truth, but not the whole truth. A more honest answer would have gone something like this: “Yes, I know Jesus. But if you are asking about the figure I saw depicted here tonight: No, I do not know him. This is not the Jesus I know.”

Before I proceed, I would like to make clear that my comments here are in no way meant to be critical of my many neighbors who appeared on stage last night. I could tell that they were earnest in their desire to serve, and to save. There was both faith and talent on stage; and I appreciated the joyful exuberance of the play’s Jesus, as he sprinted on stage, newly liberated from the tomb. My issue is not with the actor’s interpretation of Jesus, but with the playwright’s interpretation of Jesus.

First of all, the Jesus of Heaven’s Gates is oddly passive; after that initial joyful sprint, he is pretty much confined to heaven, aka backstage. He appears at the top of the stairway to paradise, to embrace those prudent souls who are saved; but he is notably absent when the damned are dragged off screaming into hell. At these moments, it is the devil alone who commands center stage, as projected flames flicker on a large screen.

I find myself fighting the urge to shout at the stage: WHERE IS JESUS? I am left wondering: is he deliberately absent, or just powerless before the devil? He is always in the wings, never a witness to the torture. The stage directions preserve plausible deniability, and we are never permitted to question him directly.

Indeed, the Jesus of this play has apparently been silenced by death; he is given no dialogue. If he were allowed to speak, what might he say about these terrifying scenes? I found myself imagining the play’s Jesus suddenly shouting out, interrupting the script with his own words from the gospels: Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter heaven, but everyone who does the will of God…Whatever you do for the least of God’s children, you do for me… Those who seek to save their own life will lose it… Do not be afraid! Instead, a silent Jesus appears only briefly before being whisked backstage again behind the silver lame curtains – like a hostage trotted in front of the cameras but not allowed to speak for himself for fear that he would denounce his captors’ beliefs.

The ultimate power in Heaven’s Gates is neither Jesus nor Satan but rather the “book of life,” a magical tome in which the names of the saved are inscribed, at the exact minute when they first pledge themselves to Jesus. The playwright evidently gets this idea from the visions of John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, because as far as we know, Jesus himself never spoke of such a book. Yet in the play, the book looms large, overshadowing the testimony of the four gospels or the letters of the apostles – including the letters of John, who wrote that whoever lives in love lives in God, and the letters of Paul, who wrote that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even a silver lame curtain.

In the world of Heaven’s Gate, prudence is the primary Christian virtue. The most important thing is to get in the book in a timely manner, so as to avoid personal catastrophe in the event of unforeseen demise. Faith is sold as a form of personal hell insurance, and the only unforgivable sin is to be caught unprepared.

But surely it is not prudence, but love, that is the key to eternal life? Extravagant, unconditional love, love for enemies as well as friends, love for sinners as well as saints, love for neighbor as well as self, love for strangers as well as siblings? Fearless, imprudent love?

In one of the play’s more harrowing scenes, a young woman dies of an accidental drug overdose. When she appears at the gates of heaven, she is denied entrance. Remembering her late father’s faith, she cries out in terror for him to help her – Dad, I’m scared! Dad, help me! – but her father never appears. He is apparently too busy enjoying heaven, to be concerned about his daughter’s fate.

As I watched the scene, one phrase repeated itself in my head: how much more. It is a phrase that Jesus used more than once, to describe the love of God. As in: if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?

And so as I watched the actors, I found myself thinking, if we, who are merely human, love our children — even when they make mistakes, even when they rebel against us, even when they fall into addiction  — how much more must God love them? If a parent’s love for their child can continue, even after the child’s death, how much more must God continue to love them? If the resurrection means anything, it means that death is no obstacle to God’s love.

So, yes, I know Jesus. He’s the one who loved us all the way to hell and back again.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Thoughts Upon Going to Hell

Then I came to the story of the passion, and when I read Jesus’ death cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you… This was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection. — Jurgen Moltmann

As I walked this morning from my home to my customary coffee shop, I was brought up short by a voice. The voice came from above, its source invisible. It said, with perfect clarity, “Go to hell!”

It was not the voice of God, but presumably the voice of one of the residents of the multi-story apartment building I was passing at the time. The voice of a human woman, overcome with helpless fury. 

