Goats, Grace, and Greatness: The Matthew 25 Church
by Louise Westfall
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the greatest of them all?
That’s the question isn’t it? How to be the greatest nation, the most dynamic church, the most successful student/athlete/businessperson/professional, the best spouse and parent and friend … it’s human to aspire to greatness, and it’s good. Greatness after all isn’t bestowed; it’s earned. To be great at anything requires hard work, opportunity, and practice. It is fueled by a higher vision and a deeper passion than it takes just to get by, to do okay.
The morning scripture text is a case study in greatness. Two of Jesus’ twelve disciples request special recognition reflecting their efforts to be great. They’ve demonstrated their commitment: the Bible tells us they “left everything” to follow Jesus. They have stood by him as he faced harsh criticism from the religious leaders; they have gone where he’s gone; done what he’s asked them to do. These two are always mentioned along with Peter as part of the “inner circle” — the ones Jesus himself held close. The greatest disciples … Right? A reading from the gospel according to Mark, in the tenth chapter at the 35th verse. Listen for God’s Word to us who would be great. [Mark 10:35-45]
Last Sunday a remarkable thing happened right here. It was our celebration of mission, a joyous time to tell stories of service and participation in one of many ways Central engages with our neighbors in need. Building houses, sharing meals, witnessing to the vibrant church in Cuba, and more. Fourteen-year-old Francisco along with his dad Chris, had been part of the team who went to the San Luis Valley, one of the most impoverished areas of Colorado, to work with La Puente, the Bridge, a faith-based ministry which seeks to connect people and combat the social isolation that is the cause of much suffering. Francisco told about getting acquainted with a neighborhood kid named Jo Jo, and at one point playing some serious basketball. “Yeah, it was intense and we fought a little,” Francisco remembered, adding “Jo Jo really taught me to be more patient.” What struck me about that is the shift in perspective, from seeing himself as the helper to seeing himself as one who was helped. A kind of even-ing the playing field, er basketball court, between the community of need and the community of privilege until it’s just one community of humans, together.
That same kind of shift is going on in the text we just read. John and James aspire to greatness, and acknowledge that they are able to take on the difficulty and sacrifice it will take to get there. It’s admirable (even if they couldn’t have known then how costly it would prove to be). But the cutting edge is revealed in the conversation with the other disciples. Now notice that Jesus doesn’t calm them down with promises they’ll all get seats of honor in the afterlife. Instead he swings the notion of greatness defined as elevation over others 180-degrees. The greatest one will be the servant, the person not in control. The one “down” there with the people, experiencing what they’re experiencing, seeking connection with rather than power over.
What I think Jesus is describing here is empathy; to feel with another. To be liberated from one’s own ego and choose to walk a mile in another’s shoes, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Empathy allows us to receive from another, as well as give to them. It’s the quality that unites rather than divides the human community because it helps us understand that we are far more alike than different from one another.
To “be with” women and children, homeless and hungry, refugees fleeing horrific violence, forgotten prisoners. To serve them not as poor recipients of our excess bounty, but to see them as brothers and sisters; to see Christ them.
In another text he makes it even more direct. Remember the parable he told about distinguishing goats from sheep: how some had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the immigrant, and visited the ones in prison, and some hadn’t. Jesus said When you care for the least of these, who are sisters and brothers, you care for me. And when you don’t, you turn your back on me. In the parable, neither sheep nor goats recognized Jesus in these neighbors in need. They were moved by human suffering and acted with compassion. Or not.
This parable is found in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, and the Presbyterian Church — as well as dozens of other churches and faith-based organizations — have affirmed it as the heart of Christian mission. The Matthew 25 movement, as it is called, seeks to locate the church with the most vulnerable people. To “be with” women and children, homeless and hungry, refugees fleeing horrific violence, forgotten prisoners. To serve them not as poor recipients of our excess bounty, but to see them as brothers and sisters; to see Christ them. To learn more about what it means to be a Matthew 25 church, I invite you to attend my Learning for Life class on November 11.
Friends, greatness is cultivated by empathy. And empathy is generated through relationship. It’s moving beyond categories like “the homeless,” or “undocumented” and drawing near to Jo Jo and John and Tawanda and … Marwan.
Do you remember the heart-wrenching photograph of a three-year-old Syrian refugee boy named Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015? Best-selling author of The Kite Runner and other books about his native Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini has written a meditation, a prayer really, in his memory, and in memory of more than four thousand others who died attempting that same journey.
As an exercise in empathy, I will end with Hosseini’s prayer, spoken by a father cradling his sleeping son as they wait for a boat to arrive to carry them to freedom … or to their deaths.
My dear Marwan, in the long summers of childhood, when I was a boy the age you are now, your uncles and I spread our mattress on the roof of your grandfather’s farmhouse outside of Homs [Syria]. We woke in the mornings to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze, to the bleating of your grandmother’s goat, the clanking of cooking pots, the air cool and the sun a pale rim of persimmon to the east. We took you there when you were a toddler. I have a sharply etched memory of your mother from that trip, showing you a herd of cows grazing in a field blown through with wild flowers. I wish you hadn’t been so young. You wouldn’t have forgotten the farmhouse, the soot of its stone walls, the creek where your uncles and I built a thousand boyhood dams. I wish you remembered Homs as I do, Marwan. In its bustling Old City, a mosque for us Muslims, a church for our Christian neighbors, and a grand marketplace for us all to haggle over gold pendants and fresh produce and bridal dresses. I wish you remembered the crowded lanes smelling of fried kibbeh and the evening walks we took with your mother around Clock Tower Square. But that life, that time, seems like a dream now, even to me, like some long-dissolved rumor. First came the protests. Then the siege. The skies spitting bombs. Starvation. Burials. These are the things you know. You know a bomb crater can be made into a swimming hole. You have learned dark blood is better news than bright. You have learned that mothers and sisters and classmates can be found in narrow gaps between concrete, bricks and exposed beams, little patches of sunlit skin shining in the dark. Your mother is here tonight, Marwan, with us, on this cold and moonlit beach, among the crying babies and the women worrying in tongues we don’t speak. Afghans and Somalis and Iraqis and Eritreans and Syrians. All of us impatient for sunrise, all of us in dread of it. All of us in search of home. I have heard it said we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome. We should take our misfortune elsewhere. But I hear your mother’s voice, over the tide, and she whispers in my ear, “Oh, but if they saw, my darling. Even half of what you have. If only they saw. They would say kinder things, surely.” I look at your profile in the glow of this three-quarter moon, my boy, your eyelashes like calligraphy, closed in guileless sleep. I said to you, “Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen.” These are only words. A father’s tricks. It slays your father, your faith in him. Because all I can think tonight is how deep the sea, and how vast, how indifferent. How powerless I am to protect you from it. All I can do is pray. Pray God steers the vessel true, when the shores slip out of eyeshot and we are a flyspeck in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting, easily swallowed. Because you, you are precious cargo, Marwan, the most precious there ever was. I pray the sea knows this. God willing. How I pray the sea knows this. [Sea Prayer, by Khaled Hosseini]