My mother learned English informally by immersion. She entered America through Ellis Island from war-ravaged Austria speaking only her native German.
By the time I came along, her accent had grown faint. She navigated our English-speaking world effortlessly, but her vocabulary remained limited and you would never have sought her out for helpful grammar tips.
Her functional but limited command of English made writing a chore. That’s why she favored sending greeting cards over writing letters. When I was away at college or studying abroad, a card from her arrived in the mail at least once a week.
|Vasily Verschchagin’s “Letter to Home”|
In her florid, Old World handwriting, she would sign each card, “Love, Mom.” Sometimes she would add, “I miss you and love you.” She never wrote a note longer than that. And yet, she always chose cards with lengthy poems or quotations.
For years I looked at those cards in the same way that you might look at cards. They’re thoughtful. A handwritten note is the gold standard of thoughtfulness, and cards don’t quite match that depth of personal touch. But cards do show that a person took some trouble to connect. They just didn’t reveal as much about themselves personally to you as a note writer might.
My perspective changed when my mom told me about her approach to card buying. She said, “I love you so much. And I’m so proud of you. I don’t have words like you do. I can’t say how I feel. So I spend hours looking for a card that can tell you what you mean to me.”
My mother never rushed by the grocery or the drug store to grab a card. She studied them so that she could send me just the right message.
|Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman Reading a Letter”|
Greeting card messages may seem too generic to be genuinely personal. They’re written for a general audience. And yet, my mother had invested each card that she sent to me with her own sentiments. In her hands, the message was meant uniquely for me. She was sharing herself with me.
Once I understood the depth of my mom’s personal investment in those cards, I realized that my response to them had been woefully inadequate.
Similarly, God sends messages that are at once directed to everyone and tailored specifically for each individual.
Through the Scriptures and the Sacraments, through natural beauty and the arts, God says things for a general audience. And yet, he also sends messages uniquely for each individual. God speaks to the crowd, but God also gets personal.
Some people get the message. Others don’t. Some people realize that the message is from God. Others don’t. And most interestingly, some people haven’t the faintest clue that the message is from God, and yet they respond to that message.
In today’s Gospel we hear that God is sending a message to all the Nations. In other words, God is sending a message not just to Jews or to the followers of Jesus, but to the Gentiles. To people of all faiths and of no faith at all.
|Pablo Picasso’s “Reading the Letter”|
Some of them responded appropriately to God’s message. Others did not. And Christ judges them—sorts them into sheep and goats—on the basis of their response.
And here’s the crucial twist for understanding what Jesus is getting at here. Neither group of people had the faintest clue that God had sent them a message. But they were still accountable for their response.
To the sheep, the king said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
And the sheep respond to the king, “And when was this, precisely? Could you give us just a hint?”
You know the famous response: Whatever you do to the least of my sisters and brothers, you do to me.
In other words, God in Christ sends a message to everyone, simply everyone, in the powerless and the needy. And Christ isn’t just sending a group email here. He is investing himself in each message. The sender is present in the message sent.
God then judges us in accordance with how we respond to him in the needs and sorrows and sufferings of the people we encounter.
|Vincent van Gogh’s Study of a Hand|
When we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, treat and nurse the sick, and visit those in prison, we are saying yes to Christ himself. Even if we don’t realize it.
Conversely, we turn our backs on Christ himself every time we show indifference to human want and misery and loneliness.
It may be helpful to remember the Summary of the Law here. Love God with every fiber of your being. Love your neighbor as if your own well-being is inseparable from their health and security, their peace and joy. And by the way, everybody is your neighbor.
Christians know—or at least we should know—that works of mercy and insistence upon justice for all people form an essential part of our walk with Jesus. In the story of the sheep and the goats, we see clearly that Christ has claimed solidarity with the needy and the powerless.
To love Christ means to serve those who go without, those needing medical care, those who seem odd or unattractive to us, and even those behind bars. To add to their misery in any way is clearly contrary to God’s will. But we reject Jesus himself even when we merely ignore the needy and quietly accept the conditions that contribute to their deprivation.
Christ is sending us a personal message in each hungry child. We can see our response to Jesus in how we treat the handicapped and the mentally ill. Jesus himself suffers with untreated hypertension and undiagnosed diabetes, shivers in the cold with shabby clothing, and feels forgotten by the world as he languishes in prison.
Jesus is sending us a personal message using a kind of body language. The suffering bodies of each person on this planet house a soul inhabited by Christ himself. And Jesus takes our response to his message very personally.
|Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”|
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Louisiana.