Wondering to whom she was speaking, I scanned the sidewalk ahead. I saw only two people: a thirty-ish man feeding his parking meter, and an elderly, white-haired woman preparing to cross the street. Both were clearly just passersby, like myself. With no singular target in sight, I could not help but feel that we were somehow all the targets of the curse issued from above. 

This particular morning, I was feeling blessed, not cursed, and my first impulse was to scatter some of that blessing. The old woman was already crossing the street and too far ahead to catch, but as I passed the guy at the parking meter I smiled and said, “I don’t know who just said that, but don’t go to hell, okay?” He grinned back. “You heard that all the way down the block?” 

But I couldn’t figure out how to get that blessing to the person who really needed it.  Because it seems pretty clear that one who most needed blessing was not the guy on the street, but the woman who shouted so angrily from above. Anyone who, shouts “Go to hell!” with such venom, is probably already living there. This, I think, is the very function of a curse: it is an attempt to pull the other down into hell with us.  

I run in fairly well-behaved circles and I have seldom had anyone tell me to go to hell. I have, however, heard many people proclaim in public that people like me are going to hell. These people like to phrase this as a statement of fact, a cautionary warning for my own benefit. But really, this is just a polite way of telling someone to go to hell. If you tell me that God will send me to hell — that your God will send me to hell — how is this not your will as well? 

These words can sink in after a while. They start to seem true. They start to seem true, because this is the function of a curse: to pull another down into our own hell of judgment. Curse someone enough, and they just may believe themselves cursed — and that is hell. I’ve been there.

So I tell everyone: if you hear someone telling you to go to hell, do not be afraid. It is not the voice of God. After all, the powers that be told Jesus to go to hell. They even crucified him, just to make sure. And what happened? He broke open the gates, and took the prisoners with him, on the way to resurrection.

When you hear someone telling you to go to hell, remember they are already there. Don’t let them pull you in; pull them out instead.

(Featured image: Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, “Descent of Christ to Limbo” (detail of Christ helping Adam to rise), 1533-34, affresco, Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (BS), Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

If…

When my sister and I were kids, my Dad would buy two lottery tickets each week. Every Sunday, my sister and I would each get to hold one while he read out the winning numbers from the paper. We never won, of course, but we liked the game of imagining what we’d do if we did.

When I was small, I would imagine buying a pony, and a farm to keep it on. As I approached adulthood, I started to dream of making other people’s wishes come true. Maybe I’d buy a grand piano for my Dad, or a house on the beach for my Mom. Nowadays, I have to admit, my first thoughts are more practical: I dream of paying off the mortgage. But once the bills were taken care of, I imagine the rest going to some worthy cause – Doctors without Borders, perhaps.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

There are other versions of this game; a couple of years ago I remember driving in the car, listening to the call-in program Vox Pop on NPR, and the question for the day was, “What would you do if you were President Obama?” Most of those who called in said they would end the war, fix the economy, and institute universal health coverage.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

What would you do, if you were President?

What would you do, if you were God?

The devil comes to Jesus, in the wilderness, playing this game. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, turn these stones to bread. The devil isn’t asking for proof of Jesus divinity. He’s really saying: If I were the Son of God, that’s what I’d do.

The scripture refers to this exchange as a temptation.

It is tempting to believe that we could change the world, if only we were wealthier, or more powerful. It is tempting to believe that we would somehow do better than those currently in power. It is tempting to believe that only the powerful can change the world.

But here is a true story: once upon time, a church youth group set up a table on a downtown street corner, with an empty soup pot on it. They were asking the people passing by for donations to help feed hungry kids. The first person to approach the table told us that he was homeless, and broke, but that he really wanted to help. He found thirteen cents in his pocket, and he dropped it into the soup pot. He gave whatever he had. And so did many other ordinary people. And by the end of the afternoon the soup pot contained enough money to buy a year’s worth of food.

The fantasy of changing the world by winning the lottery is perhaps at its heart a wish to do good without having to sacrifice anything. A wish to change the world at no cost to ourselves. But it turns out, even Jesus, couldn’t do that.

If you were the child of God, what would you do?

For so you are.

