“Lord, when was it that we saw you…?”
As we have followed the course of the pandemic, both locally, nationally, and around the world, in order to make the best decisions we can for our households and our extended families and our church, I have noticed something: during an outbreak, the past and future overlap in the present moment.
What do I mean by that?
On Thursday, 183,000 new cases were reported, along with 81,000 hospitalizations and 1,971 deaths. The daily cases and hospitalizations lately have been higher than ever before, while deaths are creeping back to the level they were at in the worst days of April and May.
And when we see these snapshots of data, we see the past. We see past decisions made by policy makers, businesses, community organizations, and families. A huge motorcycle rally in South Dakota. Big political events, indoors and out, with no masks. A wedding of fewer than sixty people that seeded hundreds of cases and a growing number of deaths. When things seemed stable and the virus relatively scarce, people and communities stopped taking precautions and allowed the outbreak to gain speed. We are in this moment living with the decisions made for us, and that we made ourselves, days, weeks, and even months ago.
At the same time, we see the future. Even if all transmission ceased today, hundreds of thousands more cases would be reported among those already infected but not tested. And we know with a certainty that some significant number of those positive cases will join the ranks of the hospitalized in the days and weeks to come. And many of those hospitalized will die. Health care systems that are near their capacity now will inevitably break down, no matter what we do at this moment, because the progress of the virus and the disease it causes are always ahead of our decisions. At best, today, we are only trying to catch up.
The past is still with us. And the future is already visible. Thousands of Americans who are healthy and well and walking around today will die in the next few months of a preventable disease. Health care workers are pleading with Americans to take this seriously, to pull back from risky behavior, to wear masks. Many are burned out and traumatized. Many are quitting. Many are sick. They are doing this because they are already living in that future. It is their present. It is their daily life.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you?” Past and future come together in today’s Gospel. The general picture is probably pretty familiar to you. Jesus is telling his disciples--and only his disciples--what the coming of the Son of Man will be. The nations of the earth will be gathered before his throne and separated as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. On the right, those who saw him hungry and fed him, thirsty and gave him something to drink, a stranger and took him in, naked and clothed him, a prisoner and visited him.
On the other hand will be those who saw him hungry, thirsty, foreign, exposed, and incarcerated and showed him no such mercy.
And both groups alike will ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, or incarcerated?”
In other words, this is a vision not just of the future, but of the past. It’s not just about what will happen at the end of the age. It’s about what has happened already. What is happening right now. The world is seeing the Son of Man hungry and is feeding him or leaving him to suffer. The world is seeing the Son of Man thirsty and either aiding his thirst or allowing him to go without. The world is seeing him strange and forsaken and either taking him in or shutting him out. The world is seeing the Son of Man imprisoned and caring for him or letting him rot right now. At this moment.
This is happening right now. The world is passing judgment on itself right now, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in its actions and choices. And the point of the story today is that no one knows. No one knows because the Son of Man appears to the world hidden in the presence of his least brothers and sisters. If he appeared as a powerful politician or captain of industry, he’d be given priority admission to a good hospital and the best treatment money can buy, the best legal representation and all the food and drink he could want. But as he appears in a humble form, he gets whatever we give to the least, poorest, most despised member of his Body.
That’s the dread of this passage. The final judgment will be nothing more than the past becoming clear. Not God nit-picking this or that sin or failing, not God avenging petty slights or indulgences, but humanity placing itself finally and irrevocably where it wanted to be all along: with the sheep, or with the goats.
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us, so to say, in the middle. In the present. When the Son of Man says “the least of these who are members of my family,” the word is the same one Jesus uses in other places for the church: the brethren, the brothers and sisters. The church in this picture is not among the nations of the earth. The little flock that follows the voice of Christ and hears his words and shares the grace of his sacraments and devotes itself to the works he commands will be fine. In fact, in this story, we stand in as Christ’s representative. For the most vulnerable and deprived members of the Body, what is done to them is done to Him. For all of us, we have the task of making this vision plain to the world around us. In our personal and communal charity. In our words--whether we are speaking of the poor and outcast as fully human, and indeed as bearing the image of Christ in the world. And in our message to our neighbors and fellow citizens. What we did yesterday, what we do today, what we will do tomorrow will last forever. If you see something, say something, we’ve been taught for twenty years now. If you see the future, you are obligated to tell the future.
That, sisters and brothers, is our role. We are given the blessing and the responsibility of living both now, and then. We are told by our King that the past and future are always right here in front of us, that the day of judgment is happening now all around us. Mercy must come through us. We are taught by our King, who is and who was and who will be from before the beginning to after the end, that even God’s justice is an expression of love--love of the Father for the Son; the Son who loves the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and imprisoned. That even the dread warning we hear today is a word of love. Christ pleading with the world, “You do not have to do this to me. You did not have to do this to yourself.”
And we are called by our King to show him to the world, in our acts of love, in our demands for fairness and decency, in our defense of the least of our brothers and sisters.
This is the King we serve. He rules all time, all lives, all the world. There is no place in the universe, and no moment in time, where he is not present, loving and suffering and healing and transforming. He stands at the eternal crossing of past and future, with a suffering love that will recoil on every life for better or for worse. And we stand there with him, pleading, working, praying, and above all hoping that the vindication of our God and King will come to all those in need today, and will restore every heart that has set out for him. Amen.