Longing to Belong – A Flock of Geep, Matthew 25:31-40

One day when my children were in elementary school a battered old car that didn’t belong to anyone in our neighborhood was parked in front of our parsonage in Worthington. When my kids saw it out there and that there were some people in it they had two very different reactions. One of them wanted to call the police and the other one said, “Let’s go out and see if we can help them.”

I share that story because it represents two very different reactions we can have to the least of these that Jesus talks about in the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. We react uneasily or fearfully if we see others only through the lens of “stranger danger” or we feel some degree of empathy for fellow human beings. There are other options of course – we can blame them for whatever problems they have or we can avert our eyes and simply pretend to not notice and hurry by.

My guess is that most of us fall into several of those categories at different times depending on the situation and what else is going on in our lives at the time. Our level of hospitality or empathy for people in need can fluctuate like an Ohio thermometer. Sometimes we feel warm and caring and other times when our own problems are too heavy on our minds, we can be a bit more like frosty the snow man—at least I know I am.

Today is our final installment in a series called “Longing to Belong” and it’s fitting that we give this text from Matthew the final word because of its unique perspective on what it means to belong to the human family and ultimately to God’s eternal kingdom. This text in Matthew is Jesus’ last teaching to his disciples before his passion and death on the cross. The separation of the sheep and goats is called the last judgment because it tells us in very simple but powerful images about what is required of us to belong in the Kingdom of God. It is both a judgment and a warning.

Note first of all that Jesus is the one who decides who gets in. He is the one who welcomes the sheep into his kingdom and quite literally tells the goats to go to hell. Judging is not our job but God’s. I saw a billboard sign along the road somewhere recently that said it very well, “Just love them all. I’ll sort them out later, God.”

Secondly, this is not some far off end of the world second coming of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel there is no ascension story. The risen Christ doesn’t leave the world behind to return at some undetermined date. Matthew’s Gospel ends with these words we know as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is not a time or place when the risen Christ is not with us to empower us and to check up on how we’re doing.
So how do we make disciples of all nations? The sheep and goats parable tells us in very clear and practical terms – by offering hospitality especially to those in need. That’s it – one simple question – have we been hospitable or not? I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little nervous. However my day of reckoning comes will Jesus remind me of all the appeals for charity I’ve thrown away unopen? Will he parade before me the starving children of the world or just the homeless people on the street corner that I’ve hurried by on a cold winter day to get to my nice warm house? What other missed opportunities to serve others will he bring back to painful memory like a haunted Facebook year in review? I’ve always had this fear that when my life flashes before me at the end that it will be boring, but this is much worse than boring.

A book club that I’m in just finished reading a book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist who has done research on how and why morality develops in humans. Leave the sheep and goat metaphor aside for a minute because Haidt compares humans to chimpanzees and bees. I’ve never known any chimps personally, but Haidt says that while they are very smart animals they do not develop any sense of loyalty to any other chimps. There actions are always self-interested. At the other extreme are bees that are totally organized to perform individual roles for the benefit of the hive they live in.

The bad news is that Haidt’s research concludes that we humans are 90% like selfish chimpanzees. The good news is that we are also 10% like bees. In other words, we are capable as we well know of compassion and acts of hospitality. We do make sacrifices of our time, energy and money to help others in need.

But what makes the difference in our hospitality for others? When and why do we act like bees instead of goats, I mean chimpanzees? Haidt lists religious affiliation as one of the community building groups that can trip what he calls the “hive switch” that makes us less self-centered and more “groupish” like bees. He has studied a variety of social groups and through scientific research identified certain activities that bind individuals together and allow us to merge our individual identities into a larger whole.

I took a friend of mine to her very first Ohio State football game a few years ago. We were soaking up the atmosphere and excitement of the best darn band in the land making their dramatic ramp entrance and performing Script Ohio, and then those 100,000 fans stood as one and sang “Carmen Ohio,” the OSU Alma mater. When we sat down my friend Linda looked at me with amazement in her eyes and said, “I saw people actually crying during the alma mater.” And I said, “O yes, this is a religious experience for many people.”

