Doan and I like going to the Philadelphia Art Museum, and no matter what we are going to see, we always stop for a moment at the statue of Rocky Balboa out front, on street level, greeting the museum visitors with arms raised. Stallone is not known for deep thought, but he wrote a good portion of his movies, and I like his penchant for playing the underdog, the broken, the losing or the already lost. In First Blood, the first of the Rambo movies, Stallone’s John Rambo is a Vietnam vet broken by the war, lost in late 1970’s America, jobless, homeless, lost. Rambo is the least of the brethren. After being harassed and realizing that a local sheriff intends to kill him, Rambo wages a personal war on the sheriff. In the final scene, Rambo’s old commanding officer finds him in a burnt out building, horrified at himself, at the world he came back to, at how people treated him. When he wasn’t being spit on by protestors, he was ignored, invisible. The whole world acted like it would be better off without him.
It might be hard for us to look at a character like John Rambo and see Jesus, but I guess you already know where this is going, right? We’re human, and it seems that the human tendency is to lump people in categories. Homeless. Jobless. Welfare queen. The Third World. Camden. Perhaps most shamefully, Rambo reminds us today, veterans. It’s easy to lump persons into categories, so easy it may be demonically so; referring to groups rather than the people that may be in such a group robs the individual of his or her humanity, it let’s us forget that they too are made in the image of God.
I read once that it would be a good spiritual discipline to go someplace like Newark Airport and watch as people walked by. Nowadays doing that might get you arrested, but you can imagine what you would see. You’d see tired businessmen and polished pilots, you’d see children in need a snack and their harried mothers. You’d see big people and skinny people, people of every race and nation, you’d see a little bit of everything. “But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.” Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one; for that stressed-out mom and for that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone. The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later on in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way, all in terms of dollars and cents and the public interest in revenue and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”1
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, so we get the sheep and the goats. We get the sheep and the goats because, believe it or not, it’s almost Advent; soon we will be talking mostly of mangers and babies and sleeping in heavenly peace. Pretty soon we will be talking about the greatest event in history, so the Church gives us this Sunday to talk about the end of history, to talk about the Lord sorting it all out in the end, sheep to one side, goats to the other.
Jesus didn’t stay with His ovine metaphor for long, so neither will we. To the righteous He will say, in essence, Good job; I was hungry and thirsty and sick and a stranger and naked and in prison, and you took care of me. To the unrighteous, Jesus was still all those things, but Bad job, you ignored me. Interestingly, both the righteous and the unrighteous ask the same question: “When Lord, did we see you in any of those states? In fact, when did we see you at all?” The answer is the same: “In the least of these my brethren; you saw me everywhere among the forgotten and ignored, the frayed and unloved, among the captive and discarded. You saw me, and the righteous, you took care of me, but you unrighteous, well, how ya like me now.”
Our Bishop, Bishop Councell, likes to say that when he finally makes his way to the pearly gates, Jesus is going to say, “So, you were the Bishop of New Jersey? Tell me about Camden.” When we join our good Bishop there at those gates, Jesus will say to us, “Tell me about Bordentown. When you saw me on the highways and the byways, in the motels and at the food pantry, in the youth detention center and the summer camp, how did you treat me?”