‘Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It’

Posted: November 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It’

How radical is this story from Matthew? What is it about what he says, that is radical? I think it was radical to say that our love for others enriches God’s experience. And it was radical to say that the differences between sheep and goats is reversible. God truly is, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims, the fellow sufferer who understands. There is a change that comes about when we love someone and the differences remind us that the opportunities to care for the vulnerable are endless. These things have to be radical because if what we do truly shapes the quality of the divine experience, then ethics involves, in part, the questions: Will our actions bring greater beauty or ugliness to God’s experience? Will we open the door to greater influx of divine activity by actions that bring wholeness, beauty, and justice to the world?

There is judgment for the complacent and unconcerned in this because while the gulf between the sheep and the goats is not irreversible, the gulf between them can remain and the pain felt by the goats involves an awareness of this radical promise of love being already here. The removal of pain is in the recognizing of missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and thus contribute something of beauty to the divine experience. Perhaps, the pain will be redemptive and they too will be restored to companionship with God and the vulnerable.

John Cobb and David Griffin have called this radical awareness a “creative-responsive love.” God’s love for the world is intimate. The Christmas story reminds us of the intimacy in its metaphor of incarnation. The birth of a human Child is as if the divine and human combine on earth. The divine gives life to all things and receives the experiences of the creaturely world. There is a oneness about this divide between sheep and goat. There is learning and acceptance and there is a response that is holy and good. The intimate response to the joy and sorrow of creation, seeks to bring beauty out of life’s imperfections and ambiguities. The intimacy of co-creative engagement in creation is revealed as a dynamic living relationship.

Here we have a gospel story that says a culture that supports the rich and comfortable but cannot come up with a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt for the poor is in for one heck of a shock. C S Lewis, has made this anthropological, but none-the-less interesting comment: He says; “When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises: First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see. Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there. And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there”. The presence of the divine is not what we expect. The most radical shock of our story is, that the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says; this present-ness in basic human need goes unrecognized by both groups of people. Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this present-ness. Both were looking for the divine in other places and other events. And both were shocked. Thus, if we are to recognise the present-ness of the divine in basic human need, we need to foster a compassionate consciousness. We need to awaken to what is already among us, and do it.

It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion. It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm, he was saying that God’s realm equals compassion. That the realm of God means the coming of compassion. Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying, with a place or rungs on a ladder. God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun. It is a verb… ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.

Matthew Fox suggests this is less about ‘within-ness’ and more about ‘among-ness’ being the key to the kingdom”, “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here.  Compassion is at hand”.  (Fox 1979: 25-33) This seems to be a way of keeping anthropocentrism at bay while still claiming an intimacy like no other between God and human. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in one of his books says that we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. He writes; “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus…  I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131). The differences between sheep and goats disappears in the divine intimacy.

Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, said in a sermon in Australia some years back that from a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament. Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here, no inquiry about the catechism or right belief. In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable. He noted also that we get this story wrong every time.  His example was that ‘he frequently hears during the ‘announcements’ in church: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.” But he said; that’s not what the story says. The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing. The king is present in the one in need. We go to them to be changed not to change them.

He also said that this story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment. It’s actually a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again; he said: “And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’” He then went on to say: “Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response.  That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you depict this; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… What we have is a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough.  God is in the midst of humanity, and not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but rather, hidden, as a dream would have it…

“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony that we find in the intimacy of the incarnation, bond of the co-creative relationship, we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…

“But; and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance – we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.

“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can all get it right – it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.” This suggests that Matthew’s story or dream is about what finally matters. I want to leave you with a poem by Christine Fry, that has the same thing in mind. She wrote this back in 2004:

You’ve asked me to tell you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.

We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another’s eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.

And so, we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned.
And another.
And another.
And as they wept, they took each other’s hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colours, all nations, all religions.

Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts…

Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row, 1979.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

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