Matthew 25: visiting the Sick
As we continue our study of Matthew 25, I want to read to you another quote from the commentary “Feasting on the Word”. The author writes, “In many ways, Matthew's depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King. Although not a parable but a narrative depiction of the last judgment, the main thrust of this lection is the same as the previous three parables. The call is to do right at all times. According to 24:10-14, growing antagonism and cooling love are among the most dangerous cancers facing followers of Christ. Distancing ourselves from others, allowing apathy to grow in us like a tumor, expecting that our actions have no real consequences, or relying too heavily on past love and care of others are critical concerns. The image of the Son of Man one day separating sheep and goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, root out self-centered living, and help each of us measure who and where we are as we grow in the likeness of Christ. In fact, the wellness check is so important that throughout this entire teaching block of Matthew (24:1-25:46) the negative warnings (24:48-51; 25:8-12, 24-30, 41-46) are presented in more abrasive detail than the positive affirmations. Telling the story so that the eventual outcome of misguided attitudes and choices will not, and in fact cannot, happen because we now know better (25:37), Jesus teaches that what and whom we choose make a difference. He states clearly and forcefully that those who think there are no consequences to actions are mistaken. In a world that seems too big to be changed, our lives have more meaning and value than we imagine.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).)
I felt that this was especially appropriate for today’s study on visiting the sick. Because what it points out is that the sick we care for, when we care for the sick, are, once again, ourselves. We are the ones in need of healing, we are the ones in need of correctives and the prescription that we are given for our disabilities, our inabilities and our human illness is to follow Jesus.
We see this clearly in today’s passage, but perhaps we see it even more clearly in other passages. The passage we read from John that talks about Jesus healing the blind man ends with the following chastisement of the Pharisees: Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
A similar thing happens with the man Jesus heals who is deaf and mute. In the book of Mark, Jesus cures this man and those around him prove themselves instead to be the ones who fail to really hear and fail to speak truth or wisdom.
Who are the sick? Who are the blind? Who are the deaf? It is shown again and again through scripture that the blind are often those who will not see. The deaf are those who refuse to hear. And the sick are often those who physically appear the healthiest, but who live lives that are not godly. The passage from Matthew, as we read it today, gives us the cure, invites us into the health that Jesus offers. We find that health by doing what Jesus asks – by caring for one another, by understanding at the deepest level that we are all connected, all one, all so intimately united by God’s love that we literally are healing ourselves and feeding ourselves and caring for ourselves when we care for others.
As for the tasks that are listed, I think that St. Andrew’s, through our care committee and through amazing people like Nancy, Sue and Regina do an wonderful job of visiting the sick. Others in our congregation are constant care-givers – Janet; Carmen; Karla, Dave and Karen; Jane and Rich; Judy; Lindy: for our families, for our friends. Others volunteer and work in care-giving professions – such as Katie, and Trish. We visit people at home, we visit people in the hospital, we visit people going through rehab. And we do more than visit. We pray with people, we care for people, we spend time with them. We genuinely care about our people who are struggling, and we offer our presence and anything else we know how to offer. As much as if not more than any of the other things on Matthew’s list, we do this caring for the sick and we do it well. That is something you should feel really proud of. Even if you can’t or don’t do this as an individual, as a community we are amazing in our care for others.
Where is our challenge, then, in this? Well, our challenge is to remember that we really are ALL sick. None of us are completely well. And so again, when we visit the LEAST of these – those who may not appear to need our care, but need it just as much, we are also doing it for Jesus.
At a previous church where I served, the people of our congregation were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless. We were part of a community of churches that provided food, showers, haircuts, community fellowship, resources for getting one’s life back together, clothing and a variety of other services and goods. Through this work and through our time with the homeless people in our community, we developed a very close relationship with one homeless man in particular. This man was very loving, very giving, very caring. He began attending our church and when he did so, he offered to run our sound system, he helped with the gardening, he was always on hand to help us in any way. He was not unintelligent, but he was a severe alcoholic who could not seem to get through the disease to a place where he could give up drinking. He would give it up for a week or two and then something would happen and he would be drinking again. We saw him fight for his life against this disease and we saw him losing the battle. For a while he lived on the church campus, but we, too set boundaries around his drinking behavior and when he could not live up to them, he could no longer stay on the church campus. Still, he understood our need to protect the children and families who came to our church and so he continued to be an active member of our community, and we continued to provide care, love and support within the boundaries. At one point however in our relationship with this man whom I'll call "George", he had a seizure while walking along the street, fell and hit his head. The police found him hours later and took him to the local hospital. His injuries, especially to his brain, were very serious and he was admitted for long term hospitalization and rehabilitation. However, when the nurses and doctors at the hospital came to understand that he was a homeless, jobless, resource-less man, they gave up caring for him. He remained at the hospital for quite a while, because he was unable to walk a straight line, he could not speak clearly and had very little control over his movements. But in large part he was at the hospital for so long because they would not provide the care to get him to a place where they could discharge him. The people of our church loved "George" for the gentle caring soul that he was, and it broke all of our hearts to see our brother in faith, our brother in Christ, our neighbor, the neighbor Jesus calls us to care for, treated in this way. But the only time that George received any attention – sometimes the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it. We paid what we could to the hospital, but our church was mostly made of working class families and retired folk on fixed income, and we simply did not have the resources to pay for better medical care for our brother. Still, we brought him food. We sat with him. We fought for him with the medical personnel. We cared for him. Two years ago I learned that George had died. He was in his 50s, and while he remained a homeless man struggling with alcohol addiction until the end, his funeral was well attended by those of our church who had loved him, visited him, provided care for him.
Again, this is something that is done well at St. Andrew’s, too. We fight for those without resources who are members of our community with the medical people, and with any who would deny these the care they need.
My prayer for all of you is that as you care and love others, you feel God’s healing hand caring for you as well. That you experience God’s touch on your heart as you touch the hands and minds of those who are sick. That you know Jesus love for you, as a person struggling with the human illness, even as you offer love to those who struggle with human diseases around you. In the name of the one who loves you into being and into wholeness and into healing we pray. Amen.