September 20, 2020

Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, III:
Generosity to Jesus Incognito

Passage: Matthew 25:31–46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Jean Kennedy Smith died on June 17 at the age of 92. She was the eighth of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children, and sister to Jack, Bobby, and Teddy.

In 1944, when she was 16, two priests came to the Kennedy home to tell her parents that her oldest brother Joe had been killed in World II.

Sixteen-year-old Jean was devastated. The first thing she did was to ride her bicycle to church to pray. The second thing she did was bike to the local hospital to volunteer. “What else could I do?” she asked. Good question.

Jean was legendary for her match-making skills. She found wives for Jack, Bobby, and Teddy. As ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration, she also put Catholics and Protestants together with the Good Friday Agreement.

Always conscious of her privilege, she spent most of her life working with children with disabilities. Asked how she wanted to be remembered, she quoted Abraham Lincoln: “I have planted a rose where only thistles grew.”

She was the American Ambassador to Ireland, but when she died, Time magazine called her “Ambassador of Generosity.”[1] Ambassador of Generosity. That’s even better than Planter of Roses. It made me ask myself how I will be remembered.

I love Walter Brueggeman’s prayer which Jo read so movingly a moment ago. Walter Brueggemann is probably the finest Old Testament scholar in America. He taught for 17 years at Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Dr. Brueggemann suggests that the reality most of us live in is one of lavish abundance. There is enough to go around. We take food we did not grow, and life we did not invent, and future that is gift and gift and gift. God comes giving manna in the wilderness, and a child to Abraham and Sarah at the eleventh hour, and a home to the Hebrew slaves, and Easter joy to the dead and dying.

But sometimes we conjure an imagined scarcity. We fear that there is not enough to go around, that we are going to run short of money, of things, of love, of hours, of years, of life.[2]

And who can blame us? Evolution has built a fear of scarcity into our every sensibility. Only creatures who can predict and prepare for future scarcity will survive. Bears go months and months without eating and then gorge and hoard to prepare for the next inevitable scarcity. Eons of natural selection have built this self-defense mechanism into our brains.

But this ancient defense mechanism stops working when you enter the aristocracy of the richest economy in the history of the world.

In my neighborhood, the squirrels are rushing around burying acorns as if winter were coming, and I guess it is, but did you know that squirrels never recover 74% of the acorns they hide?[3] Don’t be squirrelly. Don’t hide and hoard resources you don’t need. Leave some for the rabbits and deer.  Maybe we should stop surfing the mall or the internet to generate gratuitous desire and start searching for worthier causes instead.

“I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” says Jesus, “I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a refugee and you welcomed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you showed up.”

Confusion reigns. “When did I see you hungry and gave you to eat, when were you thirsty and I gave you to drink? When were you a refugee and I welcomed you?” And Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”

Jesus tells this first happy and then harrowing story on Wednesday of Holy Week. This is his last sermon. This is the last thing he says before he marches up to that cross on Golgotha. This is the apogee of his Gospel message; this is the précis of his entire sermon collection.

He means to say that the common distinctions we concoct for ourselves in the human community are empty and shallow and ultimately meaningless. That stuff just won’t matter on the last of all our days.

What do you do:  Doctor or Domestic?
Where do you live:  Ghetto or gated community?
What do you wear:  Prada or Penney’s?
What’s your music: Rap or Rachmaninoff?
What’s your name for God: Yahweh or Allah?
What color are you: Hispanic or Black or Anglo?

All that matters is what we have done for the least, the last, the lost, the lame, the leper, and the loser.

Annie Lamott says one day she was feeling sad and low and decided to give herself a little shopping therapy. She says “I went over to the blouse racks. There was an adorable T-shirt that I desperately needed, for only eighty-nine dollars. Sigh: who was it who said that to get into heaven, you needed a letter of recommendation from the poor? What a buzzkill.”[4]

“I was hungry and you gave ME to eat,” says Jesus. What? I never saw you Jesus. Jesus is not sitting at the right hand of God, distant and unseen, or at least not JUST there. He’s everywhere.

He’s out there in the long lines at the food bank. He’s at the Cook County Jail. He’s sitting atop the smoldering ruins of the Sierra Nevada. He’s riding an inflatable down the flooded streets of Pensacola.

So I want to think about our generosity to Jesus Incognito, Jesus in disguise, Jesus in camouflage. “I was hungry and you gave ME to eat.

Can you think of a time when human need was more comprehensive? Not in my lifetime. The Great Depression maybe. How could so many catastrophes in so many forms in so many places come crashing down on us all at once?

Fires on the West Coast, floods on the Gulf Coast, ICU’s with rows of ventilators, bartenders and waiters and hotel housekeepers and travel agents who haven’t worked since March, boarded-up storefronts in many American cities, families living in cars.

Last week The Chicago Tribune reported that half of all Chicago households are rent-insecure or food-insecure because of the pandemic.[5] The entire year 2020 will be like December 7, 1941: the year that will live on in infamy. And then Notorious RBG goes and dies.

At least we know what we have to do. There’s never been a time when Jesus’ last sermon is more relevant than right now. And we’ll do our best. In January, firefighters from California traveled halfway around the world to fight fires in Australia. I’ll bet there are a bunch of Australians in California right now.

Will Willimon, once Dean of the Chapel at Duke and then Methodist Bishop of Northern Alabama, says that one of his students spent the summer volunteering at a Jesuit center for the homeless. Seven days a week, all day long, they offered free food, medical care, and counseling.

At the end of one grueling day, he and an old Jesuit priest finally locked the front door. As they peered out the window, they saw yet one more scruffy woman pushing her grocery cart of earthly belongings up the walk to the center. The student said, “Not another one! Jesus Christ!”

The old priest just stroked his beard, and said, “Could be, could be,” and unlocked the door.[6] Maybe it was Jesus Incognito.

At the end of your long and happy life, I hope you too will be remembered as an Ambassador of Generosity.

[1] Samantha Power, “Jean Kennedy Smith: Ambassador of Generosity,” Time, July 6–13,2020, p. 18.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. by Anna Carter Florence, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2004), p. 3–4.

[3] Sarah Wells, “Why Do Squirrels Bury Nuts? (and Other Mysteries),” Smithsonian Science Education Center,

[4] Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), p. 70.

[5] Abdel Jimenez, “Half of All Chicago Households Report Serious Financial Problems During the Covid-19 Pandemic, NPR-Harvard Poll Finds” The Chicago Tribune, September 9, 2020.

[6] Error! Main Document Only.William H. Willimon, Incarnation: The Surprising Overlapping of Heaven and Earth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), p. 70.