On Judgement Sunday
Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli on Sunday, March 10, 2013
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’...‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
In today's teaching of our Lord, the story of the sheep and the goats on Judgment Sunday, we are taught the very essence of Christian life: that loving others is loving God, and vice versa. Our place at the right hand of the Father completely depends on this. Something as simple as welcoming a stranger, visiting a shut-in, giving a sweater to someone who needs it – these are concrete acts that enable us to live fully in God's kingdom both here and in Heaven. Our very salvation depends on hearing this call from God. St. Basil boldly says, "The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes...You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help." We do well to reassess how we are giving and loving, as we prepare to enter into Lent, a time of repentance and renewal of our minds and hearts. My Bishop in California once referred to Lent as a time to look inside our hearts, to all the little rooms and spaces inside us that have become dusty and neglected, and to sweep out the dust to let the light and love of God back in. So, we must clean out our dusty closets to give our extra shoes and clothes to the poor, as St. Basil asks, and we must clean out the dusty closets in our hearts, to make room for God.
When we do these acts of service, we meet the person of Christ in the person before us. As Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” In other words, when we visit the sick, the hands we gently touch are the hands of our Lord. The eyes of the woman before us are the eyes of God. In reaching beyond ourselves, extending our hearts to the needs of those we meet, we are being who God calls us to be. If we accept this call, our ministry to those most in need unites us to Him. In both the “visited” and the “visitor,” the Holy Spirit is present.
But there's another side to the story, a deeper truth that emerges when we explore what it means to minister to others. If we encounter Jesus in our ministry, then the people we heal, feed, and clothe, are Jesus to us. The person of Jesus resides in every individual that we touch, and, through them, he teaches us vital lessons of faith that we can't learn elsewhere.
I serve as a Hospice chaplain, and I once trained a new Hospice volunteer named Mary, who was caring for her ailing mother and was struggling with her faith. Mary wanted to become more comfortable with death and dying, but it was a painful process for her to be with suffering people. She was assigned to a Hospice patient who, as it turns out, was Ethiopian Orthodox. This elderly matriarch lived with her wonderfully loud large family, a group of women who hugged me and tried to feed me ridiculous amounts of delicious food every time I visited. They were so open and hospitable that they spontaneously invited themselves to my upcoming wedding! The first day Mary and I met our patient Elza, her daughters translated for us. When she understood I was the chaplain, she smiled, grabbed my face and kissed me. She touched my gold cross and said in her native language, I'm not afraid. She kept pointing up to Heaven, touching my cross, making the sign of the cross, pointing up, patting my head, touching her heart, smiling and smiling. It says in Scripture: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.” Elza was joyful in this knowledge; she embodied this Scripture. After we left the visit, Mary the volunteer looked at me and said, “That woman was so peaceful. She was ready. She wasn't afraid!” Mary encountered the end of life from Elza's perspective – in other words, from the perspective of Jesus. She saw the Lord's infinite love on Elza's face and in her faithful heart. Elza reflected the serenity with which Jesus approached his death and resurrection. This lesson, a glimpse of the promise of eternal life, is a lesson that Mary learned only by stepping outside her comfort zone and caring for Elza. In doing so, this truth – that God is with us in death and in life – was revealed to her. She received profoundly life-changing ministry from the person she was caring for! The day Elza died, we visited her family as they washed and anointed her body. They had placed incense under her bed, and her room smelled like divine liturgy, as her family venerated her icon, this great matriarch. Her faith had become the faith of those around her. They cared for the person of Christ, in the person before them.
Mother Maria Skobtsova tells us, “However hard I try, I find it impossible to construct anything greater than these three words, 'Love one another' - only to the end, and without exceptions: then all is justified and life is illumined. At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.” This is not to say that our liturgical participation is divorced from our practice of Christ's mandate. On the contrary, our worship is actually practice for all these types of loving care. We learn to keep vigil, to keep watch, whether at the foot of the cross or at the foot of the hospital bed of someone we love. When we visit the sick, there is a time to sing and a time to remain silent, just as in liturgy. A time to stand and a time to kneel. But through all of it, we are blessed more than we could imagine, when we recognize God as the source of it all.
Recently, I visited a patient in the last hours of her life, surrounded by family. Her teenage grandson, Steven, gathered up a blanket of rainbow-colored yarn from the corner of the room. He laid this blanket across his grandmother's frail body and then, very systematically, tucked the blanket around her on both sides, starting at her shoulders, tucking, tucking, all the way down her arms and legs, to her feet. Steven said, “When I was little, my grammy would always do this for me when I stayed at her house. She would tuck me in so snugly, from my head to my toes. It made me feel warm and safe. I'm doing this for her. I want her to feel safe too, because she loves me so much.” In that moment, this young man saw his chance to do a small thing with great love. He was able to do unto his grandmother what she had done so lovingly for him, so many years ago. The love she had given him, a boundless love of comfort and rest, was returned to her, a holy love circling back to its source. As we reflect on the Last Judgment, may we see the person of Christ in the person before us, and may God speak to us through the people we meet. May we encircle each other with blankets of bright yarn woven with care, with love, and yes with joy. Amen.