 

Photo: http://dominicanes.me/tag/satan/

 

 

Pathways of Peace

…to guide our feet in the pathways of peace. — Luke 1:68-79

I don’t know about you, but I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent.

Maybe some of you are having the same difficulty.

It isn’t just about the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations; I haven’t done much of that yet. It isn’t about the commercialism of the season; I can avoid most of that, if I steer clear of malls and stick to Netflix instead of television. I’m not even talking about the pervasive day-to-day stress of life in the hectic post-modern world. I can’t really escape that, but I’m pretty much used to that.

I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent because it seems like every few days the peace is shattered by some cry of violence and hatred. Over the past months those shouts have become more and more frequent until they have built to a steady roar that I can’t manage to ignore or dismiss. Each week, the litany of prayers gets longer: Paris, France… Beirut, Lebanon… Nola, Nigeria… Colorado Springs, Colorado… San Bernadino, California.

It’s getting to the point where I wonder, should I continue to post these events on our Facebook page and ask for prayer? Or are we getting as weary of prayer as we are of violence?

Welcome to Advent: the season when the world waits — hopefully, eagerly, and sometimes desperately — for the arrival of the Prince of Peace.

There is a paradox in our celebration of Advent, a sort of folding back of time, as we wait for Christ’s arrival – an event that happened almost two thousand years ago. How is it that we are still waiting? If the Prince of Peace came in Jesus – why is there so little peace in our world?

On the other hand, if we are still waiting, if Christ is coming still, then there is still hope. Hope that the miracle of Bethlehem may yet come to us as well, “to guide our feet in the pathways of peace.”

In my younger years I remember spending some time at a camp where the lawns had been freshly re-turfed, and it was drilled into our young heads that we could play on them or sit on them, but, we were told, “whatever you do, don’t make a path.” You see, if enough of us took the same route across the lawn from the dorm to the dining hall, eventually the grass would wear away, and a path would appear. So we instead had fun running across the lawn in crazy zig-zagging paths, shouting to one another “Don’t make a path! Don’t make a path!”

Here is my point: You make a path by walking it.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace because he walked the pathway of peace – not a peaceful path, but a peaceable one. Jesus made the path, by walking it. And the more of us walk it with him, the broader it will be.

Welcome to Advent, the season of peace.

 

(excerpted from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on December 6, 2015)

(photo: stepping stones on the pathway to peace, created by members of Belchertown United Church of Christ.)

The Soldier’s Mite

The story is known as “The Widow’s Mite.” A poor widow gives her last two coins as an offering to her house of worship. This tiny sum is her “mite” — the only thing she has left to give. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the common lectionary brings this story before us in November, the season of church pledge drives. I can see the stewardship campaign slogans now: “Every little mite counts.” “Let’s be like the widow, and give God all we’ve got!”

But let’s be honest: would you encourage an impoverished neighbor to put her last penny into your collection plate? Would Jesus? Did Jesus?

Let’s look again.

The story takes place in the Jerusalem Temple – the center of Israel’s political and religious life, where the elite meet. (Think: Washington Cathedral.) Both the Temple and its leaders must have been a pretty impressive sight to a bunch of Galilean fishermen. But Jesus warns his disciples: do not be taken in by all the pomp and circumstance. Beware of the scribes, with their expensive wardrobes and expansive speeches. They may occupy the places of honor at the banquet, but meanwhile they are devouring widows’ houses.

No sooner has Jesus spoken these words, than one of those very widows approaches the Temple treasury box, and places her last two coins inside it. “Look at this woman,” he says. “This poor widow has put in more than anyone else here. For all of the rest of them have contributed out of their wealth; but out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus asks his disciples to take note of the widow’s sacrifice, but he neither praises nor condemns it. He merely points it out, and contrasts it with the sacrifices of the wealthy and powerful – which, he implies, are no sacrifice at all.

There is a tension, in this story about the widow’s mite. Do we commend her for her sacrifice, or do we condemn those who so lightly demand it of her?

It’s a tension similar in some ways to the tension that I sometimes feel surrounding our national celebration of Veterans Day. For as much as we honor the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers, still we feel that nagging doubt, about the justice of our having demanded such sacrifice. There are souls among us still, who have given their all, only to find themselves like the poor widow, with nothing left to live on, or live for. Today, over ten percent of our former servicemen and women are homeless, and suicide claims the lives of more soldiers than combat.

