Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Questions from the Pews – Seeing Christ

The Rev. Elizabeth T. Smith – St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
Matthew 25: 31­46 (July 10, 2016)

Questions From the Pews: What does it mean to see Christ in others?

Prayer for Illumination
Let us pray: As we read the words of scripture, we are pointed to your living Word who walked among us;
and we are surrounded by your Spirit, who whispers words within our hearts and minds.
Inspire us in our hearing and reflecting, that we may move beyond your words into life­changing
acts of grace, love, hope and peace. Amen.

This is our second week in our summer sermon series, “Questions from the Pews.” Last
week Bart preached on idolatry. Today, we address the question, “What does it mean to
see Christ in others?” Now after the week we’ve had, I debated whether or not to
continue with this question. I finally decided it could quite possibly help us as we think
about how to move forward. So to frame our conversation, we turn now to hear a living
word from Matthew 25.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on
his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from
each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his
right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my
Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and
you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you
welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of
me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed
you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or
naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of
these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go
into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you
didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a
stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was
sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick
or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when
you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go
away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”


As a preacher, I believe in owning and admitting my biases up front.
So in the spirit of honesty, I will say that our passage from Matthew is one that makes me
squirm.

I don’t like dwelling on the images it conjures because they make me uncomfortable.
And if I’m being honest, most of the time I don’t like feeling uncomfortable.
The idea of being separated into groups on the right and the left makes me feel like I am back in
middle school standing in my awkward gym shorts just waiting to see if I’ll be picked for the A
team…or the B team.

In that moment, it doesn’t matter if you’re smiling your biggest smile at the Team Captain to
show her how eager you are, or dodging eye contact in order to appear more humble.
The decision has already been made and all you can do is wait.

Our sheep and goats passage seems to pull from within me my deepest insecurities about
belonging and about being good enough in the eyes of my Creator.

What about you?
How does the image of the separation of the sheep and the goats hit you?

I think that’s always an important thing to pay attention to ­ how scripture first hits us in our heart
or our gut or both ­ but we don’t stop there.
We keep digging for deeper meaning.

Now true to form, Jesus uses simple images in this parable.
Sheep and goats were commonplace at the time.
They are still common in rural areas, even if many of us are much more removed from an
agricultural lifestyle.
It’s easy to picture a sheep.
It’s easy to picture a goat.

And it’s easy to begin to wonder, “Which am I in this story?”
Now I learned something fun this week while studying for this sermon.
Did you know that sheep and goats aren’t as easy to distinguish from each other as we might
think?

If you don’t believe me, my friends at NPR will back me up!
In an article titled “Is This A Goat or A Sheep? It’s Harder Than You Think,” writer Marc Silver
admitted to mistakenly labeling a picture of a goat as a sheep, until he was corrected by one of
NPR’s correspondents in Africa.
Silver confessed his embarrassment over his mistake, especially since he is the editor of a blog
called “Goats and Soda.”
As it turns out, if the sheep are shorn and the goats aren’t shaggy, it can be a challenge to tell
them apart.

And that fun realization made me wonder if those in our story could look around and tell each
other apart. So going back to our story…

We see that the sheep and the goats are equally surprised to learn that the king was indeed
among those who they did ­ or did not ­ act kindly towards.
They are all surprised to learn that they had missed seeing him there.
They didn’t see him among the hungry.
They didn’t see him among the thirsty.
They didn’t see him among the immigrants and refugees.
They didn’t see him in need of clothing.
They didn’t see him as the one sick and behind bars.

And after this week, I wonder, “Would they have seen him in the one dying on the sidewalk, or
in the car, or on the streets?”

It’s easy to make this parable all about ourselves…to take God out of the center of the story.
It’s easy to let this story simply prop up the good things we already think we’re doing.
…or to let it drag us down with guilt about all that we’re not doing.

Or perhaps we allow it to let us off the hook when we realize that most days we’re not one or the
other, but rather just some kind of weird sheep­goat hybrid.

But the hard truth is, it’s not about us.
We shouldn’t be asking, “Which am I? How am I doing?”
Rather, we should be asking first, “How is my neighbor doing?”
Only then can we really see and understand the work that we need to do.

And so we ask ourselves… Is my neighbor fed? Made to feel welcome?
Does my neighbor feel safe? Is she trapped in some literal or figurative prison?
Is my neighbor being treated like an actual human being whose life matters?

At the final judgment, we see that God is deeply concerned with how we’ve treated others
because we’ve been created for community and connection.
The sheep didn’t serve others because they thought someone was keeping score.
They reached out to those around them because those around them were in need.
They pursued connectivity and the transformation that comes through relationships.

So what does it mean to see Christ in the other?
I believe it means that we act out of the understanding that we are all interwoven.
And because of that truth, we then have to push beyond our own egos and desire for
self­preservation to identify with and care for the most vulnerable in our world ­ our very
neighbors.

Seeing Christ in the other means to be surprised by God in our encounters with others.
And I think it’s just as easy and as hard as that sounds.

Last week I asked an online group of clergy to be honest about when it’s hardest for them to see
Christ in others.
Their answers were as real and raw as I suspect all of ours would be.
They said it’s hard to see Christ in another when…
-they feel personally dissatisfied
-they don’t get their way
-people are making decisions that harm others
-others are “nicey nicey” in person but mean and hateful online
They said it’s hard to see Christ in another when…
-others do things better than they do
-or when others judge people harshly ­ and publicly ­ and call it “the Christian way.”
…and the list goes on and on.

Their answers speak to the challenge we all have before us.
We have to ask first, “How is my neighbor doing?”
And then out of that question and the answers it brings, we follow Christ to all kinds of people
and places.
Many folks have taken to the streets to mourn and protest the events of the past week.
With enraged and broken hearts, people have come together, side by side, to say “Enough.”
To say that Black Lives Do Matter!
And recognizing our interwovenness ­ and our brokenness ­ we are to be looking around and
asking, “How are you, neighbor?”
Now there have been so many unpleasant stories and articles this week filling the 24 hour news
cycle and our Facebook newsfeeds, but I want to share this one with you because it left me
hopeful.
Not because it undoes any of the violence of the week.
And not because it undoes the larger systemic issue of racism that we have to deal with.
I share it with you because it shows that everyday interactions with others do matter.
Anyone can choose to see ­ or ignore ­ the humanity of another.

An African-­American woman named Natasha Howell wrote this on her Facebook page. Since
posting it has been shared over and over again as others have been touched by her experience.
Perhaps you’ve already heard it.
Natasha wrote…

So this morning I went into a convenient store to get a protein bar.
As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my
age, the other several years older) talking to the clerk (an older white woman) behind the
counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days.
They all looked at me and fell silent.

I went about my business to get what I was looking for [and] as I turned back up the aisle to pay,
the oldest officer was standing at the top of the aisle watching me.
As I got closer he asked me how I was doing.
I replied, “Okay, and you?”
He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “How are you really doing?”
I looked at him and said, “I’m tired!”
His reply was, “Me too.”
Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now, is it?”
I said, “No, it’s not.”
Then he hugged me and I cried.
I had never seen that man before in my life.
I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me.
What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful.
No judgments.
No justifications.
Just two people sharing a moment.

Children of God, I believe that’s how we see Christ in the other.
We look them in the eye and ask them how they’re really doing because there’s too much at
stake not to.
But we don’t do it just to appear like a good sheep.
Or a good cop. Or a good white woman of privilege.
We do it because we are bound to each other and we cannot live any other way.

As an Aboriginal elder from Queensland, Australia once said,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your
liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

May it be so…