I thought I was just being clever, but according to professor Haidt I was exactly right. He uses college football and all its pageantry, songs, cheers and traditions as a prime example of behavior that can trip the hive switch, a bonding of total strangers into a unison choir. It’s easy to see how the things we do in worship, singing hymns, reciting common prayers, rituals like baptism, communion, weddings and funerals are similar group building activities. As a side note, our familiarity with the rituals as regular attenders in worship also means we need to be sensitive to newcomers who may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the “routine” that we take for granted.

So the hive switch is what makes communal action and hospitality possible. Theologically I’d call that the Holy Spirit within each of us. Where my theology pushes back at the scientific analysis of human morality is where Haidt concludes that we humans are best at what he calls “Parochial altruism.” In other words we extend hospitality most often and most easily to people who are like us. That’s obviously true, but what science can’t account for is the inbreaking power of God’s spirit that makes all things possible, even radical hospitality for the strangers in our midst.

So, what does that all have to do with sheep and goats? Most of us know we aren’t good, righteous sheep all the time. I have a wonderful friend who is the most caring person you can imagine. He’s a retired firefighter and EMT and felt called to that kind of vocation because of his gentle, caring soul. But in that work he witnessed some trutly horrific acts of inhuman behavior. I remember one time he told me about going on a squad run to help an 84 year old woman who had been brutally beaten are raped. My peace-loving friend shook with emotion as he told me he didn’t trust himself to be in the presence of that rapist for fear he would kill him.

In the very best of us there is some goat. I believe it’s a smaller percentage than Haidt’s 90% figure, but it’s there and we are in danger if we forget it. I even read that Andy Griffith admitted that there were times when he wanted to beat up Barney Fife. By sharing our humanity in Jesus God knew up close and personal about our goatish tendencies. Even Jesus didn’t always practice what he preached. He got angry at times and called people fools or a brood of vipers. He got so angry with the money changers that he turned over their tables and drove them out of the temple with a whip.

Jesus understood none of us pure bred sheep. We are a flock of Geep, a hybrid of hospitality and goat-like selfishness that sneaks out when we’re uncomfortable or fearful or insecure.

The parable makes such a clear cut choice between sheep and goats, good and bad, there is no middle ground. So we wonder if there’s any hope for us Geep. You bet there is. Matthew includes this judgment story as a warning. Jesus makes the choice so stark to impress us with the urgency of how we treat each other. His words certainly ring true for the troubled world we live in where there are literally millions of hungry, thirsty, ill-clothed, unhealthy, and imprisoned people. The surprise in this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats realized that their treatment of neglected, marginalized people was how they treated Christ himself. We can’t use that excuse. We’ve been told, we’ve been warned, and we who know what it’s like to long to belong have a duty to treat others not just the way we want to be treated, but the way we would treat Christ himself.

At our church conference Thursday night we watched a powerful video message from Bishop Palmer. The video is being shown at every church conference this year to introduce the mission theme for the West Ohio Conference for this Conference year. The theme is “Be Not Afraid—There is enough.” Be not afraid got me wondering what kind of fears prevent us from being the good hospitable sheep Jesus calls us to be. Bishop Palmer said that when we are afraid there aren’t enough resources to go around, when we live out of scarcity mentality it’s hard to share what we have for fear we won’t have enough for ourselves.

There’s no doubt the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and in prison, those in need of warm clothing as winter approaches – those needs can be overwhelming. But just because we can’t do everything for everybody is no excuse for doing nothing. Bishop Palmer used one of my favorite Bible stories to make his point about how we can overcome our fears of scarcity by living out of faith in God’s abundance. In the feeding of the 5000 story the disciples are afraid they can’t feed the hungry crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach.
They very pragmatically take inventory of the food they have and come up with just 5 loaves and two fish. This is obviously not enough to feed over 5000 people. But Jesus tells the disciples to give him what they have. He takes it, breaks it, and blesses it and there is not only enough to feed and satisfy everyone there, they collect 12 baskets full of leftovers that can go to the local food pantry.

