09/27/2010

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On Mosques, Borders, and Faith I delivered this sermon on September 19, 2010 at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ Call to Worship What words tell the truth? What balms heal? What proverbs kindle the fires and passion of joy? What spirituality stirs the hunger for justice? We seek answers to these questions—not only for ourselves, but for our communities and our society. What are the ways of being with one another that enable life to flourish, rich with meaning? When violence has fractured communities, isolated people, and broken hearts, how can life be repaired? We ask these questions not to arrive at final answers, but because asking them is fundamental to living. (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes) Readings Martin Luther King, Jr. – from Letter from a Birmingham Jail Was not Jesus an extremist for love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist -- "Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? Jeffrey Lockwood , “Good Works” in Bless All Who Serve In our modern age of apathy and egoism, there is cause for hope whenever people care about something beyond themselves. But there is more to being human than feeling deeply, for we risk becoming impassioned fools. Our minds must conspire with our hearts. We should care enough to think—and think with great care. No human endeavor shows the double-edged nature of caring like religion, with its boundless capacity to foster our humanity and its vulnerability to thoughtless passion. In a world of suffering, a moral life means not merely believing the right things but doing good works. What does it mean that Jesus was divine, if we treat the homeless man in the alley as less than human? What does it mean for God to be all powerful, if we don’t use our power to help others? What does it mean that the Bible was divinely inspired, if we write laws that are profane? What does it mean for there to be a heaven, if the hell of violence burns next door? What does it mean that Mary was a virgin, if we do not heed the cries of a woman being raped or abused? What does it mean to be “saved,” when a child loses all hope? What does it mean for God to have declared that Creation was good, if seventy species disappear every day? Many people care about religious matters, but James asks us, “What is the good of that?” If our beliefs have meaning—if we care about divinity, God’s power, ancient wisdom, heaven, miraculous birth, salvation, and all of Creation—we must act as if our souls depend on it. As Gandhi taught, you must be the change you want to see in the world. Let us build a life in which our work speaks for our faith. Sermon: On Mosques, Borders, and Faith Several years ago, I had just begun my official ministerial internship as a Unitarian Universalist campus minister at the University of Illinois. On an early-autumn, late-summer Sunday much like this one, I preached a lighthearted sermon about Elvis Presley to a small crowd of maybe a dozen people. A point of trivia: Elvis and I are actually fourth cousins once removed. It’s true. My mom and Elvis share a set of great-great-great grandparents. Anyway, part of the sermon was about watershed events in our lives—like, “where were you when you heard that Elvis had died, when JFK or RFK or Martin Luther King Jr. were shot, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface.” The college students who were there that day said that their generation did not yet have such a monumental event. They remembered Princess Diana’s death, but it wasn’t that impactful on American youth. They were still very young when the first Gulf War occurred and when the Berlin wall fell. Paradoxically, they were a bit melancholy about this absence in their lives. That was Sunday morning, September 9th, 2001. Forty-eight hours later, their generation had a watershed event. The following Sunday, I preached a very different sermon. In those days following September 11th, I was called a terrorist lover for standing up for my beliefs. I had received a series of inflammatory pictures by email from a friend in the military. They depicted such things as a lake in the place of Afghanistan, and a fighter jet flying into the sunset together with a quote from Deuteronomy intimating that military retaliation was the will of God. I replied to the sender and all others on the mailing list, most of whom I knew, and asked that I be removed from the list, that I had no room in my life for such vengeful statements in the face of continued grieving and on the eve of a dangerous and arguable military action. Someone on the list who I didn’t know replied with a colorful expletive to describe me, and wondering whether there was an especially hot place in hell for terrorist lovers. I was accused by others of obviously never having lost a loved one at the hand of violence. Otherwise, I would want vengeance too. I have lost a family member to execution style, first-degree murder. A Navy colleague and former shipmate of mine was killed in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and another friend of mine and Gail’s was seriously injured. I understand the natural anger that comes with grief, especially sharp grief, but anger is not grief’s only element, nor need it be grief’s lasting element unless we weaken the fabric of our own lives. We also experience denial, depression, bargaining and ultimately, acceptance. Getting beyond the anger is difficult. Getting to acceptance sometimes seems impossible. But acceptance doesn’t mean that what happened is ok, just as forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Acceptance for those who grieve any loss simply means we have learned that we must continue living. It means we understand that the world is not always a safe place to live. It means that we are learning not to take life for granted because we must take death as such. It means looking deeper than anger. