Picture a really complex spider web. Not one with a few layers of silk, delicate, and easily broken. Picture one that’s so strong, so complex, so thick, you almost can’t see through it. This web is sticky, and it traps the spiders’ prey in it so that once they’re stuck, they cannot escape. Think of all the spiders that could survive on this web together. I don’t really like spiders, but this web is so impressive, I have to give the them some credit.
When I picture God, that spider web is the image that comes to mind. God is the silk, woven together, sticky, intersecting and overlapping and all connected as this magical, complicated, beautiful home for the spiders. God is the connection between us all. Living in God’s creation, being made in God’s image, automatically unites us. It actually does more than unite us: it knits us together, weaves our lives into each other’s. To think of God in this way means I have no choice but to see everyone as my sibling in Christ.
Matthew’s Gospel today is familiar to many of us. Jesus the king comes and gathers before him “all the nations.” He puts the favored lot, the righteous, on his right, the side of favor, and the “accursed” on his left. Jesus explains to them that when they were faced with choices to help or not help their fellow people, they were actually faced with the choice to turn towards or away from him. “Just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me. Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” As a result of their choices, he tells them, the group on the right will have eternal life and those on the left eternal punishment.
This is not exactly a complicated narrative. The idea is simple. But living it out takes work. We cannot be passive actors in making earth more like God’s Kingdom. We are called to seek out the needy, to help them however we can, and to see Jesus in them all. That is difficult work.
It is hard to always find the energy and the will to answer this commandment from God. To explore this, I want to use an example from my own experience that I imagine many of you have faced. Several times in my life, I have been walking down a sidewalk and been confronted – sometimes literally, and other times just emotionally stopped in my tracks – by an evidently homeless person. Often the person has stood or sat quietly, perhaps holding a sign asking for help, and other times the person has audibly asked, “can you spare some change?” Typically, my first response is a slight lurch in my stomach. The lurch comes from many places – sadness, guilt, frustration, and questioning. I hate to see anyone desperate enough to be in the position of asking passerby for support. I feel guilt that I cannot imagine being in such a position – I am blessed to have a family equipped to care for me if need be. I get frustrated by my own questioning of this individual’s need and back story. Often, these feelings come to me in one big rush, leaving little time for intentional thought and consideration, and I commit almost instantaneously to either giving a few dollars and wishing the individual good luck, or keeping my head down and walking past them. I hesitate to admit to you all, in my first ever sermon at Emmanuel, that Jesus’s teaching usually doesn’t consciously factor into this quick thought process. Matthew 25, verse 40, is not top of mind. But it should be! It should be top of mind for us all, at all times. We are not to be lazy responders to God’s call. If we take the spiderweb of God’s creation seriously, then we can’t help but think about Jesus’s directions to us in Matthew and about how he would have us respond to this least of us we encounter on the street. If I could look that person in the eye, and see Jesus in the eyes looking back at me, I would have no choice but to respond to his plea.
There’s an irony, I think, in this Gospel passage being appointed on what we call Christ the King Sunday. This is a day when we mark Christ’s kingship and sovereign rule over all creation. It’s when we celebrate the Jesus dressed in white and gold, with power and might emanating from him like rays of light. And yet, this Jesus is also hungry and thirsty. He’s naked and sick and alone. He’s the king and the homeless man. This Jesus is everyone on the web of God’s creation. And the way we treat him affects everyone else on that web. If I see the man on the street as someone lower and less worthy of my time and attention than Jesus, I cut off my connection to him. By not first seeing him, and acknowledging his personhood, and then by not acting towards him with love and respect, by not treating him with dignity, I sever the tie between us. On the web, I cut the line of silk between us. Each time I do that, it damages the whole web. That is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel. It’s that the way we treat the least of these among us is the way we treat Jesus, and it has monumental effects on all of humanity.
I know living out this Gospel passage feels daunting, but let’s be encouraged by it. It is good news! It means that we have the choice every day to see Jesus alive in the world and to honor him. Each time we do that – stop, see Jesus in others, and respond with kindness and love, we strengthen the web. Each time we do it we live more fully into what God has called us to. We live in a world that constantly validates the king and rarely the homeless man. We have been taught to accomplish all that we can in order to accumulate all that we can. But we are called to something different: we are called to follow Jesus not as the alternative, not as the counter-cultural choice, but as the only lens through which to view the world. If we can start to see not the greatest of each other and the least, but simply see each other, and see each other as a reflection of Jesus, then we might just recognize that we all fit together on God’s web. God’s beautiful, complicated, messy, holy web.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog