by Rev. Scott Summerville
“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 into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 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 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.’
For the past year our congregation has been involved in a project in Ghana called the Dorcas project, which involves building and equipping a health clinic in a place called Yipala. The project will serve people in a region that currently has no formal health services at all. I want to plant an idea in your mind this morning. When we signed on to participate in this project, the mission coordinator for our area, Joseph Ewoodzie, told us that he wanted not only our financial contributions; he wanted – and in fact expected – that one or more persons from this congregation would go to Ghana to meet people of Yipala, to see firsthand what this ministry is all about, and do some hands-on work on the project. So I plant the idea that some of you, maybe some of us, might consider making this journey next year.
I also recommend that you see a movie entitled Yesterday. You can get it from the video store or through Netflix. It is an amazing movie, and it will help you understand why projects like the Dorcas project are so significant. There is also a message in this movie that is straight out of the gospel lesson for today. I will tell you a bit about this film.
It is the first African film to win an Academy award. It is set in South Africa in Zululand in the countryside at the time when AIDS was beginning to ravish the population. The heroine of the story is a woman named Yesterday. She has a seven-year-old daughter named Beauty. We meet them on a long, hot journey as they are walking from the village of Rooihoek to a clinic in the village of Kromdraai . Our congregation’s involvement in the Dorcas project has made many of us aware of the fact that in rural Africa seeing a doctor or getting any kind of medical care, if it’s possible at all, often means that sick people must make long and difficult journeys. In this film we see Yesterday taking a long walk to the clinic at Kromdraai. But every time she gets to the clinic the lines are too long, and she must turn back and make the long walk home.
On their long walks to and from the clinic her little daughter chatters away, asking a thousand questions, unaware of how sick her mother is. The child is so bright, so full of life. When she eventually does get to see the doctor, the doctor asks Yesterday where she got her name. She tells the doctor that her father gave her the name “Yesterday” because, he said, “Things were better yesterday than today.” After giving her a test, the doctor begins asking Yesterday many disturbing personal questions: Has she slept with anyone else other than her husband? Does she use protection?” Yesterday stares at the doctor in despair and disbelief. The doctor does not say so directly, but it is clear that Yesterday has just been given a dreadful diagnosis: she has AIDS. The doctor says that it is important that Yesterday contact her husband so that he can be tested. Yesterday looks sadly at the doctor and asks, “Am I going to stop living?” The doctor does not answer.
Yesterday has only fond memories of her wedding and her life with her husband, John, and she has been faithful to him, so for her the diagnosis of AIDS is not only a death sentence, but also a death sentence for her husband, and a revelation that her trusted husband has been unfaithful to her. In one moment her world falls apart. She returns to her village. When she cannot reach her husband by telephone, a friend agrees to take care of Beauty, and she goes to Johannesburg to find John at the mine where he works. She waits for him as he emerges from the mine after a long day’s work. She tells him of her diagnosis. His reaction is to beat her viciously. Returning home, desperate, sick, and brokenhearted, she vows to herself that she will stay alive until her daughter goes to school the following year.
In the community where she lives there is a great fear of AIDS and great ignorance about how it is contracted. Those who suffer from AIDS are ostracized. In a nearby village a woman was stoned to death when it became known that she had AIDS. Yesterday is more and more alone, except that she has one dear friend who consoles her and helps her with her child.
One day months later she is approaching her house, she sees her husband seated outside, frail and shaking, looking utterly defeated. He has come home, his own body ravished with AIDS. He is in a helpless state. At first she simply walks past him not even acknowledging his presence, but later she brings him into the house and she confronts him across the kitchen table. When he breaks down and asks for forgiveness, she consoles him. When the fearful villagers demand that he leave their village, Yesterday builds a hut for him outside of town, leads him there to care for him, and there he dies.
Following the death of her husband, Yesterday lives long enough to see her child go off to school. It is a painful, poignant film. It is not a tale with a happy ending. It shows humanity with all our capacities for harshness and cruelty and betrayal. And in the midst of all those things it shows the human capacity for forgiving love and extraordinary endurance. It is a powerful film.
For me there were many tense moments in watching this film, but probably the most wrenching was the reunion between Yesterday and her husband. I had mixed feelings when she let him into the house, and even when he broke down and asked for forgiveness, I was not myself prepared to forgive him. But she did forgive, and she took him in and cared for him.
We come today to a most unusual story in the Gospel of Matthew. There are many startling things that Jesus taught, and Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is certainly one of the most startling. It is a parable – imaginary depiction – of the day of judgment. Jesus imagines the judge of the universe separating humanity into two groups: on one side are those who fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, gave clothing to the naked, and visited the sick and the prisoner. On the other side are those who did not feed the hungry, who did not provide water for the thirsty, who did not welcome the stranger, and did not clothe the naked or visit the sick or those in prison.