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised over the past few weeks to learn that two-thirds of New Yorkers, still grieving, many still angry, understandably not yet ready for acceptance, oppose the major renovation of an existing building for Cordoba House, an Islamic cultural center and mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. But surprised I was. What anger, fear, pain, and misunderstanding lead so many people to oppose a house of worship because a small group of terrorists invoked the same religion? What blocks us from looking deeper into understanding what the Cordoba Initiative is really trying to achieve in the community? Why are we so quick to generalize and stereotype others to the point that we can't rationally understand the difference between good and evil? “When violence has fractured communities, isolated people, and broken hearts, how can life be repaired?” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at the Arizona law that allows law enforcement officers to arrest someone on reasonable suspicion that they might be in the country illegally. I have read the law and even agree that a responsible interpretation and enforcement of it would not result in racial profiling or the denial of rights. But I also know that in July several of my colleagues witnessed in person, and I have seen the video of, Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County and his deputies arresting Sal Reza, an immigration rights activist, without probable cause as he stood on a street corner, not obstructing justice, not engaging in civil disobedience. The sheriff had just begun also setting up sweeps for others in which his deputies intentionally create “legitimate contact” for the expressed purpose of arresting people suspected of being in the country illegally. He wasn’t even shy on CNN in talking about this tactic. “What words tell the truth? What balms heal? What proverbs kindle the fires and passion of joy? What spirituality stirs the hunger for justice?” I have long held that those who planned and carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the name of Islam were no more Muslim than those who invoke Christianity to kill doctors who perform abortions are Christian. The hijackers that day were not carrying out God's will, just as the pilot of a U.S. military fighter jet is not. Although over the years I had seen the twin towers from a distance, as I drove through New Jersey and New York City, I had never been at the site either before or after September 11, 2001 until yesterday. I felt it appropriate that I should go to try to better understand what is motivating people’s concern around the Cordoba Center and an apparent increase in discriminatory rhetoric against Muslims in the United States. As my family and I walked around the area, I thought constantly of what it must have been like that day, having only seen the news footage on TV. I marveled yesterday at what, with the exception of the ongoing construction, seemed to be a normality of daily life. People going about their business even if there were an unusual number of “tourists” like myself, curious, paying respects, peering through fences. Nine years later there are no indications to the casual observer of what happened that day. The Pentagon is the same in this regard, long since rebuilt to its original external appearance, back to normal, whatever that is. It’s what we humans do to survive. We naturally seek restoration and balance and normalcy. Of course, we must always look deeper if we are to gain a greater understanding. There any number of street activists, conspiracy theorists, religious extremists and others available near the trade center site to tell you what really happened, or still will. Our family was pointed out specifically as we walked along by one group of young men reading from the Bible and prophesying how all white people would soon meet their demise at the hands of God. They were praising Jesus as a non-white person, but I doubt anyone would seriously consider them to be legitimately representing Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other loving faith community. We also, of course went to the site of the proposed Cordoba Center. 51 Park Place. A non-descript, unmarked, except for the stains on the stone front where a Burlington Coat Factory sign once hung, and currently unoccupied building, except for the single police cruiser and officer sitting in front of it, as one might expect. What was especially interesting was that as soon as we emerged from the subway station just a few yards from 51 Park Place, the first thing we saw was St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Around the corner are St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Church, related Episcopal congregations that have been in lower Manhattan literally for hundreds of years. There is the Battery Park Synagogue a few more blocks away. The Assafa Islamic Center just a few blocks away in the other direction. And 7 or 8 other Islamic sites in Manhattan and as many as two dozen across the five boroughs of New York City. There are five Mormon congregations and well over a dozen Jehovah’s Witness Halls in Manhattan, both with their sometimes aggressive door to door recruiting tactics. There are several Church’s of Christ, who still believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old. There are four Unitarian Universalist congregations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Unitarian Universalists, in case you didn’t know, are “groups of lost people trying to re-create that which Jesus has already fully given at the Cross.” Or at least that is what one of many websites describing our faith as a fringe cult says. Most interestingly, just a few doors down from 51 Park Place, on the corner of Park Place and Broadway, within view of the Trade Center site, is an Amish market, selling the food and products of another little understood, extreme by some views, Christian group who have eschewed modern conveniences and culture--parked smack in the middle of all that is modern in the western world. Neither the Amish, nor the UUs, nor the Jews, Episcopalians, Mormons, Churches of Christ, and even other Muslims in the neighborhood seem to be of national or even local concern. For some reason, America seems fixated on the construction of a cultural center that will focus on interfaith cooperation and which will include a mosque, just as the twin towers included a Muslim prayer