Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46
For those who have or know youth in High School or young adults in College or post-graduate studies, the season of final semester exams is looming. Final projects or papers are soon due as quickly as you can say “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The weeks before Christmas are spent not trimming the tree or baking holiday cookies but cramming in intense study sessions dreaming not of a White Christmas but of straight A’s.
I remember a time when I was in seminary. A renowned professor noticed how the number of students who went to the chapel to pray peaked during study week. One evening in the dining hall she saw fit to comment. She said in all her time she noted that that the power of prayer to influence performance on an exam had an inverse relationship to the proximity of the test. Her advice? Pray early, and make study your prayer.
I heard recently this following observation: if college students were in charge of creation, that after five and one-half days of rest the studying would begin at 11pm on the sixth day!
Our gospel lesson from Matthew today appears to be the final exam of a student’s heart. Jesus not only gives the questions that will appear on our final test on Judgement Day, but he gives the answers as well. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger.
It gets better than that. Not only do we have the answers ahead of time, but Jesus gives a test that anyone, yes, anyone, could pass. Jesus does not say, “cure all illnesses.” “Eliminate prisons.” Provide clean water to everyone.” While these are worthy and just pursuits, Jesus keeps the final exam basic. Within everyone’s reach. Visit. Feed. Clothe. Welcome. What could be easier than that?
What is amazing then, with a test so basic and within anyone’s grasp, why do we have 62,351 homeless persons in our City? Why do approximately 30 percent of New York City’s children live in poverty? Why is it in a land of plenty that the number of soup kitchen and food pantry recipients have sky-rocketed? How could 800,00 young people be at risk of deportation, while 50,000 Haitians face deportation as well? How is it that one child every two minutes dies somewhere in the world because of unsanitary water? Why are the sick and imprisoned so often left alone and friendless?
There’s not a stitch of doctrine in Jesus’s mandate. There’s not even a bible content quiz. Jesus is so self-effacing he puts the welfare of others above any claim to be worshiped as Christ the King, the feast day the church has us observe today. Instead, Jesus just says serve the least of these; like he did. What we do for them, we do for Jesus.
With an exam like this, soup kitchens and shelters should be turning away volunteers. Citizens should be holding public officials accountable to make housing and food services a priority. Homeland security should be construed in terms of every person’s right to food and shelter. Policies welcoming the undocumented, asylum seekers, and those fleeing war and conflict would be welcome with open arms.
Jesus’s exam echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. This passage sounds as if it were a contemporary blog posting, instead of being penned by a sixth century B.C. priest in exile from his homeland, and who has observed the destruction of his people. In this passage God lays down the conditions for which God passes judgment on the rich and powerful leadership who caused the people to be driven from Israel to captivity in foreign lands. God passes judgment against the powerful sheep that push the weaker sheep around. Against those sheep who trample and destroy the pasture. The sheep who muddy the drinking water and who have driven and scattered the weaker sheep from their homes.
Last week there was a news story about example of acing the exam. Kate McClure was driving on I-95 in New Jersey when she ran out of gas. She began to walk to the next exit. A homeless man named Johnny Bobbitt saw McClure, and advised her to get back into her care and lock it. He promised that he would help. Bobbitt spent his last $20 getting her some gas. He came back with the gas and saw McClure safely on her way.
But that’s not the end of the story. McClure couldn’t get Bobbitt out of her mind. She returned with food, gift cards and got to know Bobbitt. He was a former marine firefighter and paramedic, had problems and drugs and money, then a job fell through, he lost his paperwork, before he knew it he fell through the cracks and was on the street. One night became two, and before he knew it, he was homeless for a year
Still McClure wanted to do more. So, she and her partner set up a GoFundMe page and explained Bobbitt’s predicament. The story hit the papers and over the past two weeks $300,000 dollars have been raised to help Bobbitt back on his feet. This past Thanksgiving Bobbitt was in a motel, thanks to McClure.
This is an example of what the extraordinary power of what one person can do. Even someone with a troubled past, in dire straits, can make a difference. Giving and caring is catching, and can have ramifications we can’t even anticipate. As American Business executive at Apple, Inc, Tim Cook puts it: “be the pebble in the pond that creates the ripple for change.”
We can be a part of this change. This Tuesday is called “Giving Tuesday.” It follows “Cyber Monday” and before that was “Small Business Saturday,” and the day before that was “Black Friday” which actually started usually in the evening of Thanksgiving. People have gotten into fist fights, road rage, into shoving and shouting matches, all over saving a few dollars on material items and gifts for the holidays. It’s tragic that “Giving Tuesday” is placed at the end, after sales and shopping have brought out the worst in people, and after people are spent out. Giving has become an afterthought. This demonstrates the distortion of values: giving should go first, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger and visit the sick and imprisoned.
Think of what a different perspective we would have if Black Friday was Giving Friday. What if people lined up in the early hours near their closest food pantry, or prison? What if we spent six hours visiting the sick instead of store hopping? We have a way to go to ace Jesus’s final exam.
The good news however is that we can prep ourselves, we can ace the exam. Let’s not wait until the final hours of the holiday to take this exam. Let us make giving a daily habit of the Advent and Christmas season. Where will we line up to give?
Let us memorize the answers to the final exam Jesus that has reviewed with us today. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Let this be one exam we pass with flying colors, to the glory of our Sovereign Lord. Amen.