The message is that when we feel like we don’t have enough time or energy or resources to care for those in need if we give what we have to God in faith it will be enough. A year ago no one would have believed that this church could regularly feed 100’s of neighborhood children who don’t have lunches on days when school is not in session. But a few people saw the need and had the faith to start a new ministry, and guess what – in the last year we’ve provided over 5000 brown bag lunches to our neighbors. As the need grew there were always enough volunteers, enough food, and enough love to meet the need.

We are called to treat everyone the way we would treat Jesus! Wow! That’s a tall order for us imperfect fallible Geep. None of us treat everyone all the time like we’d treat Jesus, especially when Christ comes in a Halloween costume disguised as a hungry, sick, ill-clad prisoner! “But Jesus, if we’d only known it was you!!”

But here’s the really good news—we know from other stories about Jesus’ grace and mercy that he doesn’t expect perfection. Just look at the rag-tag bunch of disciples he chose!! And other New Testament writers share the same message of mercy and amazing grace. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That’s because none of us are good enough to pass the sheep/goat test on our own merits.

I John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The sheep and goats parable is both a warning and a way into God’s kingdom. It forces us to look honestly at how goat-like we sometimes are, and when we are brave enough to do that we are humbled and fall on our knees in confession.

I like the way a preacher named Ronald Luckey interprets this text. He says “The King will judge us and give us hell. He will show us the suffering, starving children. We will feel their pain with terrible regret and remorse as we relive those missed opportunities to love and help others.
The King will show us all the times we’ve failed to do God’s will, and the goat’s horns will weigh heavy on our heads.

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve – The king will look at you and me and say,
‘You who have full cupboards are truly hungry, I will feed you.’
‘You who dress well are truly naked, I will clothe you.’
‘You who have lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison, I will set you free.’

The king will give us back our lives, judged on the basis of our deeds but sentenced on the basis of grace.”

The same king who says “Father Forgive them,” the king who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, including yours and mine. Thanks be to God.

A Wise Heart

While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

Speak Truth to Power

In his book “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale” Frederick Buechner challenges preachers to tell the whole truth of life and the Gospel with the closing line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Buechner says, “…in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’” Buechner offers this commentary: “They are not the most powerful lines in the play, but they are among the most telling because in them it would seem that Shakespeare is telling us something about himself and about the way he wrote his play…. In the interest of truth-telling there seems to be no risk Shakespeare is not willing to run as if from the conviction that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”

It is the weight of the very sad times of political and social chaos in our country that demands that this foolish old preacher say what I feel and not what I ought to say.

I have watched President Trump and his band of billionaires violate the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution in his first month in office, and since only a few Republican representatives and Senators have had the courage to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian bully tactics I figure it’s time to add my voice to those who fear the consequences of his heavy-handed ways. I doubt that it will do a bit of good since the system of checks and balances built into our Constitution are currently suspended until enough Republicans realize the mortal danger we and the world are in if the current pattern of oppression and selfish nationalism is allowed to continue.

I continue to hope that sooner rather than later moral courage will override blind party and ideological loyalty in enough members of Congress to prevent the worst of the damage. But in the meantime innocent immigrant families are being torn apart, US citizens are being detained at airports for hours because they have “Muslim” names, and hate crimes and murder are being committed in the name of putting America First. This is wrong in the name of Christian values that proclaim that how we treat the “least of these” is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). More than at any time in 150 years we are in a struggle for the soul of America like the one Lincoln described at Gettysburg “to see if this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
There is hope that Congress will do its job and investigate the Russian connection to the Trump campaign and administration. Those of us who remember Watergate know what a long and painful process that kind of inquiry can be. Whatever the truth is about the firing of General Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s business connections and potential conflicts of interest, and the meddling of the Russians in the electoral process, we need to know the facts before any verdict can be rendered. That investigation needs to occur, but I do not believe we can afford to allow this President to wreak havoc on marginalized people and on our environment for as long as that process will take. And we don’t need to.