What is so odd about this story is that there is nothing “religious” about it. The people who pass the test and get to heaven are not “religious” people. God does not ask whether they were Methodists, Baptists, Jews or Hindus. God does not seem to care whether they went to church or synagogue or temple or whether they bowed to the east or bowed to the west. God does not seem to care whether they said their prayers ten times of day or once a year. In this parable the judge of the universe does not care whether people are male or female, gay or straight, young or old, married or single.
From a Christian point of view the story is curious because there is no mention of faith. There is no religious test for getting into heaven. The Lord of the universe does not say, “Come to me all you who know my name and who have faith in me.” In fact the people who are saved in this story, the ones who make it into the heavenly kingdom, do not even know that they have a relationship with God. The Holy One says, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me water, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison and you noticed me and responded to my need.” They say, “When? We never saw you before.” The Holy One says, “When you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.”
This is a very challenging story for those of us who are in the religion business. This story seems to say that God is not in the religion business; God is in the compassion business. In the film, Yesterday, you see the real nature of compassion, not as a lovely word, but as something that operates in the messiness of human life. For John, Yesterday’s husband, compassion meant that the woman he betrayed, the wife he had beaten with his own hands, the woman who was going to die because of his unfaithfulness, this same woman was going to protect him and clean him and feed him and keep him warm until he died.
The word “compassion” comes from two words, “com” meaning “with” and “pascho” meaning “to suffer.” We may tend to think of compassion as being nice or kind, but at a deeper level compassion means to suffer along with others.
I spend a fair amount of time in hospitals and nursing homes, and my mother is in a healthcare facility. In those places you realize that being compassionate isn’t just doing a nice deed for someone on an occasional basis. Being compassionate means being deeply human in hundreds and thousands of small interactions with other people who are hurting. It means how you are in a thousand interactions, when you’re tired and when you are confronting the suffering of others and it is not comfortable to confront that suffering. Day in and day out, year in and year out, compassion is your way of being. Compassion is a spiritual quality that some people have. When we are in the hospital bed or the nursing home, we feel in our bones the difference that it makes, when we are touched with compassion physically, and when we are spoken to as one human being to another, and not as somebody’s job or somebody’s caseload.
The startling thing about Jesus’ message in Matthew 25 is that God is in the compassion business not the religion business. Or another way of putting it: unless religion is in the compassion business, religion is not doing God’s business.
I got a phone call last week from a guy named John. Many of you have met John. He is a retired New York City fireman and an active member of the United Methodist Church in Bay Ridge, where Mary Ellen I served for seventeen years. He has visited Asbury Church a number of times. John was calling to say that he was standing on the property of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, where the church and the parsonage and the garage used to stand. John said that he had just watched the wrecking crew knocked down the last wall of the garage. Over the past two months the old church building constructed in 1898 was demolished. The house we lived in for seventeen years, a beautiful hundred-year-old brownstone, was demolished. The last thing standing was the garage next to the parsonage. He said it took just four swings of the wrecking ball to knock it down.
John had been part of the planning committee that had decided that these buildings needed to come down in order to make way for a new church and a new ministry for the United Methodists in Bay Ridge. In the redevelopment plan, a new church and a new parsonage are going to be built, funded through the sale of part of the land. I spent seventeen years keeping those buildings standing, but I have made my peace with the necessity of change. It would have required millions of dollars to repair the beautiful old church.
If you ever think that the church consists primarily of a building, then talk to people who have seen their church burned down or see it torn down. A building, no matter how lovely, is just that, a building. The judge on the last day does not say, “Nice stained glass!” or Beautiful bricks!” and surely God does not say, “Great sermon!” God’s standard of judgment is the standard of compassion.
“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.”
I take these words this morning to be a threefold challenge: I take these words as a personal challenge to my life, my values, my stewardship of my time and resources and talents and commitments.
I take these words as a challenge to my ministry as a Christian person and as a minister of the gospel, to keep foremost the standard of compassion, the challenge of the gospel to address human suffering and to live out the gospel in action.
I also hear these words in the context of this particular moment in history. We do not know where the current economic crisis is heading or the full impact it will have on our nation, on the most vulnerable in our society, or what impact it will have globally on the poor. In such times the church is surely a place of spiritual comfort. We all need spiritual comfort. But if the church is only a place of spiritual comfort and not a place of spiritual energy channeled into works of compassion, then we have missed the message.
Whatever stresses we may be facing personally, the times we live in are times that challenge us to greater effort, to greater commitment, to greater sacrifice, to the works of compassion, to being a church that is engaged in the world and working compassionately to address human suffering.
So be it.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.