Proper 29A, 2017: A chance to clothe the naked

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Nu féminin, craie et charbon 1800

Link to Liturgical Poem – The Star Market, by Marie Howe:

Link to Matthew 25:31-46:


Picture if you will, a magnificent autumn day.

The sky is a deep blue,
the sun unusually intense, even hot
for that time of year.
The leaves were still turning
and so the world was cast in the golden and red glory of fall.
Summer warmth, pleasing colors,
the hum of pleasantness all around.

The church I served was on a Big Ten university campus –
fifty-thousand students, and
twenty-five thousand faculty and staff.
The university was surrounded by dense urban neighborhoods
but still leafy under the canopy of streets lined with
sycamore, maple, beech, and oak.

It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday
and the bishop had visited that morning
for a full complement of youth and adult confirmations,
the pews brimming with people and vitality.
It was just the kind of experience a thirty-six year old priest
wants to show off to his bishop,
especially when only a few years before
the church had been a bit threadbare and dog-eared.

After services, we had taken the bishop and his wife to lunch,
and the conversation was unusually interesting and pleasant.
All felt right with the world, at least my world.
After taking a few minutes to reflect on the morning
in my office, all alone, the voices
and events echoing in my thoughts, I left for home.
Stopped at a red light on the main street,
a north-south urban corridor that ran like a carpet
through the university district,
I did a double-take.
Through the open passenger window
I starred at a twenty-something young man
striding up the street buck-naked.
He walked with purpose,
his strides focused on going somewhere
but in no particular hurry.
Naked as a jaybird,
his partially bald head a tangled mess
of hair exploding akimbo in all directions.

I was speechless – not just because I was alone,
since that never stops me from talking.
But because there was a naked guy
walking up the busy street
as if it was an everyday kind of thing.
The car behind me honked
as the light had turned green.
I felt as though there was something I should do
but I didn’t know what.
The only thing I could think to do at that moment,
was to honk and wave.
So I did.
He did not acknowledge me.

Three blocks later,
stopped at another red light,
looking down at my trench coat
folded over the passenger seat, I suddenly remembered:
“When was I naked and you clothed me?
When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”
It had been the gospel reading that day!
And the bishop had preached on it!
No joke.
I kid you not.

How many times in my life
will I have the opportunity to offer my coat
to someone naked in public?
Surely, I had blown my one and only chance,
and clearly, I was a goat.

Caught up in my own urgent business,
I have missed the opportunity
and failed miserably, more than once,
to embody this gospel in real-time when given the chance.
Like you, I have also been able to meet the challenge
many times in my life, but
there are a number of spectacular failures
that haunt me.

Fortunately, such failure is not the last word. Ever.

The contrast between sheep and goats
in this once parable,
now allegoric saying from Matthew,
is not a coincidence.
Granted, it is a contrast lost
on most of us 21st century urbanites,
but for Matthew’s audience,
it would have been a vivid metaphor.
You see, while it is true
that during the day the sheep and goats were mixed together,
at night the shepherd had to separate them.
It turns out, goats need better shelter than sheep –
sheep are hardier than goats,
so they need less protection at night.

That is an interesting twist
if the goats are supposed to represent the bad guys
and the sheep the good guys.
But that is just an interesting side point.
The real kicker in this story is its focus.
Remember, an ancient parable has only a single focus –
a contrast between two elements.
It is easy to take our eyes off the simple contrast
and wander into the cattails of characters
inhabiting the sidelines.
But the contrast in this story,
the one holding the original parable,
is probably between the kingdom of God
and the act of separation.

The focus is not on the shepherd (Jesus).
The focus is not on the sheep (the least of these).
The focus is not on the goats (those who neglect the least of these).
Sad to say, but this teaching
is not really about that good old liberal social action agenda
to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Sorry.
Rather, it is about separating,
and whether or not to separate,
sheep and goats.

Matthew has likely taken a parable spoken by Jesus,
that was a simple contrast between the kingdom of God
and the act of separation,
and written it into a complex metaphor
about the end of time
and the last judgment.