There is a tension, then, in our celebration of Veteran’s Day. Do we commend our soldiers for their sacrifice, or do we condemn the scribes of our own day, who would so lightly demand it of them?

This, after all, is the meaning of stewardship: the proper use of that which is not properly ours, but God’s. Like a widow’s mite. Or a soldier’s life.

Jesus does not tell his disciples whether the widow was right or wrong, to make such a sacrifice. But he draws our attention to her. In the midst of all the splendor of the Temple, in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance of national celebration, Jesus’ eye is on her. And he tells his disciples: don’t overlook her.

Don’t overlook her, for she has given everything.

(From a sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, 11/8/2015. Read the full text here.)

Jesus Eating a Fish

After his crucifixion, Jesus pays a visit to his disciples. They are terrified, thinking he is a ghost. He tells them, I am no ghost. And to prove it, he asks, do you have anything to eat?

And they give him a broiled fish.

catacomb fish, source unknown

Most of us have seen paintings of Jesus in the manger, or in the cross. But what about Jesus eating a fish? Some of the earliest known Christian art comes from the Roman catacombs, the vaults below the city where tens of thousands of early Christians were buried. Crosses and mangers are rarely seen there, but fish are commonplace. And not just the stylized, abstract-looking fish you see on modern car bumpers; these are actual fish, realistic-looking fish with scales. Sometimes the fish is depicted by itself; sometimes it is part of a dinner scene. There are multiple images of people gathered around a table, sharing a Eucharistic meal — not of wine and bread alone, but of loaves and fishes. To the early followers of Jesus, fish was apparently as integral to communion as bread and wine.

Imagine our deacons passing around plates of smoked salmon at communion, and you begin to see just how much our tradition has changed.

A meal of bread and wine is a tidy affair. You can serve them up as bite-sized wafers and individual, sanitary shotglasses. But eating a fish – that’s a messy, visceral sort of experience. There’s bones, and scales, and gills to contend with. There are eyes, looking up at you. You know you are part of the food chain, when you are eating a fish. And maybe we feel a little uncomfortable, imagining Jesus pulling flesh from bone with his fingers.

But here he is, in Luke’s gospel — Jesus, raised from the dead, eating a fish.

The Greek word for ghost is pneuma – it means literally, breath, and metaphorically, ghost. As in, Holy Ghost. It’s the same word. Nowadays we usually translate it as Spirit. The disciples are terrified, for they think Jesus is a ghost, a spirit. But although Jesus promises the disciples that God will send a Spirit to guide them, he makes it clear that he is no Spirit. Jesus is no Holy Ghost; he is a living human being, eating a fish. Flesh and bone, made from flesh and bone.

Still, there is a sort of dream-like quality to these post-resurrection encounters with Jesus. The disciples start off talking with a stranger, and then somehow that stranger is Jesus. No one ever seems to see him coming, or going; he is just somehow there; and then, he is just somehow gone. These are the sort of things that happen when we dream. But then, on the other hand, here he is, eating a fish. So is Jesus a vision, or is he really there, in the flesh? Does it matter? Saint Paul saw a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and it was enough to change his life. Thomas – also a saint – needed to touch Jesus’ living body with his own living hands. Can we be satisfied with a vision of the resurrected Christ? Or do we need something more, well, earthy?

It’s an old debate in Christianity: is Christ flesh and blood, or merely spirit? From the beginning, there were those that argued that Jesus was not truly a human being, but rather a spirit in disguise — human in appearance only. But it wasn’t just the idea of resurrection that bothered them; it was the whole idea of incarnation. The word made flesh, in the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t believe he had come back to life; they couldn’t believe he had been alive in the first place — at least, not in the biological, organic sense of the word. They just could not believe that divinity would sully itself with the blood and guts of biological existence. They wanted a God who would rescue them from the world, not become mired in it with them.

But for others, that was precisely the good news. The union of Word and Flesh – of the Mystery and the Mud.

