Words to Build a Life On:
You Did It to Me.
Sometimes, Sermons contain a lot of what might be called confessional.
I was never very good at skits, or role play, or any of that sort of thing.
Its mainly the acting. Hard to do with a straight face, or with the right emotion.
I don’t do well with pretending to be in some other situation.
We tried, as kids, to do this.
At my house, our friends would put together these really awful little plays
And we’d film them on my Dad’s VHS camcorder
Those bulky things that hurt your shoulder to use.
The skits were awful.
I really hope those tapes are lost.
I don’t remember them very well at all…
Probably best to put them out of memory.
I learned, a long time ago, this was not particularly what I was good at.
Some of you in this room are quite skilled at it, I know.
Some of you have even been on stage, a real stage,
Before a crowd. I admire that.
You might think that a preacher would be all over this
But, truth be told, I’m not.
Not my sort of thing.
My wife’s family, when we get together for the rare family reunion
They often plan for a skit night.
Its one idea of entertainment, I suppose.
We have a family reunion scheduled for next summer
And I think that some family members are already working on plot outlines
Buying props and handing out parts.
I’ll be lucky if my role is something like taxi driver
Or food delivery guy, where I can have a quick appearance
And then high tail it out of there….
Since Brook will be writing our skit,
I might start lobbying on my behalf this month.
Some people can do this better than others
Certainly better than I
And that’s all right.
Good to make note of your strengths and weaknesses.
I thought about all of this on Monday this week
As we hosted our final Social Witness Roundtable of the Summer.
This week we were talking about bystander intervention
How we might diffuse tense situations
That are filled with hard talk
Anger, and hatred, and prejudice, and racism
And, in particular,
How to help people who are experiencing harassment.
These are just things most of us are not
equipped to handle on our own.
So we invited a few people who have thought a lot about the practice of peacemaking
And they were here to share with us useful tips and techniques:
–Make eye contact with the person
–Take your cue from the person being harassed
–Focus on keeping both of you safe
–Don’t escalate the situation, but don’t just do nothing…things like that.
That’s not what had me thinking about acting.
There’s nothing false or pretend about any of this, unfortunately.
Whether it was a family member telling racist jokes
Or coming across a tense situation in a public place like a restaurant or airport
Those might feel like a real-life “good Samaritan moment”
Where you’re tempted to cross the road, to look away,
But you know that maybe you can do something…
We learned techniques for what might help, and what might not:
–Try to not get defensive, or react emotionally yourself.
–If you can, mirror back the feelings and the things being said to you
In a way that lets them know
that you’re actually listening to what they are saying
Because, you know, often feeling heard
is enough to start calming someone down
–Don’t match the level of intensity being brought at you
But express your feelings
–Don’t express judgment or blame or criticism in that moment
–Keep your mind on the goal of de-escalation and keeping the harassed safe.
These are all really good tips for everyday life
But particularly good in these tense situations.
To see how they might actually work
The instructors then had us go out into the lobby
Where the fifty or so of us
Formed two lines
And we paired up, looking at each other
One of us assigned the role of the instigator,
the seething, wrathful, angry instigator
And the other person took the role of the active bystander
Maybe a family member, maybe a stranger
But someone who has chosen to engage this person.
Good practice, and honestly the most important part of the whole class
But not easy.
Particularly if Role Play doesn’t come very naturally to you.
We did it twice:
First, I was the instigator
And then I was the bystander
And I tried my best to adopt an angry tone
Arguing about black-on-black crime
And then tried out these techniques
When talking-down someone who insisted
“That All Muslims are Terrorists.”
And suddenly I was glad that my family reunions
Aren’t at all like any of this.
Truth be told: I said a little prayer of gratitude
That my family reunions aren’t like any of this
Though I know that I’m lucky, in that regard.
Many people at the gathering Monday
Shared stories about how their families
Have plenty of angry voices around the table.
And that they’ll be using these techniques to carefully, faithfully engage them
With the aim of de-escalating tension, and helping those who are hurting.
It makes me sad and, honestly, a little angry
That we have to practice things like this
It would be better if we just knew how to treat one another with respect and decency
Even when we’re angry or hurt or upset
Even when we’re quick to blame a host of problems on people of other races or religions or cultures or
even partisan ideologies
And we didn’t have people who act in a violent, aggressive way
towards others who are often vulnerable.
