I am sure most of you have heard this story, but it deserves to be told again. “An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ ‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,’ she said. ‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.’ The young woman listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘It made a difference for that one.’” (adapted from the original by Loren Eiseley) The temptation of this scripture is to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back or read it and be shamed for all we haven’t done. I am hoping to help us all orient ourselves to an uncomfortable yet soft place somewhere in the middle.
I feel it’s important to look at this scripture today as part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are bookend verses that I believe we need to remember as we read much, if not all, of Matthew. Matthew 1:21-23 “’She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” And Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).
We are living in a time of great divide, my beloved. Am I wrong about this? The gap between left and right, black and white, male and female, gentile and Jew, seems to be getting wider and wider every single day. News pundits make lots of money reporting on stories that has only one simple goal: vilify the other. It doesn’t matter who “the other” is, the most important thing we can do, according to the media, is to prove them wrong, even if they’re right. So, our call as Christians to make disciples and serve all in need is complicated. And I fear that being right has won out over being loved and loving others. I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need had to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.
“How can that person be poor? They have an iPhone.” Or “if things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Michael Koors bag she carries.” Maybe you’ve heard “All” (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders. All welfare babies. All blacks. All Mexicans. All section 8 moms. All whatever… I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or act sick. Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter their label. We may be too busy looking to serve a king, that the real king is in the face of the peasant.
And the reason I shared that starfish story is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But, we shouldn’t forget that while yes, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviors of the world. We already have one of those in Jesus Christ. But, we can make a difference to one or two in the world. And if you weren’t here on Thanksgiving Eve, I talked about this a bit too. But, to be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring all have a small amount of dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care. But, we’ve also been the ones in need of care.
Christ calls us to care for what is known as “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, which we are, then we are caring for God when we care for the other. We should start to see one another not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine. This is Christ the King Sunday after all. What might the world look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the person. We’re so busy wondering “when was it that we saw you…” because we’re busy looking for a king. A king wouldn’t have died a gruesome death for all of humanity. Instead of looking for a King, let us look for the divine in everyone. Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, documented, undocumented, married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.
This isn’t easy work. As I said, society is working really hard to pit us against one another. If we all suddenly started getting along, what in the world would the news have to talk about? But remember, we are promised from the very beginning that Jesus will be Emmanuel: God with us. In those moments that we are scared to see the divine in the other or to have the divine in us seen, God is there, with us. And if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. This scripture evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need cared for. We all have done the caring. We all are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. And we may not be able to serve everyone. But, we certainly can start by serving our neighbors without any expectations of being served in return. And what a relief as well, to be served knowing we don’t owe anyone anything. The price has already been paid by Christ.
In this meal, we meet the one who is with us, Christ the King. The thing he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man on the corner with a cardboard sign. He looks like the woman in the WIC office for the third time this week trying to get her benefits figured out. He looks like the undocumented migrant worker, sending 98% of his money back home so his family can have a better life. Christ looks like those falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting on a break. But, he also looks like those sitting behind bars waiting for death. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “you matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this meal, we are reminded that we all matter. No matter our status here on earth, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.