A couple of years ago, my daughter had a good friend that lived next door to us, so the two kids used to run back and forth between the houses and play in our combined back yards. One day, the kids were outside and both my neighbor and I were inside, doing the dishes or something, and the kids discovered a mud puddle in the backyard. And they began to expand it, and it grew into a sort of a mud wallow. And the hole got bigger and bigger, and they got muddier and muddier, and somewhere along the way they come up with the idea to build a mud slide. On our porch. So they got a couple of buckets, and began hauling mud, and at some point my neighbor and I went out to check on them – whatever you are picturing in your minds right now, it was worse. But the thing is, neither my neighbor or I could bring ourselves to be angry with them. We made them clean it up, to be sure; but there was such delight and exuberance in their bodies and on their faces, that neither of us could bear to change that moment for them. They had found the mystery in the mud.

Now I know there are some of you out there who are probably shaking your heads over my parenting skills. But I do think we sometimes make a mistake, when we equate cleanliness with godliness. Because life is messy. Our bodies are messy, our food is messy, our planet is messy. And yet God created it. And God loves it. So much so, that God became flesh in Jesus, in order to love it better.

What about us? Can we bring ourselves to love the world? Can we say YES to this creation, to our creation? Because I’m not just talking about sunsets and mountains here. Because life is messy, and nature can be harsh, and God knows, people can be cruel. It’s understandable that some of us might want to distance ourselves from our mortal flesh; that we might seek a savior who would rescue us from such a world as this.

But just as the incarnation did not begin with a baby in a manger, so it did not end with a body on a cross. Because even after his death, there is Jesus, eating a fish. When Jesus escapes from tomb, he jumps right back into life, in all its messy biological incarnational splendor. Vision or not, he is, emphatically, not a ghost – not a disembodied spirit, but an embodied one. Like you. Like me.

Agape_feast_07 (Wikimedia)

We are tempted, sometimes, to act as if we were disembodied spirits, or rather, as if our bodies are nothing more than machines, our food nothing more than fuel. If our performance gets sluggish, we add some high-octane caffeine to the tank, and keep driving. One of my seminary professors once observed that now in the digital age we treat our biological bodies as if they were merely our avatars, rather than our selves. We are like Pinocchio in reverse – flesh and blood children, pretending to be puppets. We do not fully inhabit our bodies, or love them, or care for them; just as we do not fully inhabit, or love, or care for the planet that sustains them.

But if we deny our own incarnation, how shall we acknowledge our incarnate God? If we cannot not love creation, how shall we love our Creator?

So maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to serve up some broiled fish for communion now and then. Bread and wine, after all, are a few steps removed from their organic origins; but a fish, that’s another story. Eat a fish, and you know the stuff of which you are made. You are flesh and spirit, mystery and mud; and God loves all of you.

(scripture: Luke 24: 36-49)

(photo credits: Ghanaian fish market: Rahsaan Hall, used by permission; Catacomb Fish: source unknown; Catacomb Agape Feast: Wikimedia)

Holy Week

“Peace I leave with you….” John 14:27

During the summer of 2013, I completed a unit of chaplaincy training at a large hospital. One afternoon, I received a call requesting a visit, from a patient whom I had spoken with a few days before. His long, progressive illness had a taken a final turn, and he now had very little time left until it reached its inevitable end. He had asked me to return, because he had a favor to ask. Could I help him write letters to his sons? His hands were no longer strong enough to hold a pen; could I write down his words for him? And so I sat by his bedside, and we spent a sacred hour, together, as he spoke to his sons through my hands, and told them how much he loved them.

I have been thinking about him, as I prepare for the week to come, the week that begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter. There’s this long passage in John’s gospel, where Jesus has gathered with his disciples for what will turn out to be their last meal together before his death. As they sit there together, Jesus begins to pour out his heart to them, trying to prepare them for what lies ahead. Because the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem, his ministry took its final turn toward its inevitable end. Jesus knew he had very little time left, to tell them how much he loved them.

The last week of a life is — always — holy week.

(meditation from the Belchertown Cantata for Holy Week, March 29, 2015, Belchertown United Church of Christ, MA)

(photo: stock photo from daily mail )

Because you called

And immediately they left their nets and followed him. — Mark 1:14-20

Why did they follow him?