But it is maybe surprising to see and to feel
in that moment of role playing
how well some of these techniques seem to work
How anger feeds on anger, or on reaction to your energy,
or blanket rejection of you
and who you are…
And how engagement in a non-reactionary sort of way
Took the level of emotion way, way down.
It was just a glimpse into the whole thing
You can’t really do a whole lot in two hours
But it was, for me, a moment of insight
into some of the more fascinating parts of our faith
Where Jesus confronted power and hatred and anger
with a different sort of possibility
Where we learn that violence and aggressive power are not the last word.
There is something in here about humanization
By which I mean that we treat one another as people, as human beings
Whether we’re angry, or whether we’re trying to help, do good in the world.
I have a facebook friend who works with the homeless and the powerless.
His name is Hugh, and he recently moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve
As community pastor of the Open Door.
Hugh’s work has been to collect clean socks for the homeless
And to set about delivering breakfast sandwiches to them once a week.
There have been times when his congregation has clashed with public officials
Who don’t like the homeless
who want them out of sight and out of mind
And he’s been fighting the efforts of the local prosecutor
Who has taken a heavy handed tactic to many of those he tries to keep safe.
The other night, Hugh got into a fierce, public argument with the local US Attorney.
They clashed about how we tend to fight the poor, not poverty
About freedom of religion and assembly.
Apparently it was pretty tense.
Then he wrote this:
After the event, we spoke again,
and I handed him my card and told him he should remember my name,
as I had committed his to memory,
and we would no doubt see each other again.
He laughed, and said he would,
and then thanked me for my courtesy in our exchange.
People later had questions about why I was so “polite” to him after the event.
Here is the deal:
The last 11 years of ministry for me have been about
a ministry of rehumanization –
working to recognize and promote the humanity
of those society has sought to dehumanize.
Folk who are poor.
Folk who are queer.
Folk who are trans.
Folk who are without homes.
Folk of color.
The Powers That Be seek to dehumanize us
and the Jesus story is all about how we recognize
and restore humanity to the other.
Because of this, I won’t dehumanize people.
I won’t call people names.
It is possible to disagree with a person while still recognizing their humanity.
In fact, I think if we are to survive as a species, it shall be essential.
I can disagree with what
the US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi said and stands for
and yet have a cordial conversation
and not call him dehumanizing names.
Because the truth is,
he is not his policies
or his ideas
but a human being,
and thus, as we believe in my faith tradition,
[he is] made in the image of God.
Once, Jesus told his followers a story
About seeing him, Jesus, in everyone that they meet,
and particularly those who are in need:
The poor: there is Jesus
The thirsty: there is Jesus.
The lonely, the imprisoned, the sick, the naked: there is Jesus.
A human being: there is Jesus.
One day, Jesus said, the time may come when I wonder how you’ve done
Treating other people. All other people
Because how we treat one another matters.
John Buchanan, when he was the Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago
Once preached on this teaching of Jesus from the 25th Chapter of Matthew.
He told a story about his friend Joe Ledwell,
Who had recently died.
Joe, like John, was a pastor:
a good and kind and cheerful man, as John remembered him.
The thing about Joe, apparently,
Is that once a month, Joe used to go
to the cemetery where Cook County buries its unclaimed and unidentified dead
eighteen, twenty, sometimes twenty-five per month
people who had been totally forgotten
claimed by no one
known by no one
grieved by no one.
Cook County identifies them by number:
#612867, white female;
#612900, black male;
#644, suburban female, Hispanic.
Once a month, Joe used to go to the cemetery and,
As the simple pine coffins were placed in a common grave,
He’d conduct a memorial service,
He would pray and commend them all to the love and mercy of God,
The God who knows every one of us,
Who calls us by name
The God who never forgets, even though everyone else has.
Buchanan said that he knew Joe for years before he found out that he was doing this.
In fact, the only way that anyone really found out about it
Was that the Chicago Tribune learned about it and put Joe’s picture on the front page.
Joe was embarrassed by the attention.
He was quite content doing this without any attention at all
And when Joe and John had chance to talk about it,
It was this passage that Joe turned to when he was explaining what was going on:
One time, Jesus said:
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 in prison and you visited me.
