This week I heard via one of the counsellors at Seycove Secondary school here on the North Shore that this year’s grade 8 students are behaving like no other first year of highschool students in recent memory. They arrive in class wearing their masks. They sit down quietly at their desks, girls on one side of the room, boys and no one talks to each other. The only explanation their teachers have for this highly unusual behaviour is that over the last year of going to school under the restrictions imposed on them due to Covid-19, they have forgotten who they are and who they are meant to behave. To remedy this situation, their teachers are going to start implementing ice breaker activities in all their classes until they re-learn how to interact with one another again and remember who they are.
One of the concerns I have had since the vaccine roll out started to happen here in Canada is that like these grade 8 students, we have also started to forget who we are. Hunkered down in our own backyard, attending to the health and safety of our own citizens, our gaze turned inwards, I fear our vision of who we are as global citizens has narrowed.
I first started to feel this concern back in the late spring when vaccines became available for my teenaged sons. As we shuffled them off to their vaccination appointments, I couldn’t help but think that in Canada we were now vaccinating our children while many extremely vulnerable people in the world were nowhere even close to getting vaccinated and they still aren’t. In fact, as of last week, only 2 percent of the world’s population have been vaccinated. In the global south, it’s thought that herd immunity will not be reached until 2024, if ever.
Simply by virtue of where we have been born or where we have been fortunate enough to immigrate to, most of us have had the opportunity to be vaccinated and soon even our youngest children will have that opportunity. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that my children have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. It’s just that I’m aware of the majority of children in the world who don’t have that same opportunity.
If there is one lesson Covid-19 has taught us it is that we are united as a global family and so it may be that like the grade 8 students at Seycove Secondary School, we too need to relearn or perhaps learn for the first time what it really means to united with those who live beyond our own backyard, to remember who we really are.
In many ways, today’s scripture reading is a basic lesson in how to be in right relationship as human family especially with those who do not have the same life circumstances and privileges many of us have. The setting is the final judgement day. Lined up before the king sitting on his throne are all the nations of the world. The king begins to separate the people out one at a time, like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. When the measuring stick for who gets put into the right hand pen and who gets thrown to the left is revealed, namely how the king has been treated, both the sheep and the goats are surprised. Both the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the condemned ask the same question: When was it? The blessed ones ask when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcome you or naked and gave you clothing? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? In turn, the condemned ask when was it we did not do these things to you?
Both the righteous and the accursed are surprised that what they were doing unto others was doing unto the king but if you’re like me, it’s the shock of the accursed you zero in on because for most of us, our greatest fear is that in the end of the day we might just end up in the goat pen being judged like they were.
But it’s the surprise of the sheep, the righteous ones, I want us to linger on for a moment this morning because the reason they are surprised to discover what they were doing on earth mattered is that they never actually thought about the consequences of their actions when they were doing them. When they fed the hungry and tended the sick, when they looked upon the suffering of the world with tender and caring eyes, they just did it because it was who they were. They didn’t do it to get some reward in the end of the day. Maybe that’s because it was reward enough to them just to care for someone in need. And that’s what really matters in life isn’t it? Who we are, how we relate to one another when no one is watching, when we think there’s nothing in it for us but everything it in for the ones we are caring about.
Years ago I used to love watching the reality tv show “Undercover Boss.” It’s a show in which a senior executive alters their appearance and assumes an alias in order to work undercover in their own company. Over the course of a week they work in a variety of entry level positions, so they can investigate how their business is really being run and how they can improve it. Without fail, they always encounter people who are slacking off or not following company protocols or speaking ill of their boss who they don’t realize is standing right in front of them. Without fail, they also encounter the hard workers, the people who go above and beyond the call of duty, who are kind and caring even though they often have struggles of their own. At the end of the week the slackers are surprised to discover they are being fired. If only they’d known it was their boss they had been working alongside perhaps they would have done things differently. The hard workers are equally surprised to discover they are being rewarded because they were just doing their job and being who they are.
Like an undercover boss, today’s scripture reading reminds us that Christ is always among us, observing our behaviour especially when we are with those who suffer. Because it’s in the eyes of those in need that we see the eyes of Christ looking squarely right back at us.
It’s challenging and unsettling to learn that our both our actions and our inaction towards those in need are what really matter in the end of the day but perhaps it is also of comfort to us because it means that if we are looking to see the face of Jesus, we don’t actually have to look very far.
Some of you might be familiar with the parable of the monastery that at one time had been part of a thriving religious order but over time had started to decline to the point where there were only were only five monks left in the mother house: The Abbot and four others, all of whom were over seventy. Distressed about this reality, the Abbot went to seek wisdom from a colleague a local rabbi. The two friends commiserated about the state of religion and then as the Abbot got up to leave the Rabbi turned to him and said “I have no advice to give you. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.”
Back at the monastery the Abbot shared what the Rabbi had said with his fellow monks “The Rabbi said the Messiah is one of us” he told them. All the monks began to wonder what the Rabbi meant. Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course – it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod – he’s so crotchety. But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip – he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course he didn’t mean me – yet supposing he did? I couldn’t be me could it?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Wasn’t long before the monastery returned to its’ former state as a place of relevance, care and great love.
Roman Catholic writer Joan Chittister says that one of the greatest calls of the Desert monastics who lived in the wastelands of Egypt between the 3rd and 5th centuries was the daily call to begin again to see that we are “our brother’s keeper” to remember that what we do not do for the other, will not ultimately be done for us. Every day, she says, is a call to complete the work that the Creator has begun for us to finish and in so doing to remember who we are.*
This world wide communion Sunday as we celebrate the way we are united with our Christian kin around the globe, let us also remember the way we are connected particularly with those beyond our borders who are among the least of these.
*excerpt from Joan Chittiser “In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics” Franciscan Media, 2015.