First Reading Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:15:20-26
Gospel Matthew 25:31-46a
I’ll just note for the record, as a left-handed person, my objection to God putting the good guys on the right, and the bad guys on the left.
In some ways, this gospel is a no-brainer, at least for the people in this room. If anyone came here looking for the gospel of prosperity, you’re in the wrong place. I’m sure almost everyone here has seen, and many of you probably own, a print of Christ of the Breadlines.
People in this community have spent the last 4 or more decades trying to find and serve the least of our brothers and sisters. And that’s a good thing. But it brings a real danger with it: a sense of comfort, if not complacency. My concern is that we may be missing some people who need our attention and service. But we may not be seeing them.
Harry Potter fans, and their parents and grandparents, know about the Cloak of Invisibility: you put it on, and become invisible.
I think there’s another, more pernicious, version of that cloak, which I’ll call the cloak of invisibility and inhumanity. It’s a cloak that gets put on people by others, who wish to make them invisible and ignorable or worse.
There’s a long line of such people through history. Some people find a way to make other people something less than fully human, making it OK to ignore them and their needs, or worse: to do, or allow to be done, terrible things to them.
Go back to the Old Testament. The Israelites worshipped the wrong God, so it was OK to enslave and mistreat them.
Go to the early Christian church. Christians worshipped the wrong God, so it was OK to persecute and kill them.
Then Christians became allied with earthly power. Then it was the non-Christians who worshipped the wrong God, so it was OK to enslave them, and convert them at sword point. They were considered not fully human, so they were outside the scope of care and concern.
Over the centuries, who else has gotten this cloak of invisibility and not quite full humanness thrown over them?
The Jews, of course. Indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas.
Women, who were labelled by men as being essentially defective versions of men, and therefore could be treated as property,
People with disabilities.
Divorced and remarried people.
In our community, which is a national disgrace in terms of black/white disparities in almost every measurable category, Black Lives Matter is saying, sometimes more loudly than some people approve of, that they are tired of being invisible and overrepresented among the imprisoned, the hungry, and the homeless Jesus talked about.
For many years, Catholic Church leaders threw that cloak of invisibility over child victims of clergy abuse, with devastating lifelong consequences for the victims and others in their lives. I know and love some of those people and have seen the damage. (Being a retired lawyer, I have to point out that it was lawyers more than any others who tore the cloak of invisibility off those victimized children.)
In times of fear particularly, like the times we’re living in today, watch out: remember what happened to Japanese-American citizens during World War II. In case anyone missed it, on Wednesday the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, on official city stationery, cited with approval the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps as he called on other public officials to slam our doors on Syrian refugees, most of them women and children.
Sometimes the explanation is that we just can’t help everybody. But is that selective hand-wringing, an excuse for ranking some lives as more important than others?
Does anyone know how many girls have been kidnapped and disappeared by Boko Haram in Africa since 2014? Almost 10 times as many as were murdered in Paris this week.
How many hundreds of thousands of the invisible people have been dislocated in the Middle East, with almost no reaction in the west until people started drowning on the shores of Europe.
My point is that we allow some people to be essentially invisible to us. And here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert, which is also one reason this happens: Jesus sometimes shows up in life as a not very nice, not likeable man or woman. He or she may have views at odds with our values. He or she may have done truly bad things. But Jesus didn’t use weasel words. He didn’t say, “I was in prison for a crime I didn’t commit . . .”
I’ll give a couple of examples in a minute. But I’ll preface that with a reminder that our role model, Jesus, connected with some bad people, like a tax collector, and an officer in the vicious Roman army of occupation. These were people to be despised in his community.
Now to some examples close to home. There are some people I don’t particularly want to see.
Donald Trump and Ben Carson are drawing the support of very large numbers of people. I’m not going to spend time talking about Trump and Carson. But the people who are supporting Trump and Carson are angry, and many of them have a right to be angry. They are essentially invisible to our policy-makers. Their jobs are going overseas. Their unemployment benefits are running out. Until recently health insurance was unaffordable for them, and in many states which refuse to expand Medicaid, it still is. Their mortgages went under water because Wall Street hedge fund managers, and bankers, and federal policy makers didn’t want to see them. Those Trump supporters may be blaming the wrong people. But they have every right to throw off that cloak of invisibility and demand that we see them.
The second example I’m going to give is much harder for me, given the fact that on Friday Susan and I saw the movie Spotlight, about the exposure of clerical sex abuse in Boston, and the fact that as I mentioned I’ve seen some of the consequences of such abuse up close. But I use it to challenge myself and you, to see how far we may be asked to go if we are to follow the man from Nazareth. If some of you are offended, I’m sorry.
There’s a group of people in MN who have been invisible until very recently: sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences but remain incarcerated, some of them for decades, due to the fear that they might reoffend. The problem is that we claim we live in a society where you can’t do that. The courts have repeatedly asked our elected officials to address the problem, as other states have. Our elected officials, including our very progressive governor, won’t. Now, it’s not up to me or you to redesign our treatment and prison systems. But it is our job to challenge our elected officials when they default on doing their job, and the result is that a lot of people are in prison for 10 or 20 years longer than their sentences, and neither we nor anyone else visit them. To quote Jesus: “I was in prison and you did not come to comfort me.” We allow them to be invisible. They did some terrible things. But I think Jesus by word and example, is telling us that that that doesn’t entitle us to declare them outside humanity.
I was helped to understand that by a friend of mine, whose work at legal aid brought him into dealing with some of those predators. He helped me realize that many if not most of those predators were themselves prey, were terribly damaged as children, and never really had a chance to grow into normal adults.
There’s too much need out there for any one of us, individually or as a community, to reach it all. But every one of us does have to do something, find Jesus somewhere, and make sure that, even in places and for people where we can’t be the solution, at least we’re not part of the problem. So look around in your life and our communities. And be particularly aware if you really don’t want to look at something or some group or even an individual. That may be a red flag telling you to look more closely.
And it’s not just an individual effort. This community has a role to play. Some of us have better eyesight than others. A lot of people in this community have been victims of that cloak of invisibility and inhumanity, and have helped others to see that, and to do something about it. Some of you may be better able than others of us to see the humanity in people who are being overlooked or demonized. Share those insights; help the rest of us to see them as human, as worthy of care.