room, because it is somehow too close to the site where over 2,000 people of many nations and many faiths perished because of the fanatical misinterpretations of Islam by a few extremists. “The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” That well-known extremist, Thomas Jefferson once said, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” And yet you may not know that Jefferson was also frequently very critical of Judaism, bordering on being vehemently anti-Semitic. He once wrote that the Jews were “a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family of god of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.” How close is too close? How many is too many? Too often we fear or condemn what we do not truly understand, even when we know the right thing to do in the end. Just a few years ago in Texas, the Texas State Comptroller tried to deny religious non-profit status to a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Dallas area. She had listened to her staffers who had told her that Unitarian Universalism was not a religion because its members were not required to believe in God. As unconstitutional as it may be, Texas has a religious litmus test for institutions and for political candidates that they must believe in a higher power. A legal battle began, but what changed the comptroller’s mind was when she attended a memorial service for a friend at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin. She realized that we Unitarian Universalists were indeed a legitimate faith community who loved and cared for and memorialized their own just as she did. She learned a little bit about something she did not understand just by being present. How many of you can name the five pillars of Islam? How many of you have been to a Muslim prayer service? Sometimes it simply takes a little first-hand learning and experience, understanding and compassion. Last year, just as Ramadan was beginning, the Clear Lake Islamic Center opened its doors next door to the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston Texas, the congregation I served for six years until this summer. This was long before the current controversies around the nation of protesting the building of mosques, of defacing their signs, of burning their holy books began. A few weeks before they were to open, their Assistant Imam came to me with a simple request to put a sign with their name next to our sign on the main road. You see, both congregations are set back from the road about a tenth of a mile. I, of course, said, “Yes.” The sign went up and remains there. Were we concerned that something might happen to one sign or the other? Did we wonder whether this might confuse people who would wonder if we UUs were somehow associated with Islam? Even if these thoughts crossed our minds, the point was moot. We did what we are called by our liberal faith to do. To love our neighbors as ourselves. Since then, the two have begun to cooperate in a variety of ways. This past spring when my intern minister, Kristin Grassel, now Assistant Minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, preached a sermon about Islam, many from the mosque attended, and interfaith dialogue began. Later this week the Houston Chronicle will publish an article about how the two congregations are working together. A couple of weeks ago in a New York Times op-ed piece, the Imam responsible for the Cordoba Initiative on Park Place, Feisal Abdul Rauf, wrote the following: “Cordoba House will be built on the two fundamental commandments common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We want to foster a culture of worship authentic to each religious tradition, and also a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions.” You may not recognize it at such, but the Imam was quoting a story in Matthew 22 in which the Pharisees and the Saducees are repeatedly questioning Jesus, trying to trip him up, trying to dismiss and de-legitimize his radical message and teaching. They asked him to tell them what was the most important commandment in the Jewish law. Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Even though they didn’t ask for a second commandment, Jesus gave them another, extremist that he was for love. He said, “There is a second and it is like the first. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as the Imam says that these two commandments are common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I find them to be central to Unitarian Universalism. We are free to believe in God or not. We are each free to have our own concept of the divine. But no one can deny that we are all here together in one unitary reality, together in a universe in all of its complexity, in all of its synchronicity, in all of its chaos, that sustains the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part (our seventh principle). This is the same as loving God with everything we have. As Unitarians, we are called to love and care for and nurture that which also sustains us and which is the unitary reality that we find ourselves in. As Universalists, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. So simple, and yet so difficult to do. Some of you will say that Muslims have a goal of converting everyone to Islam. At a doctrinal level, perhaps, but so do many elements of many faith groups. And I’ve never had a Muslim friend, acquaintance, or colleague try to convert me. Some of you will say that Islam is a religion of war, not peace, that it is too often used to perpetuate violence. But war and terror have been waged in the name of all religions for as long as we know. Religion has been invoked in every war that this nation has waged. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” simply means that the angry, the vengeful, always believe God is on their side. Some of you will say that Islam is homophobic. It is true that much of Islam is explicitly against homosexuality, as are many faith groups. It is true that the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church and the Clear Lake Islamic Center are never going to agree on this point. