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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Whatsoever You Do, or Sheep and Goats

Since our congregation is currently without presiding clergy, parishioners have been asked to offer reflections for the cover of the service leaflet. This was my contribution, which was published today.
Matthew 25:31-46

The Gospel in a recent Daily Office  reading begins "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Then he will separate the people, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

The Internet has been abuzz this week with two important arrivals. One is the very real newborn son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who is now third in line to the British throne. The other, an incoming megachurch pastor named Jeremiah Steepek, is most likely a fictional character created to prove a point.

Prince George of Cambridge is, through no actions of his own, destined for a pretty comfortable and prestigious life.  People who will never meet him or probably even cross his mind celebrated or at least discussed his birth, by sheer nature of who his ancestors are. 

Pastor Steepek could have similarly enjoyed the trappings of his title, albeit on a smaller scale.  Instead, he chose to conduct an experiment.  While the congregation of thousands assembled to welcome their new leader, a disheveled-looking stranger also joined them in the sanctuary.  Very few people exchanged pleasantries with him as they greeted each other.  He asked some for change to buy some food, but was refused.  He attempted to take a seat near the front, but was asked to move to the back.
Homeless man in Richmond, Surrey.
Surrey, a homeless man in
Richmond whose photo
was distributed with the
Pastor Steepek story.  Photo
credit, Brian Gerrard. 
All rights reserved.  Click
for larger original and
artist info.


It was only when the new pastor was announced and the crowd rose and clapped in anticipation that Pastor Steepek stood and revealed himself as the same unfortunate-looking individual whose attempts to engage them were so recently rebuffed. As they watched in shock, he took the pulpit and recited the same familiar parable: "for 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 sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

When he was done, he sent them home, many weeping.

A valid argument has been made that deceiving people and trying to shame them into a particular behavior is not a healthy way for a religious leader to teach. Pastor Steepek, had he actually existed, would likely have lost the trust of many in his new flock. 

Yet this story resonates with us, because we know that -- by human nature -- how we treat a newcomer is driven at least as much by what we know (or think we know) about them as by what they actually bring to the encounter.  See also #royalbaby.

The parable continues, “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.” How would Christ expect us to treat someone who (by the world’s standards) would appear to have absolutely nothing to offer in return?

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