November 26, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert
“Whenever you did this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” In this often-quoted passage from Matthew, we are invited to think and think hard about the concrete ways we live out the message of Christ in our lives. If we listen carefully to this reading and reflect on our own lives, it may make us feel uncomfortable at times and rightly so. Today we celebrate what we call Christ the King Sunday, and it reminds us that Jesus came to share a vision of the Kingdom of God where all are welcome and where the least among us are treated with respect and dignity. Let us pray, “Jesus, you who are mercy living in our midst, help us to be open to the words of your message in ways that might help us to share compassion with others.” Amen.
We often speak of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel as the last judgement. In contrast to the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, we don’t often hear of a judging God in the New Testament. Again and again, Jesus models an inspiring message of peace and love, but here the challenge is hard. He shares this story about the final judgement, and he clearly doesn’t raise some of the more complex questions that some Christians may lead us to assume are the most important; for example, there is no talk about sexual morality or other commonly held views. No, he makes it very simple…on the last day, God will ask, “did you feed me when I was hungry, give me something to drink when I was thirsty, clothe me when I was naked, visit me when I was sick or in prison,” and they will ask, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or sick or in prison…and he will answer, “Truly I tell you, just as you did this to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
Just this past week, the movie Wonder was released in theaters and we went to see it this past week. This film is based on the inspiring book by the same title that was written by author R.J. Palacio. My daughter first recommended the book to me when she was in 5th grade as it is young adult fiction, and I want to share that it is one of the best books I have read in recent years. The book tells the story of August Pullman, a child born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from attending a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid-but his new classmates cannot get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. The book begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include the voices of his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. The various perspectives provide a powerful view of the community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
Early in the story, Auggie becomes friends with a small group of kids from school, including a boy named Jack Will. He begins to trust that they accept him as a genuine friend until he overhears a conversation between Jack and some other boys at a Halloween costume party at school. It’s a heartbreaking moment for him as he later shares with his sister. “He didn’t care what the others boys said; he expected that, but he was hurt that one of the boys was his ‘best friend’ Jack Will. It is a huge setback for August and he considers leaving school, but he doesn’t. Somehow he returns and moves forward despite the pain. Later, Jack does stand up for August against a real bully at the school and he apologizes to him for his bad behavior at the party. The apology is genuine and August is able to find his way to forgiving his friend and resuming their friendship.
Wonder is truly one of the most moving books I have read in recent years. It’s an amazing depiction of the ups and downs of school life, a microcosm of the larger community in which we live where some kids are able to see beyond this boy’s face to the beauty and kindness that lies within him. And August discovers the depth of his own courage and capacity to forgive someone who has deeply wounded him.
Near the end of the book, we find ourselves at the Middle School graduation where the headmaster, a man of great integrity and decency shares some important thoughts with the students. Quoting from a book called The Little White Bird, he reads, “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” He continues, “because it is not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. We carry with us as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness. And what does that mean? How is that measured?” Wonder, p. 300. In these times, I cannot imagine a more important message for all of us and for our nation and for the world: “Always try to be a little kinder than is necessary.”
Jesus asks, “did you welcome me when I was a stranger?” As we ponder the implications of the message of the Gospel today, we are reminded that the central message here is to reach out to those who too often feel that they are alone or unworthy or on the margins, whether because of their social status or their economic status or how they look or because of how their needs define them. How may we be Christ to one another and who has been Christ to us?
When in the course of our own lives have we found ourselves in need? Whose faces come to mind when you ask yourself…when I was hungry, who gave me to eat? When I was thirsty, who gave me something to drink? Who visited me when I was in prison or rehab or in the hospital? And when I was a stranger, who welcomed me? Who welcomed me in a way that helped me to feel that I was worthy of being welcomed? Who showed me kindness and inclusion and compassion and love? When I felt myself to be the ‘least’ because of whatever brokenness was in my life, who helped me to feel that I was worthy?
Listening to the reading from Matthew 25 this morning is an important reminder about the type of Kingdom that God desires for our world, and we are invited to make that view a reality. We are called to respond to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our sisters and brothers, who are the least among us, and we are reminded that in God’s eyes, even when we feel among the least, even when we feel unworthy, that we too are fully welcomed into that community of love and mercy and acceptance. May this help inspire us as we begin the season of Advent next week and await again the coming of the Christ child into our midst. Beverly Zink-Sawyer, a professor of preaching and worship, shares a wonderful insight as we begin to prepare for Advent as she asks, “What could be more surprising than a God who comes to dwell with us in the form of a poor, helpless child born in obscurity to peasant parents? Indeed, God came to us as ‘one of the least of these’–and still does.”