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t do good works together in other ways. It doesn’t mean they can’t have a dialogue, not with the self-righteous goal of converting each other to their belief, but with the goal of learning about each other more deeply. We could intellectualize a thousand reasons why we might be skeptical about Islam, or any other people who are different in some way that us--just as we Unitarian Universalists are often approached with caution by others. But in doing so, we miss the entire point. It’s not all about mosques and borders or even faith. It IS all about love. Loving our neighbors as ourselves. Loving that which sustains us with all of our hearts, and minds, and souls. This June at the Unitarian Universalist Associations annual general assembly held in Minneapolis, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and the first African American congressman to Minnesota spoke to the Assembly. He said the following remarking on the sea of yellow shirts that are part of our Standing on the Side of Love campaign: “There is enough love for you and for me, there is enough for the straight and the gay, there is enough for the people who were born in America and the new immigrants, there is enough for the blacks, there is enough for the whites, there is enough for the Latinos, there is enough for the Asians, there is enough for the Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Hindus. There is enough for everybody.” There is enough for you. There is enough for me. We don’t have to throw anybody under the bus. We don’t have to chase anybody out the door. We don’t have to say who doesn’t belong and who’s not included. There is enough, brothers and sister’s if we will embrace love, if we will embrace unity, if we will recognize the inherent and essential dignity of all living things." There is enough oil in each of our lamps, friends. Enough to find justice in a world too often steeped in anger, suspicion, and selfishness. Enough to love our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. Even as each of our lamps will eventually sputter out. They are trimmed and burning for now. Our task is live each day in love, letting justice roll down like water and righteousness like and ever flowing stream. We can build that land. May it be so. Call to Service AMOS 5:22-24 "Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
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I was hungry and... I preached this sermon at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ on August 29, 2010: Matthew 25:31-40 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' 41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." As I was reading from the book of Matthew, my guess is that some of you were thinking… “I’m not a Christian. I come to the UU church to get away from Bible readings. Some of you were thinking, “It’s wonderful that we can learn from all traditions, including Christianity, at the UU church.” Perhaps the first-time guests were thinking, “I wasn’t sure whether this was a Christian church or not, maybe it is…” And now you’re wondering again. And I know that the rest of you were thinking, “How in the world is he going to turn sheep and goats, the second coming, judgment day, the reward of eternal life and the punishment of hellfire into a Unitarian Universalist message?” And yet, how could a Unitarian Universalist message be anything other than firmly and deeply grounded in the sources of our living tradition, which include Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. And so, today, I have two messages. The primary message is that of the passage in Matthew, how we bring ourselves to care for others as our natural way of being when they are hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison; and how providing that care to the least among us is caring for all existence. When you do this to least of these, you do it to me. What we do to each other, we do to everyone and everything. I’ll address the second message first. It is one that Unitarian Universalists desperately need if we are to succeed in reaching out to others. This is to learn how to embrace our heritage, specifically our Christian heritage, rather than completely rejecting it. We need to know how to interpret the sacred texts of all traditions in a way that speaks to us. Someone will come to me after the service and say, “The Bible just doesn’t mean anything to me.” My response will be, “That’s why I’m challenging you to give it, and all of our sources meaning. Otherwise, being a Unitarian Universalist is meaningless.” Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther rejected the authority of the Pope and the Catholic priests, he did not reject all Christians teachings. Not long after, Michael Servetus, the Socinians, and Unitarians of Eastern Europe who followed, rejected the specific doctrine of the Trinity, they did not reject all Christian teachings. Universalists Hosea Ballou and John Murray rejected the doctrine of vicarious atonement and elect salvation, they did not reject all Christian teachings. Unitarians Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing rejected various aspects of Jesus’ authority as God incarnate, they did not reject the wisdom of his teaching. In fact, each of these and so many other heretics, protestants, and radical reformers did what they did, often at the risk of their lives and livelihoods, to preserve the power and importance of Jesus’ teachings. Today we Unitarian Universalists reject claims that any single faith is the only path for all people, but we embrace the wisdom that comes from all religious traditions. We embrace a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we understand that there is always something new to learn, and we so we look to our heritage, and to all wisdom, sacred and secular, holy and irreverent, orthodox and heretical in our journey. Just to be clear, Unitarians and Universalists were exclusively liberal Christian denominations until the early- to-mid twentieth century. A few years ago I met some visitors to my Houston congregation who were long-time members of another UU congregation in the southwest. They enjoyed the service they attended here, but a few days later I received an email from them expressing how upset they were that we would