You know that thing they do when you’re watching sports on TV? There’s some spectacular play, so they slow it down and play it again and again and again? It’s been an instant replay sort of week. The images of children in chain link cages, video of little ones crying out for their parents, green mats on a concrete floor, with children curled up under crackling space blankets. The images sear into our collective consciousness, like other images before – the ones of numb high school students pouring out of the building after a mass shooting, the three year-old refugee boy washed up on the beach. The shock and horror reaches us in real time, in this virtual world that we live in, and the replay of those images on our screens again and again is like a slow motion hockey game replay. Each time we see it we become more shocked, shamed and stunned.
I confess, my initial response this time round, to the gut wrenching images and the accompanying sense of anger and helplessness, was to distract myself by binge watching my latest Netflix drama. I might have chosen instead to Trump-bash on social media, it’s always nice to have somewhere to put the blame. The idea of separating children from their parents breaks my heart and this week and I didn’t know what to do with that. I told myself this is America’s problem; they have the resources to fight this absurdity. I tried hard to turn my gaze the other direction, to wag my finger at Trump, to say shame on you America. I couldn’t shake this feeling that we have to take a real good look at what’s happening in our own backyard.
On Wednesday, World Refugee Day, we were reminded that Canada doesn’t have a perfect track record on immigration. We’ve been known to detain children too. And on Thursday, National Aboriginal Day, we remembered the intergenerational trauma caused when children were torn from parents’ arms and sent to residential schools. Reminded too that indigenous children constitute about 50% of children in care in this country while only being about 7 percent of the population. And somehow the slow motion replay of the children in cages in Texas, well it landed closer to home. It became harder to ignore.
I’ve been told that I can get too political in my preaching. Of course I’ve also been told that I’m not political enough. It’s the nature of the beast. I hear the critique from both sides and I’m not sure I’ll ever find the right balance. What I do know is that Jesus’ efforts to bring about a new kingdom had political undertones. And besides that, if looking for an appropriate Christian response to children torn from their parents’ arms is a political act then I’m willing to risk getting a bit too political, at least today I am.
As the week wore on I knew my Netflix drama was going to do little to inform my preaching. But I was finding it hard to move beyond Trump bashing. I did eventually choose to start reading and watching and absorbing the images of the week and I made a last minute scripture lesson switch. I thought it might be wise to choose a Bible passage that could easily speak to this moment. I had hoped that this passage from Matthew could speak to such a time as this. What better word from Jesus this week than “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you brought a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you took care, in prison and you visited?” What better line for this week than the powerful concluding bit of this scripture: “just as you do it to one of the least of these you do it to me.” Clear and simple: be a sheep, not a goat. Be the kind of person who does the right thing.
It’s just that I’d forgotten this is a parable. And the thing about a parable, which I say every time we wrestle with one, is that parables are trouble. They have these twists and turns and trap doors. And this one is no exception: “You wander into it thinking you can figure out how to be counted among the sheep, only to discover that the very attempt locates you within the goat herd.” Apparently I forgot about the bits in here around the question of eternal judgment too. So please bear with me because I was trying to make it simple this week and it’s just possible that I have inadvertently done the complete opposite!
I could skirt the eternal judgment issue a bit. As a parable there’s no reason to think we are talking about literal and eternal damnation. Eternal judgment in a parable is more of a tool to get a point across than a predictor of the future. I might also bring to our attention the translational issue that suggests the judgment on all the nations here is actually just referring to two “nations” the Gentiles and the Jews. So it’s not a universal sort of thing and maybe doesn’t apply to us.
But here’s the thing: whether there’s eternal judgment or not, whether it’s used here to get a point across in a parable or whether it’s foreshadow of what is to come, all that’s moot. Because as one commentator points out “Matthew’s Jesus does not instruct disciples that they should become the salt of the earth or the light of the world; he tells them they are [those things]… Jesus does not command his followers to hunger and thirst for justice, pursue peace, and so forth; he blesses those who do (5:1-16). Judgment simply brings out a reality that has been present all along.” It’s not who you are it’s what you do.