We already have ample evidence to take action against this President and begin impeachment proceedings. On January 20 President Trump swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and he has failed to do so in the first month of his Presidency. I am no Constitutional expert, but here’s what the Frist Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers believed those basic freedoms were so central to our democracy that they spelled them out in the very first item in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of a free and open society. Faith-based people and reporters are on the front lines of the truth tellers in our society, and therefore the first people that authoritarian governments try to silence. Yes, I realize the amendment says that Congress shall not abridge those freedoms and so far it’s been executive orders and policies that have banned people from Muslim countries and excluded critical media from White House access. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to haggle over the technicalities while Rome burns, but it seems like common sense to me that if Congress can’t abridge those freedoms then neither can the President.

And it is Congress’s job to provide checks and balances and control a President who violates his Constitutional duties. If they fail to do so then they too are breaking their vow to uphold the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the weaknesses of humankind well enough to know what great power can do to even a well-intended person. We forget at our peril the wisdom of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that President Trump does believe he is doing what is best for the U.S. and what he promised to do during his campaign. The problem is that we do not live in an isolated nationalistic world. Fear is turning people all over the world into self-centered nationalists who are willing to sacrifice the best qualities of humanity for a false sense of security.

Yes the future is scary. It always has been. I wrote after the Brexit vote (“A Lament for Unity,” 6/25/16 post) that the history of centuries of bloody wars in Europe flowed from nationalistic fear, and now that misguided populism is spreading like a virus all over the world. Like it or not modern technology has created a global economy that we cannot put back in the bottle. We need forward-looking vision about how to adjust and thrive in a global community. We can’t retreat back into an isolationist, industrial age that is no more. To do so is only going to fan the flames of hatred and make us less secure, not more.

Cruising with a Mission

Some people think I’m “at sea” most of the time, but as I started to write this I was literally. It was 80 plus degrees on the Western Caribbean on a late February morning, and I was feeling a twinge of guilt when I thought of my friends back home in “snOwHIO” – but only a small twinge. A much bigger guilt pang came from the memory of our brief time in Trujillo, Honduras, the final port of call on our 7-day cruise.

After a brief introduction to the history and culture of this poor Central American country from an amazingly well-informed and friendly tour guide whom we were surprised to learn is a 16-year-old high school student, we enjoyed lunch and time on a lovely private beach before heading back to our ship. The contrast between our ride in an air-conditioned bus to a luxurious cruise ship and the living conditions we saw from the bus were even starker than I expected. We knew from reading and from friends who have been to Honduras on mission trips that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, but seeing women doing their laundry in a river and crowded, dilapidated homes with dirt floors packed together on muddy dirt streets adds a dose of reality that left my wife and I wondering what to do with that experience.

The situation is even more dire because we learned that there is no public education in Honduras. That means poor families who cannot pay to educate their children have no viable means of ever breaking out the cycle of poverty. Little children as young as 5 or 6 trying to sell us sea shells or bananas as we walked by have little hope of a better future and are vulnerable to being seduced by drug dealers and human traffickers.

Is it wrong for those of us who can afford to travel to visit places like Honduras just to escape the discomfort of northern winters? Do our brief stops in places like Trujillo do more harm than good for people who need tourist dollars to improve their economy? Those are complex questions, and Trujillo is a fascinating case study. Cruise ships have only been stopping in Trujillo and its new port called The Banana Coast, since last October. The amenities in Trujillo suffer in comparison to those in well-established cruise stops, but some fellow passengers on our ship who had been on the very first cruise ship to stop there 4 months ago were amazed at how much improvement there had been in such a short time. The residents of this small city on the north coast of Honduras seem genuinely excited and pleased to welcome tourists. In the city and on rural roads children and adults all waved to our bus as we drove by. They need and want tourism to flourish there as it has done in other Caribbean countries.

I had a wide range of feelings in the 7 short hours we were in Trujillo. There were selfish and petty thoughts because of the inconveniences–like being crammed into small tender boats for transport to and from the cruise ship because the port is unable to handle large ships, or delays in our trip to the beach because of narrow streets and bumpy rural roads not ready for prime time vacationers, or simultaneous irritation and compassion for persistent street vendors trying to make a living, and admiration for Denison, our young our guide who works days and attends high school in the evenings–all topped with the aforementioned helping of guilt.

