Once upon a time, “there was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street. His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming? I have almost given up hope in seeing you. Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”
Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow. Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold. The cobbler invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meager meal from his shrinking larder. The beggar thanked him and left.
As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses. A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow. The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper. Into the shop he invited the boy. After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that [had] belonged to his son. He fit the shoes to the boy. Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.
It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord. A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window. She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death. The cobbler invited her into his shop. Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold. The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woolen cloak that [had] belonged to his wife. Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.
The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft. “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked? There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop: “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.” [The cobbler] then remembered the scripture: “When did you see me hungry and feed me, alone and naked and clothe me and thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The visitors who had come to his shop that day had been his master. In their faces he had looked into the eyes of God.
That night the cobbler slept happy and at peace for the first time in many months.”[i]
Today’s gospel lesson is one of those lessons that we might hear and immediately panic, for fear that we are those goats at God’s left hand. We can picture all of those homeless persons we passed without a nod or a coin; that nursing home that we go by everyday but fail to stop in for a visit; or that prison that we avoid because passing the prison makes us nervous enough – we cannot imagine actually going inside. In fact, we are pretty sure that we are the goats of Jesus’ story, and we know that when those goats do not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, tend the sick, and visit the prison, they are sent away to eternal punishment. Talk about a sobering text.
Truthfully, we probably all could use a little sobering from time to time. But today, I am more intrigued by the ways in which we are sheep. In fact, St. Margaret’s gives us all kinds of opportunities to be sheep: when we plant, tend, and pick produce that feeds the hungry in Huntington Station and Hicksville; when we donate money to the Outreach Fund, which provides clothing, gas, food, and toiletries to needy students at JFK High School here in Plainview; when we take communion to the shut-ins, or simply stop by for a visit or drop off a container of soup; or when we clear out our closets for veterans we may never meet. All of these ways are ways in which St. Margaret’s is seeking and serving Christ in our neighborhood, and inviting us to fully become sheep at God’s right hand.
But as proud as I am of each of us, and as much as I want to assure us that we fall into the sheep category as often as we fall into the goat category[ii], the more important point is that Jesus’ words today are not meant to make us worry about completing a check list that will get us into heaven someday. Instead, Jesus’ words today are meant to be a different kind of wake up call. Jesus is saying today [clap], “Hey! I am right here. Wake up!” Jesus does not want you to do all those wonderful things because that is what will get you into heaven. Jesus wants you to do those wonderful things because that is where we will see his face and he will see ours. Only when we are in those places of vulnerability, messiness, and desperation will we find each other.
I do not mean to romanticize poverty or helping the less fortunate. But here is what I do know: for the person who is in need, asking for help is one of the most humiliating experiences a person can know. Asking for help means swallowing one’s pride, admitting defeat, and opening up oneself to rejection. And for the person who is giving aid, giving that help means talking to someone we usually try to ignore, acknowledging our own privilege, and seeing afresh how thin the line is between “us” and “them.” In that narrow space is where we can hear God say, “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.” That is the invitation of today’s gospel lesson: not to panic in fear, but to step into those narrow spaces where Christ resides, and to see Christ face to face. Amen.
[i] Leo Tolstoy, “Martin the Cobbler,” as retold by Bob Stuhlmann in “Goat Cheese And Starfish: For November 23, 2014,” posted on November 18, 2014, as found at http://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/goat-cheese-and-starfish-for-november-232014/.
[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 336.