A Spiritual Reflection: The Surprise of Eternal Life: Serving Christ in the Powerless

Year A: Ezekiel 34:11 and Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon to Pohick Episcopal Church on Christ the King Sunday 11-22-20

The Reverend Dr. Lynn P. Ronaldi

In the Mississippi Delta, in one of the poorest, sickest counties in the nation, one doctor brought hope to the utterly hopeless, and power to the unimaginably powerless.

With generations of poverty dating back to the Civil War, Tallahatchie County had a median income well below the US poverty level. Seventy percent of Tutwiler’s residents lacked health insurance.

In 1983, Sr. Anne Brooks founded a medical clinic that grew to 8,500 patients a year. Patients suffered from malnutrition and lack of education; the clinic saw babies fed with potato chips and coca cola. For 35 years, Anne tirelessly saved lives, not only physically, but in every way

Sr. Anne befriended me when I served Advent, the Episcopal church nearby. She put flesh on the image of the shepherd who cares for “the least of these.” I was profoundly moved by her vision and dedication — as well as her utter surprise at any recognition.

60 Minutes and People Magazine interviewed her. CBS News named her “Saint with a Stethoscope.” But Anne was the last to acknowledge, or even notice, heroism or saintliness. She was genuinely perplexed by accolades.

Anne insisted it was the poor, sick and powerless who showed her the face of Christ and led her to salvation. She said, “I receive so much more than I could ever give.”

In the climactic judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is clear the criteria for eternal life is neither right religious belief nor moral perfection. Judgment boils down to a single criterion: the compassionate care of the poor and suffering.  “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.”

You might think I’m going to say Sr. Anne is one of those sheep Jesus will place on his right hand on judgment day. While that may be the case, there’s so much more at stake here!

It would be easy to read Matthew’s take on judgment and miss the really good news. In this passage see sheep and goats being separated for eternity. We could interpret this as a humanitarian call to work on behalf of the poor and underserved. Subsequently, we might see salvation as something we achieve – or lose — in the final judgment.

On the contrary, Scripture indicates that eternal life is not something we earn, but something we discover – often when we least expect it!

Notice the righteous “sheep” are surprised to realize when they cared for the little ones, they were caring for the King of Creation! They are stunned when the King says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for when I was hungry, you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcome me…I was sick and you took care of me…”

With wonder the righteous ask: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?…And when was it that we saw you sick and in prison and visited you?”

The righteous simply, freely share who they are and what they have, without agenda, calculation or expectation. They are often surprised by their own healing in the process.

Sr. Anne is one of these. There are countless stories of her legendary ministry. Cindy Herring, a parishioner who was the clinic’s administrative assistant, tells the story of one of her first patients, who had a broken leg. A floor in the patient’s home had rotted, and she’d fallen through. Anne not only mended the woman’s leg; she drove over rutted roads to the house, examined the damage, and found the labor and resources to repair it.

As Cindy put it, “She became so involved with people that she forgot about herself.”

Our daughter Alley once completed a medical rotation under Sr. Anne’s supervision at the Clinic. She echoed that quality of Anne’s selflessness.

Sr. Anne educated her patients, believing they had it within them to heal. She initiated other efforts to help people discover hope, including a GED program, adult literacy program, and Community Center. She initiated a Habitat for Humanity that built 39 houses. Her care covered body, mind and spirit.

In spite of what the dictionary says, I spell ‘wholistic’ with a W,” Anne told CBS. “If a patient falls and breaks a leg because the floor can’t be fixed, I get it fixed, and find the money. Look at what Christ does: he goes off healing people, and then what does he do? He goes off and prays all night long…Prayer and healing, praying and sharing power, go together.”

Matthew insists Christ’s saving power is not like worldly power. Christ’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. As shepherd king, Christ does not wield the power of the rich and royal over the poor and suffering. His is the power of a humble shepherd: a love that freely gives, knows no limit, and seeks no gain.

Matthew takes pains to link the Old and New Testament images of God. In the Old Testament, we consistently find the image of a benevolent, loving, merciful God. Beginning with Hebrew prophets like Ezekiel, Scripture imagines a God who cares for his people as a shepherd tends his flock.

Likewise, New Testament passages portray a shepherd who goes after the last coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal son. A shepherd who forgives and mercifully places his sheep on his right hand.

So, how do we reconcile this comforting image of a divine shepherd’s love and mercy with the jarring image of final judgment at the end of Matthew’s chapter 25 passage?

First, let’s examine Jesus’ condemnation of goats. Aren’t we all afraid of being designated goats? Don’t we fear God’s judgment and condemnation, our self-centeredness exposed by the light?

And it doesn’t calm our fears when we hear: “’Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Fr. Ron Rolheiser imagines a different take on judgment. Instead of fearing shortcomings will be exposed in glaring light, Rolheiser suggests theologian Karl Rahner’s image. For Rahner, the agent of judgment will not be God’s piercing light, as much as God’s enduring love. We will be embraced by a love so unconditional and gracious, that we will recognize all that is self-centered. We will also see all that is self-less. As St. Therese of Lisieux famously said, “Punish me with a kiss!” On judgment day, we will be loved in a way that will make us painfully aware of our sin – even as we know how we are loving and beloved.

It seems the righteous do not have to strive to achieve a place in the Kingdom. Our Divine King is not looking for calculated efforts to create or protect an image, or earn a place at his right hand. He is looking for a natural overflowing of love that gushes out of the heart. Love that expects no recognition. Love that freely gives power away. Love that forgets self.  

During a recent stewardship talk, newcomer Ashley Norman said she’d discovered selfless love at Pohick. As a former prosecutor, she’d been jaded by the worst of the worst. During the pandemic, she’d lost hope. With tears, she said she was truly renewed when she encountered Christ’s love here: during a recent Food Drive, she was surprised and moved at the generous outpouring of love.

Edwardene reported Pohick’s recent Thanksgiving Basket Outreach this week doubled from last year! And as we approach Christmas, we will have several more opportunities to reach out to the throngs of pandemic victims.

In the coming Advent season, perhaps we can hope and wait for Christ’s coming with hearts free of fear. Overflowing with love, we will freely serve the least of these. We will discover ways to give away power: the power of selfless love and compassion. And we too will be surprised by the renewal, salvation and healing we encounter in the process! Amen.