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OPPORTUNITIES TO FIND GOD
Opportunities To Find God
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
As we were finishing our Monday night FIRL group we had found a variety of ways to think of this passage as encouraging and a guide to welcoming—but that said, Ron Johnson commented that it would not be a passage he would choose to welcome a newcomer. It is tough to focus upon finding Christ in every person when, if you miss the mark you’re headed toward eternal punishment. This is a story that just as often evokes fear rather than encouragement.
It is easy to be distracted by the dramatic language of this passage. Not only does it suggest that the stakes are huge but it sets a standard of care—see the face of Christ in every person you meet—that simply is not going to happen in real life. Nobody wants to be a goat but every one of us knows we have walked by more people than we’ve noticed—much less showed proactive care. On that criteria, we are all going to hell. But if we can get out of a crime and punishment mentality as well as our insatiable need to figure out how to measure ‘what is enough’, we can find a much more ordinary way to view the passage. In fact, I would argue that the more we can see this passage as descriptions of ordinary human encounters, the more wonderful—and holy—it becomes.
Think instead of every encounter with another person as an opportunity for connection. In real life, most of these opportunities do not actually become anything at all. But hopefully, you can recall a few instances in which you discovered something in someone that you would never have expected. All of us have been hungry, thirsty, left on the outside, vulnerable and exposed, sick or trapped with no way out. We know that about ourselves and see it in another, we discover connections that transcend secular differences of race, gender, economic status,political affiliation, church membership or any of the myriad other ways we see each other as different (and inevitably better or worse) than one another. Such secular distinctions are arbitrary in the eyes of God. They result in entitlement, self righteousness, discrimination and ultimately a diminishment of people. We cannot escape our prejudices but we should be humble enough to confess them.
I asked the FIRL groups when they had had such experiences. Linda Huffine told us about a homeless man who had just received a bag of groceries. He gave them away to another man. We would never expect a hungry man to give away food and I suspect very few of us would be so generous. Barbara Morris and Mimi Thurman described times in their travels that strangers went out of their way to help them. Barbara was stranded in Paris when she ran into ATM difficulties. She had no money and was stuck. A complete stranger offered her home and enough cash to allow Barbara to straighten out the problem. Mimi got separated from her son and husband on a train that was going in the wrong direction. She didn’t know the language and she didn’t have a cell phone. The conductor did not have time for her but a young woman volunteered her cell phone. And fortunately for all of us Mimi was reunited with her family. Especially when we are alone and at wits end, such times are grace notes in the cacophony of living.
If we are mindful, these moments of connection often occur when we least expect them. A young man was driving on an isolated rural road when he had a flat tire. When he was changing the tire, he put the lug nuts into the hub cap but when a large truck clipped the hubcap, the lug nuts were flipped out into the roadside grass—never to be seen again.. All the while, a man stood watching from behind an eight foot fence. The driver was uncomfortable with being watched, and more uncomfortable when he realized the man was behind a fence because he was inside the local mental institution. The patient volunteered that the driver could take one nut off of the other three tires and could probably make it to a gas station. The relieved driver blurted out, “That’s a great idea, how did you think of that?” The patient replied: “I’m here because I’m crazy—not because I’m stupid.” The driver could never have imagined help would come from a mental patient in the middle of nowhere. All of us make assumptions about who and what people have to say. We are often condescending, if not deaf toward children, boomers, Republicans and Democrats (to name a few). We do not want to see what we have in common.
Then there are those times when we learn how little we know. Our personal history makes it difficult to even imagine much less connect to another person’s experience. Years ago, I visited a hospital patient who told me about hearing gunfire in her neighborhood. She lived in anxiety and fear. As I listened, I realized I had not ever considered what that might be like. I had no experience. Another woman, ravaged by cancer, told me “The Lord don’t put more on you than you can bear.” For some, these words would have been a way to minimize or deny her illness but for her it was a way to trust God in the midst of her pain. I had much to learn from each of these people. Typically we see and hear what we expect. It takes a special hospitality to hear and see what is actually being said. It is easier to relate to categories instead of people—but when we do so, we run the serious risk of isolating ourselves and ultimately living disconnected lives.
Finally, there are occasions when there is a deeply intimate time of shared presence. These moments cannot be predicted but you can’t miss them when they occur. It usually is not the words but that you see and have been seen. It is the visceral knowledge that two people can share feelings beyond words. Such moments feed the soul. Jesus promised that it is in moments like these that we find life, indeed eternal life. These are the moments that give meaning and purpose to life. These are the places we will be connected to God. God, Christ himself, is in these moments. Though we and the first century Jews (and us) were accustomed to looking for God ‘up there’, Jesus taught us to look right here. Jesus said God is in these moments of care, regard and connection. Don’t miss them. That is where you will find God.
Yet, miss them, we do. When we are well fed, we might feel guilty, obligated or simply rationalize ‘they’ should have worked harder. But in none of those cases will we be actually connected. In real life it is difficult to create space for how we are alike—especially when what is most obvious is how we are different. Jesus literally blew up religious ideas about who belongs and who does not. What separates people is not the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure of religious righteousness. What seperates people is our insistence that human differences matter to God. We are constantly imposing human standards of ‘goodness’ and acceptability to justify our inability to connect to one another.
A spiritual writer I can no longer name (perhaps Merton) used the image of wells on the surface of the earth. On the surface they are separated and different. But at the deepest level they are all fed by the same water.
This faith claim, however, runs directly counter to most of our daily lives. Behaviorally, we spend most of our lives concerned with our ‘to do’ lists, our performance, our security, the well being of ourselves and our families. All of which are important but all of which can be distractions from what is most important. The structure on the surface does not give life. That comes from something else.
In real life, we will be lucky if we have these experiences of the Holy one in fifty encounters with others. But we can practice the spiritual discipline of hospitality. First that means remembering where to look for God. Then it means creating a space to find her. We must intentionally seek what we share when it is so tempting to focus on how we are different. It means giving up what we think we know about people long enough to be honestly curious. It means, remembering when we have been welcomed as a starting place to extend welcome. And finally it means that God is present in every circumstance of ordinary life—including the hard edges when we are overwhelmed, exhausted and at a loss.
Jesus promises that hospitality is the way to life. Sometimes all we can do is practice the practice. I had a spinning class at an absurdly early hour of the morning and the instructor told us: “When you wake up, put your feet on the floor. If you think about it, you’ll never show up.” If you want to be fit, put your feet on the floor. The same is true if you want to find God,
A whole lot of the Christian faith is about putting your feet on the floor. Practice hospitality. It is the way to connect with the Holy. Let it be so.