The following sermon was preached at First Congregational Church in Griswold, CT.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
She was in 4th grade when it started. She had never been particularly popular, but she had always had a small group of close friends, and that had always been enough for her. When the bullying started, however, those supposedly close friends seemed to evaporate like smoke. And when the bullying started up each day, as it inevitably would, there was no one left by her side to stand up for her. Sometimes the bullies would follow the girl as she walked to her bus at the end of the school day, jeering and taunting her until she started to cry. This went on for about two years. And the longer it went on, the more the girl felt like she wasn’t even a person anymore. She was just some object of ridicule, a distraction for some bored middle school boys. No one seemed to care about who she really was, or what she felt, or thought, or believed. All the girl ever really wanted during those painful middle school years was for someone, anyone, to see her— to look at her as someone that was worthy of love and deserving of dignity and respect. All she wanted was to be accepted as someone worthy of belonging.
Fast forward about 15 years later, and the young girl, now a young woman, was finishing up graduate work in a large east coast city. She was working for an LGBTQ rights organization that was lobbying for same sex marriage in her state. Most of the people who worked there were young, identified as part of the LGBTQ community, and had had terrible experiences in the Christian church. Some of her co-workers had actually been kicked out of their homes by supposedly Christian parents. At the very least, most of them had been told at some point, either by pastors or religious family members, that they were sinful, and that they were probably going to hell. The more the young graduate student got to know her co-workers, the more she she began to identify with them— not because she was gay— but because she realized that these were people fighting to be seen. These were people fighting to be seen as human beings worthy of love and respect. These were people who were hungry for belonging and acceptance. And she knew exactly what that felt like.
Fast forward one year later, and our girl had moved to the other side of the country, and was now working with the unhoused community in Los Angeles. On her very first day in the new job, she shadowed one of the other case managers in her department, and she saw something familiar in the eyes of a young homeless man. He was a deeply troubled man, but she could still see it. She had come to recognize it so well— the hunger to be seen. The hunger to be seen as something more than a problem, or more than an issue that people want to sweep under the rug. The hunger to be recognized as a person worthy of love and respect.
We all want to be seen, don’t we? We are all hungry for it. Even if we’ve never experienced bullying, or discrimination or homelessness, I think we can all relate to what I would argue is a fundamental and universal human desire— to be seen, accepted and loved for who we truly are. If you’re not sure about the universal nature of this hunger, I would suggest that you just take a look at the rise of social media. We put ourselves out there on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, hoping to generate likes, hoping people will follow us, hoping people will see us. Every new ‘like’ or ‘follow’ is like a tiny affirmation of our existence. But of course, it’s never really enough, because most of the time it’s pretty superficial, and so we only ever get more and more hungry— to the point of starving, even. And it only makes matters worse that in our society today, we are so quick to throw labels on people, assigning them to a stereotype or stigma rather than seeing them for the unique and precious individuals that they are. Maybe it makes us feel more secure in our own identity to be able to put other people into certain categories. Maybe it makes us feel more safe to be able to know who is “us” and who is “them.” However, just because we feel more safe and secure, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re seeing things as they really are.
Today’s Gospel reading, on a certain level, is all about how we see people— or in some cases, how we don’t see them. The people on the king’s right hand were the ones who saw people in need and had compassion for them, seeing them as fellow human beings worthy of love and care, lowly though they may have been. The people on the left— the rather unfortunate goats— they were the ones who closed their eyes to the least of these. They did not see those in need as being worthy of their time or attention. And, as we all know, having heard this parable a million times, things didn’t turn out so good for the folks on the left. It’s not so good to be a goat.
We’ll come back to the sheep and the goats in just a moment, but first I want to share a story about a confirmation student I worked with a few years ago. She was a reticent student— she made it quite clear to everyone that she didn’t want to be there. Miraculously, she made it through the two year program, and on the day of the last class, when she got up to read her final reflection paper, I admit I was surprised by what she said. She said that she had changed, that she wasn’t the same person as she was when the class started two years ago. And she said that for her, one of the most transformational experiences of the class had been our trips downtown to serve Friday night dinner at the soup kitchen. Now before the confirmation class, she had never served at a soup kitchen before, and so she had some assumptions about the kind of people she would encounter there. She was a little bit afraid of what the patrons would be like. And so she was greatly surprised to discover, after our first night serving dinner together, that the people who ate dinner at Central Baptist Church on Friday night were actually not all that different than herself. Sure, their clothes might not be as nice. They might be from a different country, or even speak a different language. But at the end of the day, they were people just like everyone else— children of God just like everyone else. Bearers of the image of God just like everyone else. The last line of this young woman’s reflection paper said it all— “always be compassionate to other people” she wrote, “because you never know when it might be Jesus in disguise.” Over the next several years, I saw this young woman continue to grow and change. She became more socially conscious, she became interested in politics and social justice issues. She wanted to help build a better world, all because her eyes had been opened, and she had seen people for who they really were— beloved, precious, children of God.