Do you know what I mean? Judgment isn’t something that happens when all is said and done and some all-powerful God reviews all the evidence and makes a ruling. We’re not judged by the findings of a tally sheet. Not by who we are, or who we think we are but by how we live moment to moment. Each moment is a choice to bear good fruit or not. Judgment already is, right here and now. Judgment is already found in the choices we make. This is a story that reveals a glimpse of how to live our lives not how to set ourselves up for judgment day. This is about being a Christian, now. It’s not that we have to wait for some afterlife to learn on which side of the great divide we land. In fact, every effort to identify ourselves as good sheep will inevitably make us goats.
Which I find pretty humbling because most days when it comes to political things I am very much convinced that my side is the sheep side! The challenge here is to spend less time trying to place ourselves in the story, and more time living it.
- S. Lewis wrote a book many years ago, The Great Divorce. The narrator finds himself in Hell, Grey Town it’s called. There’s a bus excursion to heaven. A lot of people leave before the bus ever arrives but those who wait find their bodies have become transparent as they arrive at the foothills of heaven. Being so transparent makes the experience rather larger than life, the luscious grass pokes at their feet, it’s all absolutely stunning but nonetheless a bit unsettling, overwhelming even. The spirits of heaven keep offering care and reassurance but many choose not to stay. Some of them have obligations back in Hell, others are annoyed that people lesser than them are in heaven. Some are convinced the whole thing is a trick, too good to be real. You know how it is when you don’t try that new thing because you are so stuck on what is, so used to good enough, so familiar with the way things have always been that you can’t even imagine that things could actually be better?
As it turns out, all you need to do to stay in heaven is receive the gift. Those who return to Grey Town, they don’t even realize it’s hell, because honestly it’s not that bad, a lot like earth in fact. It’s joyless and friendless and uncomfortable and people keep getting farther and farther apart but it’s not so bad. They return to hell, because they simply can’t receive the gift. They choose instead to hang on to all sorts of things that they’ve told themselves have value. They’ve lost their ability to imagine something better. I don’t know, maybe there’s a story you’re familiar with in there?
These moments when we are collectively transfixed on such gut wrenching images, like the children in Texas or the students after a mass shooting or the three year-old refugee boy on the beach, they provide this opportunity to tap back into our collective imagination. The whole world focuses on these impossible images and we begin to see things that we were blind to before. The horror, the real lives they represent cause us to pause and ask ourselves, is this all there is? Can we not do better than this? These moments piece our imagination. And we begin to remember that we can be more than this, we can do better than this.
When Jesus says to the sheep I was in prison and you visited and when he says to the goats when I was in prison you didn’t visit, they offer back to him the exact same response. Both say: When did I do that? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I have no recollection of doing/not doing that. This is where the parable trap door gets revealed. We have no business thinking that we are the people who have it right. No business sitting back and thinking – at least I’m the one making a difference.
Christ doesn’t come “in the form of those who visit the imprisoned but in the imprisoned being cared for…. Christ doesn’t come to us AS the poor and hungry. Because as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh and blood people knows… the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. We all are equally as Sinful and Saintly as the other. ..Christ comes to us IN the needs of the poor and hungry,” and in the youth pouring out of schools and in the needs of the babes being torn from their parents arms, “needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known. And we are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. Placing ourselves or anyone else in only one category or another is to tell ourselves the wrong story entirely.”
As José Míguez Bonino wrote: “God would not presume to appear to a hungry person as anything but bread.” God wouldn’t presume to appear to the lonely as anything but companion. God wouldn’t presume to appear to the child torn from a parent’s arms as anything but reunification. God wouldn’t presume to appear to the students of another mass school shooting as anything but a sense of true safety from terror and violence. The same holds for your life. Every last one of us is both
The sheep didn’t know they were sheep because they were doing Christ’s work not being Christ. The goats didn’t know they were goats because they were doing the same old thing.
If you take anything away from your hour here week in and week out I hope it’s a touch more courage to have the imagination of Christ, a bit more courage to imagine a better world and a little conviction to let go of the labels people throw around and instead to offer the action most appropriate to the need. Let’s not shame and blame Trump, let’s tend the soil so better trees can grow. Good soil produces good trees good trees produce good fruit. Maybe the slow motion instant replay of tragic events offers a way for us to pause, see what’s really happening and do the right thing for such a time as this. Maybe our imaginations can be sparked in ways we could never imagine all on our own. Amen
 José Míguez Bonino Room to be People, 1979.