It’s the burning question here, isn’t it? Those very first disciples — Simon, Andrew, James and John – what made them drop their nets, and go? I mean, if a stranger approached you and asked you to follow him, would you go? Wouldn’t you at least ask for some references, maybe google him first?

Okay, so… maybe he wasn’t a stranger, after all. Maybe the fisherman had heard Jesus preach. Maybe they had known him for weeks, or years. Maybe.

Or maybe there was something about Jesus himself, something different, something compelling. Maybe there was some sort of aura about him. Maybe.

Or maybe it wasn’t something they saw in Jesus; maybe it was something Jesus saw in them. In the story, Jesus calls out, specifically, to Simon and Andrew, James and John. So maybe he saw something in them, something ripe for the harvest. Maybe they were ready to go, and just waiting for a good strong breeze to shake them loose from the family tree. Maybe.

Maybe, but Mark doesn’t say so.

This story would be a whole lot easier to understand if it came later on in Mark’s gospel. If Jesus had already performed some miracle, some sign. Cured a leper, exorcised a demon, walked on water, something. But all that will come later on.

All Mark’s gospel tells us, is that Jesus calls them, and they follow.

So maybe I’m trying too hard here.

I remember a student I taught many years ago, let’s call him Matt, who auditioned for a play I was directing. He did a terrific job at the audition, but I didn’t have a part for him; so I asked him if he would be my stage manager, help with sets and props, help actors learn their lines and blocking, stand in for other kids when they were absent. He did a terrific job at this, as well, always ready to help.

After a few weeks of rehearsal, Matt’s advisor took me aside and asked, “What is your secret with Matt?” I was puzzled by the question until she told me that apparently, some of Matt’s other teachers found him to be something of a problem in the classroom. But I honestly had no idea why he behaved differently with me. So I told her, “I don’t have any secret. I mostly just boss him around.  I feel like the only thing I say to him is, Matt, I need you to move the chairs, Matt, I need you to run lines with the cast…”

The other teacher smiled and said, “And what he hears is, Matt, I need you.”

So maybe there is no secret behind today’s gospel reading, either. Maybe the only miracle here, is that Jesus called them.

(excerpt from sermon preached at Belchertown UCC on January 25, 2015)

(photo: Elmina, Ghana, January 2012, by Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

When was it

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not help you?  — Matthew 25:31-45

It was a raw, chilly day. Late November, maybe, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure of the year, either, although I know I was a young adult. I think I was walking alone, but even that I am not sure of.

This is what I do remember:

I was walking along the streets of midtown Manhattan. I was dressed in a wool coat, and I had a large, rectangular wool shawl wrapped around my shoulders as well. I passed another young adult, lying curled up on the sidewalk. She was half naked. Naked enough that it was clear something dreadful must have happened to her; it was far too chilly a day for anyone to be dressed that way by choice. She had a piece of something, paper maybe, pulled over her. Her eyes were closed.

And I kept walking.

I wish there was more to this story. Another ending, some information about what became of this young woman. But I have no other ending to give you, because I walked by. I assumed someone else would take care of her. But later that day I found myself haunted by that moment. I kept seeing that woman, lying on the street, shivering. And I kept seeing myself, hurrying by in extra layers of warm clothing.

Lord, when was it that we saw you naked, and did not clothe you?

Jesus tells of a day when all the people of the world come to stand before their king. The king blesses those who showed compassion on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. The king curses those who showed no compassion.

But here is the surprising thing: Both groups – the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the cursed, the compassionate and the indifferent – both groups reply to the king with the same question:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

It apparently did not occur to either group that by feeding the hungry they would be serving their king. Whether they received the king’s blessing or the king’s curse did not depend on how well they recognized their duty. It depended on how well they loved one another.

We ask, When was that it we saw you?

But Jesus asks us, When was it that you truly saw anyone?

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

Which side are you on?

image

“Get to your labors!”  — Exodus 5:1-6:13

In light of the recent news of striking fast food workers, it is perhaps worth remembering that the Exodus began as a labor dispute.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and asked him to let the Israelites go — not, initially, forever, but just for a religious holiday. “Let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God.” A three-day weekend, that’s what they asked for. But management was unwilling to negotiate. “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?” Pharaoh replied.” Get to your labors.”

Which I guess makes the Exodus the largest mass strike in history.

(photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)