Before leaving on our cruise we were blessed to be able to spend a week with some of our kids and grandkids in Houston. While we were there I was struck by a conversation one evening at the dinner table between our bright 11 year-old granddaughter and her parents. They were talking about a situation she had experienced at school, and her parents asked her if she knew what “integrity” is. She thought for a minute before saying, “I think it’s one of the seven deadly sins.” We got a good laugh at her expense, and a good discussion of what integrity means followed. I am the last person to criticize and in no way mean this to be critical. I doubt that I had any idea what integrity was until I was twice Katilyn’s age. But her response has stuck with me because it sometimes seems like far too many adults in our world fail to grasp the critical meaning and importance of integrity or avoid it like it is indeed a deadly sin.

Asking the integrity question about our experience in Honduras reminded me of a line from one of my favorite movies, “Bull Durham.” There’s a young brash pitcher in that classic baseball movie named Eby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, describes Nuke at one point by saying that he “isn’t cursed with self-awareness.” Self-awareness, of course, is not a curse but a basic life skill, but at times, like when it spoils your vacation with feelings of guilt, it can feel like a curse.

What does living in integrity mean for disciples of a Lord who tells us that how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters is how we treat him? If I say to Jesus, “But when did I see you in poverty or in need of safe drinking water or adequate education?” (cf. Matt. 25:31-46), will he say, “Remember that vacation in Honduras?” Integrity and self-awareness do not come with on-off switches. We can’t turn them off while we go on vacation.

One of the benefits of travel to other parts of the world is learning more about other cultures. Never in human history has cross-cultural awareness and appreciation for our rich diversity been more needed. For better or worse we are world citizens and our global village is getting smaller and smaller. The information age has wiped out barriers like distance and geographical separation that once made cultural or sectarian and ethnic differences more separate and distinct. Today integrity cannot mean cultural purity and myopic prejudice against beliefs, customs and ideologies other than our own. Different does not equal wrong, and the only way to overcome those attitudes is through understanding. Some of that understanding can come through education and learning critical thinking skills, but it is better learned through direct human interaction.

The good news is that we humans don’t come into the world with innate prejudices. As the great song from Rogers and Hammerstein says “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” (see my post “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” (Feb. 24, 2014) for more about that song and the musical “South Pacific.” My point is that because cultural biases are attitudes we learn from others they can also be unlearned. Cruise ships are a wonderful place to improve cultural understanding and competence because they are a microcosm of the world. On our ship, the Norwegian Jewel there were over 60 nationalities represented in the 1000 member crew. Add 2400 passengers, all living in close quarters, and you have a captive audience with the potential of being transformed from strangers into a multicultural community.

Having been on several cruises I have learned that passengers can either treat the people who feed us and clean our cabins as servants or get to know them as people. Because the cruise staff works very hard and have many responsibilities there isn’t a great deal of time to talk with them, but my wife and I have learned that taking the opportunity when we can is a great way to learn from servers in the dining room or cabin stewards about their personal lives. On this cruise we were especially touched to hear about the sacrifices and loneliness these people experience from two servers. Nashley (Columbia) and Maricel (Philippines) are both single moms who leave their children at home with grandparents for 8-10 months of the year while working long hours on the ship. Both of them said they enjoy their work, but when we asked if they wanted their children to work on cruise ships when they are adults they immediately said “no.” They want something better for their children.

On one of our final nights on board, Jamie, our cruise director, after introducing many representatives of the crew commented on her desire to create a feeling among crew and guests of being a “family” on board. She said she thought the U.N. could learn from their crew how to live and work together. My desire is to learn from Norwegian Cruise Lines what they do to create that community within their crew and how to share that experience more intentionally with guests. Our impression is that something is being done there that we have not felt on other ships and should be affirmed and expanded.