So, back to the sheep and the goats. In today’s parable, Jesus talks about how those who care for the least of these will inherit the kingdom of God. Now this is one of those thorny spots when it comes to interpretation, because a lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus is saying here, that if we want to get into heaven, we better make sure we do enough to help those in need. But of course this is problematic, because as Christians, we profess that we are saved by grace, not by works. And even if we were somehow to be saved by our good works, just how much would be enough? Is it enough to serve an occasional meal at the soup or give canned goods to the food pantry every few weeks? Is it enough to send a card to someone who is sick or donate our used clothing to goodwill? How much is enough to ensure we don’t end up with the goats on the left? It’s a dangerous path if we start to go down that rabbit hole.
Luckily, I don’t really think that’s how salvation works. And actually, I don’t think Jesus is talking about heaven here at all. In fact, I think a great deal of the time, when Jesus talks about “the kingdom,” he’s not talking about a place we go when we die. He’s talking about here and now. This life. This world. After all, what is it that Jesus himself taught us to pray? “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” In Luke 17:21 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for asking when the kingdom of God would arrive. “The kingdom of God is already among you” Jesus says. In today’s parable, the king tells the people on his right that they will inherit the kingdom. Well, what is the kingdom of God, if not a place where the hungry are fed and the lowly lifted up? What is the kingdom of God, if not a place where every person is truly seen, loved, accepted and cherished for who they really are— for who God created them to be? What is the kingdom of God, if not a place where the things we are most hungry for—love, grace, acceptance, and belonging— are given to us in radical abundance? Why should we have to wait until we get to heaven to experience these things? Why not right here? Why not right now?
We live in a world full of people who are starving— starving for food, sometimes, yes— but also, starving to be seen and loved. We live in a harsh world, where people are starving for compassion and kindness. We live in a individualistic world, where people are starving for community. We live in a divided world, where people are starving for unity. We live in a cynical and disillusioned world where people are starving for hope. Well, brothers and sisters this is what I believe— that when we open our eyes to others— especially those who are different from us, to see in them the very image of God— we bring about the kingdom of God. We build the kingdom among us here and now with every kind word, every compassionate gesture, every act of generosity, every time we reach out. We build the kingdom in this way, not just because we are able to offer someone else something they are hungry for, but because in the process of doing so, we, ourselves, are transformed. We begin to see people differently, we start to see the world differently, and we start to catch glimpses of the kingdom.
So that’s why I’m here today. I’m here today to invite you to join me in doing some of this transformational, kingdom-building work. Down at First Congregational Church in New London, we are starting a new outreach program. We’re calling it the New London Urban Outreach Program. Our mission with this program is as follows: “using Christ’s gospel of radical love as our guide, we will seek to build bridges across economic and cultural divides, breaking down stigma and stereotypes within our communities and forging a path towards deeper personal and communal transformation.” In other words, we want to build the kingdom. We will do this work by inviting volunteers from your church, and other UCC churches, into downtown New London for comprehensive discipleship experiences. Prayer, worship, education, service and theological reflection will all be blended together in this program. But most importantly, the work you will be doing will bring you into direct contact with those who are most hungry to be seen and heard, those most desperate to be treated with a little more kindness and compassion. If this sounds like something YOU might be hungry for, come and talk to me after worship and find out how you can get involved.
There’s one more thing I want to say this morning before I close. I want to tell you why I am doing this. I want to tell you why I, specifically, feel passionately about this project. Maybe you already figured it out. Maybe it was obvious. But just in case. Remember that little girl from the beginning of the sermon? That was me. The graduate student working with LGBTQ young adults was me. The young woman working with unhoused clients in Los Angeles was also me. My life has been transformed by doing this kind of work. I’ve seen glimpses of the kingdom of God, glimpses of a different kind of world. I’m hungry for more and I want to share that kind of experience with others. I invite all of you to join me in whatever way you can. Thank you, and God bless.