list on the back of our order of service that we use Christian teachings. They had never heard of such a thing in a UU church, had spoken with other UU friends who agreed with them, and were offended that we would single out Christianity as something that we teach to the exclusion of other teachings. I had to explain that what was listed on the order of service was the Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles and sources, which our 1000 congregations have endorsed as a whole. They include the source of direct experience, of Judaism and Christianity, of other world religions, of humanism, of earth-centered traditions and other prophetic voices. Several years ago, I was preaching a sermon in a small UU fellowship in Indiana that didn’t have a minister, and I made a passing reference to our Christian heritage. After the service, a member of the church Board came to me and said, “I didn’t understand what you meant about our Christian past, Unitarian Universalists were never Christian.” I had to explain that we were, and we were until not too many years ago, and that no one has ever declared us other than Christian, we have just naturally evolved into a more pluralistic and inclusive faith. We embrace the message of universal love in Christianity just as we embrace the struggle for freedom embodied in Judaism, and the sanctity of the journey inherent in Taoism, and the call to right ways of being in Buddhism, and the reverence for all that exists in Paganism, the power of reason and tolerance found in humanism, the power of necessary doubt offered by atheism, and so many other manifestations of faith found across the ages in the hearts and minds of more souls than anyone could ever count. We are all of these things and we are none of them, we are a faith that is both ancient and always brand new, we are a community of all souls. And so, it is critically important that we know how to interpret the second coming, the judgment day, the reward of eternal life and the punishment of eternal hellfire in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. So, when I was reading the passage from Matthew, I hope at least a few of you were multi-tasking and listening to the message itself. Let’s look at the passage again…It begins with Jesus teaching his disciples about the second coming and the judgment day, which some look to as a future event, when Jesus will return to the earth and will judge us according to our deeds or according to our faith. I make no such assumption. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker taught us over 150 years ago that Jesus himself was transient, as is any messenger, the words, and the message behind the words are what remain. The message here is that how we treat each other is critically important. In this story, all people are judged…all the nations are gathered. I believe we are all judged every moment of every day. How we treat friend, foe, and stranger, robbers and saviors alike, is central to our faith. Jesus said that he would come again in the lifetime of his disciples. Well, we know that this didn’t happen literally. But what if it simply meant that Jesus, like all of our loved ones who have left our physical presence, will return to us and be with us in critical times. We will use their examples when we need them. What if it means that we should live our lives as if he and they were still with us, offering us guidance. So many of my family and friends have died over the years, but each one of them, when I needed it, have been with me. Their lives and examples offer me love and support and guidance in times of need. That, for me, is the second coming. And the third and the forth and the fifth. As far as the judgment day goes Judgment day is every day in my life…we constantly judge ourselves, others judge us, history will judge us, we are judged against the standard of the teachings that we value, as we are judged according to our own deeds. We are only human, and so often fall short, but without something against which we measure our actions, we wouldn’t be very effective in being our best selves and improving how we are in relationship to others. Without a deep sense of values, of integrity as I preached about two weeks ago, we can’t be our best selves, we can’t minister to each other in love, and we can’t serve the community very well. Another element of the Christian scriptures is that, although they offer challenges to modern readers, they are very well-written. We find layers of meaning in a variety of literary devices. The first and most obvious here is the metaphor by which people are sorted for judgment—as sheep and goats. In the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish ritual, maintaining the purity of the Passover lamb is very important. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus himself is repeatedly referred to or treated as a Passover lamb. The sheep, symbols of purity and goodness, get to sit at the right hand of Jesus. Those at the left hand are goats--hooved and horned animals associated with evil. The sheep are told that they are blessed, that they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The meaning of the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God is a sermon for another day, but I read this not to mean that they are literally promised an eternal afterlife of milk and honey, but that they will experience all that is good here on earth…they will receive the kingdom that is made from the world. It doesn’t say that the kingdom is prepared from the heavens, but from the world. Our reward comes from the here and now. Now, the central and most familiar part of this passage: Jesus says to the sheep…. “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.” And the people who had done all of these good things didn’t even remember doing them for Jesus…They said “Lord, when was it that we did these things?” Jesus had to explain to them “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are the members of my family, you did it to me. Helping others is just what these people do without thinking about it, without worrying about what’s in it for them. They weren’t even aware that their good deeds had far reaching positive