Coincidentally (or was it a God-incident?) the same evening I was writing about this and the cruise director mentioned it, we stopped by one of the lounges where a musical group was doing a tribute to the Beatles, and one of the most powerful songs they did was “Imagine.” As the audience joined in singing the powerful words to that great old song, they seemed more relevant and needed in our broken world than ever, and in that small sample of our global village much needed and appreciated words of hope.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will live as one.” – John Lennon

It’s tempting to end on that idealistic note, but just as cruises end and life returns to reality, so must this reflection. On one of the final days of our cruise I overheard a fellow passenger talking about his time in Honduras. He said he enjoyed it, but then added, “I saw too much poverty. Once you’ve seen that don’t want to see it again.” He’s right. Witnessing human suffering is not pleasant and not something we go looking for on vacation. But it’s real and it’s not going away. Jesus told his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” (Mark 14:7). The question is do we want to enough to figure out a way.

Thanks for a Spiritual Giant, Bill Croy

Today I was privileged to attend a magnificent celebration of the life of Rev. Bill Croy, a colleague and friend. We all knew Bill was dying, but that didn’t stop him from living to the end. He planned his own service, and I again vowed to do the same, as soon as I come to grips with my own mortality or at least quiet my fear long enough to think about it. Bill helped me get a good start. He chose some of my favorite Scriptures – Micah 6 and Matthew 25 – about justice and mercy and humility and service. He also picked some of my favorite hymns, including a jazz version of “Amazing Grace,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well with My Soul,” and ended the service with “Hymn of Promise.”

We were challenged today to give ourselves away and use all the gifts God has given us, as Bill did all his life, even as ALS slowly took away most of the tools he had used before to share his love for all of God’s children. These last few years Bill refused to give in to ALS and just found new ways, mostly Facebook and the internet, to keep inspiring and supporting others. He humbled me and shamed me when I was tempted to throw a pity party for some minor problems in my life which were laughable compared to what he and his family were dealing with.

One of Bill’s colleagues, Rev. Laurie Clark, described Bill well as a Spiritual Giant who lived a life of integrity that had authority because he embodied the Gospel. (She said it much better than that.) I came away inspired from Bill’s service but also humbled, wondering and maybe a bit jealous, if people would say anything half so great about me when I die. I am reminded of reading somewhere that when I come to that great transition time in my existence, God won’t ask me why I wasn’t Bill Croy, or Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi. God will only ask if I was the best Steve Harsh I could be.

The answer to that question for me today would have to be a resounding “NO.” But I am grateful for days like today when I am reminded of that and for the tomorrows I still have to change my life so I change that answer.

Rev. Clark closed her remarks today about Bill with the observation that when a spiritual giant no longer walks among us, he or she passes on the torch to those left behind. Bill, I may have to carry a small torch or a candle compared to yours, but if we all live a life that gives away all of whatever gifts God has given us, together we can brighten the darkest corners of our world.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

God Gives the Geep Hell, Matthew 25:31-46

One of the mysteries of life is why no one wants to sit down front in church.  Everywhere else– at the theater or the sports arena or a rock concert–front row seats go for top dollar, but church folks come early to get those great back pew seats.  Explanation: in the old days the front pew was called “the sinners pew.”  Maybe good theology to put those who most need the sermon directly under the preacher’s watchful eye–but not good marketing to sell those front row seats.

In a similar vein, this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 25 about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats may explain why in some churches more people sit on the right side of the sanctuary than the left.  In the parable those on Jesus’ right get praised and have their tickets punched for heaven, while those on the left go the other way.  And the reason is simple—those on the right have treated the hungry, lonely, naked, sick, and prisoners with compassion while those on the left have not.  And Jesus says in the most famous line from this parable, “what you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me” (verses 40 and 45).

Matthew 25 is one of the lectionary texts for November 20, the last Sunday before Advent begins.  It is the Sunday in the church calendar known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  Since the church liturgical year begins with Advent (the four Sundays prior to Christmas), Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and is a time when the Scripture lessons focus on the end time and judgment for how we have lived our lives.  It’s the bad news before we turn to the good news of the birth and incarnation of Christ at Christmas.  The Hebrew Scripture for this Sunday is from Ezekiel 34:11-24 and contains a very similar passage about the fate of good and bad sheep.

