Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.
Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death.
Then she said, “I don’t think my husband was ever baptized.” I assumed what she was worried about, so I assured her that the church does not teach baptism is necessary for heavenly rest. She nodded at my words, but I didn’t know her well enough to be able to tell if her face showed relief or just mild interest at this assurance. I pressed on, saying that baptism is a celebration of God’s belovedness and our membership in God’s family. This time when she nodded, a small smile peeked through her impending grief.
That’s when the prompting from my gut hit me again. “Do you want me to baptize your husband?” I asked. “I can do it right now.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think that would be very nice.”
I went back to my car, got my prayerbook, filled a plastic cup with water at the drinking fountain, and returned to the room. I asked God’s blessing on the water, and then I baptized the dying man in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, touching his papery skin with the holy water three times. He died about two hours later.
I tell you this story because it illustrates the truth of today’s Gospel lesson. I went to see this dying man; I talked at length with his wife; I baptized him. And not once during that holy visit did I take the time to see Christ in either of them. Not once did I stop and give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve in this manner, or for the uncommon reality that I actually listened to the voice within. Not once did I realize this was a Matthew 25 moment. I was so caught up in all I had to do that day, all my distraction and misplaced priorities, that the service God prompted me to do happened in spite of me.
So I can understand why the people in the parable, even the ones who served the least of these, were surprised to find out they were serving Christ. “Lord,” they ask in Matthew chapter 25, “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 a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
When was it, Lord? Are you telling us we were serving you even when we didn’t realize it? “Truly I tell you,” the Lord says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
When was it, Lord? The realization didn’t happen for me until I received a lovely note from the widow. She said, “He was a total stranger to you and yet you found the time to help him at the end of his earthly life.” As I read those words, my eyes went wide and my heart jackhammered against my chest. The reason I nearly missed the opportunity to baptize the dying man was exactly that. I had never met him before. He wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock. He was a total stranger. A stranger who was Christ in disguise.
Sometimes we wander through life. Sometimes we stride. Sometimes we are absent-minded. Sometimes we are attentive. Sometimes we are blind. And sometimes we see. Not with these eyes in the middle of our faces, but with the eyes of our hearts. In today’s second lesson, Paul prays for the Ephesians and for us: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
What a fantastic prayer and beautiful mission: As you come to know God, may you find hope through the enlightening of the eyes of your heart. I think the voice connected to those eyes prompted me to go visit the dying man and to offer baptism. Thankfully, in that instance, I listened. But still I did not see. At least not until I received the widow’s note.
Our lives are shot through with the glory of God and with opportunities to serve the least who are members of God’s family. Through prayer and spiritual practice, and with God’s help, we can train the eyes of our hearts to see that glory and to respond to those opportunities. In each of your lives, I guarantee you are doing something to serve God, which you may never have connected to your life of faith. Most likely, it is something you are doing independently of your experience here at St. Mark’s.
This week, I invite you to imagine receiving a note like I did from the widow, the note that talked about her husband as a stranger I served, the note that floored me with the realization of my Matthew 25 moment. Who would send you such a note? What would the note thank you for? What would make your eyes go wider and your heart beat faster when you realized the impact you had on another person?
With such an encounter fixed in your prayer, pray to God to help you see with the eyes of your heart all the time. Pray to see Christ alive in everyone you meet, especially the least of the members of God’s family. And pray for the will to serve them as Christ served all, so that in the end, no one will ever be called a stranger.