consequences. Doing good is just who they are. As Universalists, we believe that all people are members of one family. Any good, or any bad, done even to one member of the family is done to all and is done to God. God, for me, is not a sentient being, but the process of the entire universe. We are all part of the divine and the divine is part of us, and so anything done to even one of us is done to all of us. We literally save the entire world, one meal, one drink, one piece of clothing, one nurturing moment, and one visit at a time. This is the core of this passage for me. Another important element of this passage, which is so much a part of the text that it goes unnoticed, is that it is the people of all the nations who are doing either good or bad. Jesus, the pastor, is not the only one visiting and nurturing and feeding and clothing, even though through his travel and teachings he always set that example. He is again teaching others that it is also their job to feed and cloth and visit and nurture each other. Next, Jesus has the same conversation with those pesky goats. They did not provide the food, drink, clothing, care, and visit to even one of the least among us. He calls them the accursed and offers them eternal fire prepared not from the world but for the devil and his angels. Now again, we can take many paths here without rejecting the text altogether. For example, we can assume that there is a literal eternal hell somewhere, or we can accept this also as a metaphor for the scarcity, the poverty, and even the misery and sorrow that come to those who offer nothing to others. Just like those who did good as a natural way of being, those who didn’t help others also didn’t have a clue. They were ignorant to their indifference and to the negative consequences of not living in right relationship with those around us. They asked “When did we not do these things…” What they didn’t do to even one person, they didn’t do to any and all of us, and so we are all left hungry and thirsty, and naked, and sick, and lonely in prison. At the end of the chapter, Jesus again offers eternal life or eternal punishment…These are not literal rewards and punishments, but the reality of the condition that we will be in depending on how we behave with each other. We can create heaven and hell here on earth. If we care for each other, we will be closer to heaven. If we do not, our existence here is closer to hell. We know this from experience. The rewards of being generous are unlimited. The rewards of being indifferent or of looking out only for ourselves are few. The effects last as long as they are perpetuated…If they are perpetuated forever then they eternal for better and worse… A final interesting aspect of this passage goes back to the great complexity, care, and artistry with which this text is written. You may think that the Bible is just a bunch of ancient stories that don’t apply to modern life, but you’d be denying yourself access to some of the greatest wisdom, most masterful writing, and most discrete lens into the universal and timeless nature of the human condition that has ever been recorded. In chapter 26, immediately after this story, we are offered two actual examples of the whole story…but with an additional twist that I think points to the interdependent nature of all existence. The next two stories are about how we care for each other. First, Jesus is in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, and a woman is anointing Jesus with expensive oil. The disciples criticize him for letting her do it. They see it as a waste. Here we have a woman doing good, caring for Jesus, who has just predicted his own death. She is the least among us, and she is caring for Jesus. She should be getting cared for herself, bit she knows that what she does to anyone she does to Jesus, and so we see her literally caring for him. Jesus responds to his disciples, “Why do you trouble this woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” And so Jesus is cared for by the one who needs care. She is just doing what she does. It is just who she is. And Jesus says that wherever this good deed is told in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. Her eternal reward is her legacy of doing good. The very next story is Judas’ plan to betray of Jesus. Here is one of his inner circle, one who should be taking care of Jesus and others, and he is doing the opposite. He betrays Jesus, but later realizes his sin and returns the thirty pieces of silver he was paid. Then he ended his own life…This was his eternal punishment and his legacy. The chief priests decided that this was blood money and therefore it could not go back into the treasury, attempting to reverse Judas’ wrongdoing into a cycle of good deeds, so they used it to purchase a field to be used as a cemetery for foreigners. Often, when a member of the church is in need, people come to me not sure how to help. “What can we do to help them?” Is the most common question I am asked. We are clueless, even when we want to do good, on how to do so. This is because we approach each other too often as if we need fixing. We don’t want to see others suffer and so we try to figure out how to relieve their suffering. We want to solve their problems for them. But we can’t. If someone has lost a loved one we can’t end their grief, but we can love them. If someone is in trouble with the law we can’t solve their legal troubles, but we can visit them. If someone is literally or figuratively hungry and thirsty, we can bring them food and drink, for the body and the spirit. If someone is so financially strapped that they are without basic needs, we can give them some clothing. And this is where I do take this passage literally. The answer to how to care for each other is right here. Take them some food. Offer them a drink. Cloth them. Love them. Visit them. Let them say, "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.” When you do this to the least of these, you do it to me, and to yourself, and to the entire family of humanity, to all that exists. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle

Rev. Matt is a Unitarian Universalist minister and author.

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