Among the challenging questions these passages raise are these: What kind of king is it who judges our lives?  And what kind of critters are we who come to be judged?  It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between an actual sheep and a goat.  It’s not so easy to identify saints and sinners.  Case in point—a week ago Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a much revered and respected iconic hero.  Some have said he was one of the most influential people in the state of Pennsylvania.  But in a few short 24-hour news cycles the whole world learned Joe Pa is a flawed and fallible human being like everyone else.

There’s a marvelous contemporary parable attributed to Rabbi Haim, a traveling preacher which addresses that question:

“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament.  Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell–row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.

As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?  As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.’  ‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’

I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.”

Saints and sinners look a lot alike.  We not pure-bred sheep or goats, but a mixed breed, and that’s why the difficult task of passing eternal judgment should be left to God and not done by fallible human beings. [Check out Jesus’ quotes: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) and “If any of you are without sin, let him/her cast the first stone” (John 8:7).]

This parable makes me wonder what Jesus will do with me.  Some days I’m the sweetest most lovable, patient, compassionate person in the world.  The next day I may throw away an appeal for a worthwhile charity without even opening the envelope.  I’ll see someone in need and hurry by on the other side because I’m too busy and my agenda is much more important than yours.  And those who have caught my immature, competitive act at a basketball game or on the golf course know that God is definitely not done working on me yet.  I hope Jesus catches me on one of my good days because I’m not a full-blooded sheep or goat.  I’m a half breed or what Ronald Luckey once called a “Geep.”

And I’m not alone.  I have a dear friend who is the most compassionate pacifist I know; but I remember a conversation we once had about an 84 year-old woman who had been raped and tortured.  There was not one ounce of compassion in how my friend would have treated that rapist if he could have gotten his hands on him.  Or take the lovable actor Andy Griffith.  I once read he had dreams of beating up on dear old Barney Fife.

What will Jesus do with all of us Geep?  Ronald Luckey says our judge will give us hell.  God will show us all of God’s children who have been abused, who are starving and suffering, and we will feel the pain God has always felt.  We will feel regret and remorse as God parades by us all the missed opportunities we’ve had to serve others—all those times we were too busy to help or to care, too scared to get involved, too torn by conflicting loyalties.  We will see in vivid Technicolor all those times we were too selfish or stupid to figure out how to reach across the table and feed each other.

And we will have to stand there and take our medicine.  I have always been afraid that when my time’s up and my life flashes before my eyes it will be boring.  But boring will be so much better than regrets and remorse.  So much better than having Jesus show me all the times I failed—failed my moral and ethical responsibility to do justice and mercy.  He will make me listen to all my lame excuses. “But Jesus, if I’d known it was you; of course, I’d have visited and clothed and fed you.”  And with a tear in his eye, Jesus will say, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (vs. 45).

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve.  Luckey says the King will look at you and me and say:

  • “You who had full cupboards are the truly hungry; I will feed you.”
  • “You who are well-dressed are the truly naked; I will clothe you.”
  • “You who had lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison; I will set you free.”

The King will lift us up and give us back our lives.  We are judged on the basis of our deeds, but sentenced on the basis of Grace by a friend and savior who says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).  We Geep are judged but loved by the lamb who takes away the sins of the world because we are not special.  We are not better or worse sinners than anyone else, and if we repent and ask, none of us are exempt from forgiveness or from needing it.

God will show us how meager our offerings and services have been.  God will show us the times we turned our backs on those in need and show us the ravaged earth we are leaving for our grandchildren.  God will give us that kind of hell because God cares that much.  But then if we are humbled and sincerely confess our sins of commission and omission, God will offer us back our lives.

God will say, “I love you still.  Go, do what you failed to do yesterday.  Reach out with your broken arms and feed those other broken souls across town or across class and racial boundaries, across political, ideological and religious divides.  Feed each other.  For I am still hungry and naked and in prison and a stranger, and what you do to the least of these, you do to me.”