And when he was asked when that happened, he answered,
Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me
It’s the third of three stories Jesus told his disciples
during the last week of his life.
He first told them a story about ten bridesmaids,
five of whom were not prepared for the bridegroom’s appearance,
and then Jesus shared a story
about a master who was going on a trip
and who gave three servants a portion of his property
to manage in his absence
(you might remember that story:
two of them invested wisely, made a profit, and were rewarded;
the third servant buried the money in the ground for safekeeping
and was punished).
Jesus is clearly trying to prepare his followers to continue on without him.
That context makes these stories particularly important.
These are Jesus’ farewell stories.
The third story, the one we read this morning
is the last thing Jesus said to his disciples as their teacher.
Soon he’d be arrested and tried and sent to Calvary.
You might conclude that it is a summary of his teaching.
It’s about judgment day.
All the nations of the world are there.
Jesus is the judge: he’s separating the sheep from the goats.
The sheep are the righteous ones:
they inherit the kingdom, the reign of God.
The goats are treated harshly—
“depart from me,” from the reign of God.
The point here is not the symbolic imagery of eternal fire
but what is actually happening.
There is a judgment.
Human beings are accountable to God for the way they live their lives.
According to Jesus,
the criteria for judgment are simple:
“I was hungry and you fed me;
thirsty and you gave me drink.”
“When did we do that, Lord?” the righteous ask.
The unforgettable answer:
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me.”
And then the counterpoint:
“I was hungry and you gave me no food;
thirsty and no drink;
a stranger and you did not welcome me;
naked and you did not clothe me;
in prison and you did not visit.”
We don’t recall any of that happening.
We didn’t see you hungry, thirsty, cold, and homeless.
If we had seen you like that, believe me,
we’d have been there,
right there with you.”
The clear, devastating indictment:
“Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these,
you did not do it to me.”
Notice that both groups are surprised by all of this.
Neither is aware of the eternal significance of what they were doing or not doing.
Like Buchanan’s friend Joe Ledwell,
the righteous are surprised that what they had been doing merited any attention at all.
It is a very different scene from the popular notion of judgment day.
Notice the total absence of the moralisms
that many of us were taught
were the things God really cared about.
There are no lifestyle issues here.
Jesus doesn’t say anything about smoking or drinking or shopping on Sunday.
Not a thing here about having the right opinion about sex
Or doctrine or creeds or the theology of baptism.
Nothing here about whether the other person is a good person or not
About whether they’re loitering on the street corner, holding up a sign
Or are one of the thousands of silent and hidden people who are food insecure
And don’t know where their next meal is going to come from.
It doesn’t even ask whether the person cared for is
Free of hateful rhetoric and vituperative speech.
Maybe they did something awful to land them in prison, who knows.
Not to say that those things don’t matter.
It is simply to attend to the text
and Jesus’ stunningly simple criteria
that we are held accountable for our treatment of the least of these.
Jim Wallis tells the story about Mary Glover
A volunteer at a weekly food distribution service in Washington, D.C.
Mary is poor herself, but she is there every Saturday to help.
In fact, Mary says the prayer for the volunteers before the center opens.
She prays, Jim says, like someone who knows to whom she is talking.
It’s worth getting out of bed on Saturday just to hear Mary pray.
With a long line of hungry, needy people waiting outside in all kinds of weather,
we know you’ll be comin’ through this line today,
so Lord, help us to treat you well.”
To see the face of Jesus in everyone you meet
Rich or poor
Just or unjust
Friend or foe
Right or wrong.
That takes some practice
Maybe some role play
Maybe some repetition, so it becomes something like a habit.
We gather today for the Lord’s Supper
Where we are all welcomed in the Kingdom of God
Where God feeds us with good food
The bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Good practice, maybe
To remember that every person we meet is a human being that God knows and loves
And that how we treat them is how we treat Jesus.
You did it to me.
On this Sunday morning: Words to build a life on.
May it be so.
 From a facebook post by Hugh Hollowell, Jr. on August 22, 2018: https://www.facebook.com/hughlh/posts/10155665215486301 (accessed September 1, 2018)
 From his sermon “The Least of These” on November 16, 2008. http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2008/111608.html (accessed September 1, 2018). The Chicago Tribune story is available online at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-12-02/news/0212020229_1_buries-unclaimed-coffin (accessed September 1, 2018)