Matthew wants us to see our situation in life
as a single, either-or decision –
a zero-sum game in which a success for the good guys
is a loss for the bad guys,
and vice versa.
Matthew, in an urgent plea to his generation,
a full fifty years after Jesus had been executed,
paints the existential question as one about
whether we follow Jesus or not:
The sheep are in, they follow Jesus;
the goats are out, they do not.

I do not think that such bifurcated alienation
is what Jesus had in mind, rather,
I think it is a product of Matthew’s moment in time…
and ours.
You and I are in an alienated kind of moment –
sheep or goat,
right or wrong,
in or out;

Trump or not-Trump;

Republican or Democrat;
white or black;
English or bi-lingual;
born here or immigrated;
gun control or none;
choice or never;
fluid gender or as-assigned;
Christian or not,
even Trinity or St. Peter’s…

The molten issues between hardened lines
leaves little room for relationship.

We are separated.
It is enough to make a person sick, literally.

We can see with our own eyes,
it is enough to make a society diseased and ill.

It eats away at our humanity,
dissolving the veneer of grace and hospitality
that protects us from tribal warfare.

I do not believe Jesus was a champion
of vivisecting humanity
with a sword of judgment, dividing people
between those loved by God
and those unloved and abandoned by God.

It is true that the later followers of Jesus,
Paul and the gospel editors,
did see the world in such terms,
and that later the institution of the church
practiced a scorched-earth policy
of us verses them.
But if we pull the blanket back
on the teachings of Jesus,
I think we hear something else.

Jesus did not speak in one-size-fits-all terms,
that is a piece of his genius.
If we listen carefully to the parables and stories
handed down to us, even
through the distortion of later editor’s filters,
we can still hear the graduated tones of nuance.

When Jesus speaks, there is a message
for those who follow him closely,
but also a word to those who are in the crowd listening;
and there is a little something for the hostile too;
and even a message for those who are indifferent.

There is no way to know this for certain,
but it seems to me, Jesus spoke to each audience differently
and with different expectations – or perhaps
different invitations.
In other words, following Jesus is not for everyone.
In fact, I doubt that Jesus invited everyone to follow him,
or would even have recommended it to everyone.
And it is for certain, that the love of God
does not hang upon a condition
that we follow Jesus or be severed, then cast
into the outer darkness where the pitiful unloved shrivel.

Even the decision to follow Jesus
is not an all-at-once, or once-and-for-all, kind of action.
It is a decision, once made,
that we come to again and again and again,
as we fail to clothe the naked in front of us
and then remember or realize how to do it another time.

Instead of a straight line from us to Jesus,
as if a dart on its way to a bullseye,
following Jesus looks much more like a meandering river
snaking its way through mountains.
There are, and will be,
times when we are more like the experience
Marie Howe describes at the Star Market –
when we are freaked out or repulsed
by the needs of those around us.
Other times, compassion will well up within us
and empower our action, as if on a massive dose of steroids.
Each time is a new time,
and each time a discrete opportunity
to move from hostile voice in the crowd
to loyal follower,
or from a voyeur watching Jesus from a distance
to someone a little further up in the crowd,
nearly able to touch him.

But either way, sheep or goat,
close or distant,
disciple or agnostic,
God holds us in the arms of love
and we are inseparably connected to the Holy One
who created us from dust,
and imbued us with life – the actual breath of God within us.
We are not standing on the precipice
of light and outer darkness,
rather, we are held within the light at all times
whether or not we feel lost in the dark.
The ones we consider the enemy
have no true separation from us;
they are not either, nor are they or.

The enemy, those who are utterly wrong,
them that oppose us
and those that reject us,
are only goats because we see ourselves as sheep.
The truth is, we are both one and the same.

Following Jesus, it seems to me, looks a lot more like
knitting together alienated sides
and stitching up the open wounds of rancor,
than it does choosing sides
between them and us
or sheep and goats.
And we get to do it over and over and over again
instead of once and for all.

I hope that naked fella found his clothes
or got somewhere he didn’t need any.
But I am also grateful to him,
because of him, I became a bit less alienated that day.

Thanks be to God.