The Least of These

The Rev. Betsy Porter
St. James Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs, Ark.
November 20, 2011
Proper 29A
Last Pentecost (Christ the King)
Matthew 25:31-46

The king we honor on this day is Christ the King, the one whose focus is not on the rich and powerful, but on every single lost sheep, on every single homeless person and on every single abused child.

As most of you know from hearing me preach over the years, the gospel becomes real and relevant to me, and I hope to you, when I see it reflected and lived out in the stories from my life and the lives of others. Those stories often well up from long ago times and from people I had almost forgotten. They seem to take on a life of their own. I am just the observer and the narrator. Those remembered stories often make me laugh but also strengthen my faith as I tell them.

The story that reflects the gospel message to me this week is not nostalgic. It is not taken from my past. It is not funny. And I’ve fought against using it for the past two weeks. But it will not go away. I must not turn my back. This story must not be forgotten. It must be told.

The pastoral setting for Penn State is often referred to as “Happy Valley”. It has been anything but a pastoral happy place since scandal rocked the university two weeks ago. Child abuse was allowed to take place for over a decade unchecked at that university which prides itself on its moral code. Every single person who knew and did not stop this abuse shares the burden of guilt. As riots ravaged the campus and a coach was made a king and a god, a young couple held up a sign that was caught on the national news. It read:

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

(This a rough translation of a quote by Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman who supported the American Revolution and was a life-long Anglican.)

Some good men and probably women saw and knew and did nothing. They turned their backs. And when they turned their backs and closed their eyes, they turned their backs and closed their eyes on the least of these and thus on their Lord.

Every single person who observed this abuse and then physically walked away did this to the “least of them”.

Every single person who knew about this abuse and did not report it to police did this to the “least of them.”

Every single person who knew about this abuse and passed the buck did this to the “least of them.”

Every single person who turned his or her back did this to the “least of them.”

Our response to their lack of response might be , “I wouldn’t do what they did or didn’t do.” I think we need to ask ourselves, “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?” “Lord, when was it that I saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” The sin is not just that of a community but of us as individuals. The sin is not just one of commission but one of omission.

Let’s look at the gospel again. There is one part that jumps off the page at me:

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.

I think these lines can be summed up in one sentence: “When my people needed you, you turned your back and you walked away.” We cannot 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?” We cannot say that because we know the answer before we even speak. Whenever we do not do it to one of the least of these, we do not do it to our Lord.

Whenever we throw the plastic bag for the Boy Scout food drive in the trash instead of filling it with canned goods, we do not feed our Lord.

Whenever we see a street person cold and shivering outside McDonalds and do not buy her a cup of coffee, we allow our Lord to be cold and thirsty.

Whenever we fail to invite a stranger to breakfast or coffee hour here at St. James’, we fail to invite our Lord.

When we hoard our winter coats instead of clothing the naked, we allow our Lord to shiver, abandoned and cold.

Whenever we know about child abuse and neglect and do not protect and clothe this child in safety, we fail to protect and clothe our Lord.

Whenever we allow someone to be sick and alone, we fail to care for our Lord.

Whenever we do not write to someone in prison nor visit them, we do not take care of our Lord.

Whenever we do not do it to one of the least of these, we do not do it to our Lord.

Whenever we choose to ignore poverty, injustice and abuse, we choose to ignore our Lord.

I challenge you. Where is the good news in this picture? I think the good news is that we can fight injustice and oppression and poverty. We can make a difference. I wasn’t going to tell a story to make this point but it is just sitting there waiting to be told.

Someone from this congregation gave me a very nice winter coat some time ago to be given to someone in need in our community. I hung it on my office doorknob but didn’t get it delivered. I didn’t know it then but the time for delivery had not yet arrived.

Last week I met a teenage girl who was new to Eureka Springs. Her father is in prison and her mother is troubled and unable to parent and care for her. A good woman in our community learned of the situation and gave the young woman a job in her restaurant kitchen. She told me that the teen had no winter coat and of course I told her I had the perfect coat. By the way, the teen is about my size. So, I came home and tried on the coat which had been hanging on the doorknob for so long. Well, it was a child’s coat and the sleeves went up to my elbows. It wouldn’t work. I took it to the ECHO Thrift Store and asked the store manager, Sharon, if I could trade it for an appropriate one. Of course, she said “Yes” and we picked out a wonderful warm coat that I delivered later that day.

In the process of picking out a coat, I mentioned that I had heard there had not been a coat drive in Eureka Springs this year. Sharon told me to pick out four men’s coats, four women’s coats and four children’s coats to hand out at the Flint Street Food Pantry. And so that one small coat became thirteen coats.

I asked around as to why there had not been a coat drive this year. Someone told me that so many coats had been collected last year that there couldn’t possibly be enough left in people’s closets for a drive this year. I don’t believe it!

The bad news is there are cold people and hungry people and abused children out there. The good news is that we can do something about that. I urge you to think about the coats you own. Many of us have an extra we could take to ECHO or Flint Street or the Doggy Shop or Purple House. We can share our food; we can keep our eyes open so we can see abuse and neglect; we can do something about it.

When we open our eyes and refuse to turn our backs, we can minister to the least of these. Bringing justice into an unjust world by feeding and clothing and befriending and protecting the least of these is very good news. Just as evil has a ripple effect so does goodness. It is good news that we live in a world where one coat can become thirteen and the least of these can be warm and safe.

“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.”

Amen.