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The Face of God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 23, 2014
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Matthew 25:31-46 Psalm 95:1-7
There is an Indic greeting that goes, “The god in me salutes the god in you.” Our reading from Matthew reminds me of that saying. Jesus says that when we do good to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it to Him. To me, this means that Jesus is dwelling in each of us. It reminds me of another line from a poet I much admire named Michael Harper. In a poem called “High Modes: Vision as Ritual: Confirmation,” Harper writes the wonderful line, “A man is another man’s face.” I’d like to let that line just hover for a few minutes. But to explain what it means to me, I would say that to another man, we are but a face. And another man’s face is a man like us. The lines from Matthew tell us to honor another man or woman’s face, as if we were honoring Jesus.
I think that Swedenborg’s doctrine of the Divine Human relates to this Bible passage. When God took on a human form in Jesus, God sanctified humanity. With God as a Human, we see humanity differently. For when we do something to a human, we do something to God’s form. What we do to another human we are doing to God, since our very humanity is from God’s Divine Humanity. It is this idea that leads the poet William Blake to say,
So all must love the human form in heathen, Turk, or Jew
Where mercy, pity, peace are found, there God is dwelling, too.
We have our mortal human form from God’s Divine Humanity.
And this honor accorded to all humanity is found in the Old Testament, too. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus takes this to be one of the two commandments that sum up all the law and prophets. I spoke with a rabbi at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre and she told me that this command takes precedence over all the rituals devoted to God. To her, love for the neighbor is what Judaism is all about.
It’s harder to mistreat our fellows when we think that mistreating them is mistreating Jesus. When faced with a decision about how to act, we often hear it said, “What would Jesus do?” This is a good question to ask. But another way to put it would be to consider, “Would I do this to Jesus?” That is a solid rule to guide our behavior.
So we are called to do good to our fellows. And we are taught that in doing good to our fellows, we are doing good to Jesus. This unifies the two commands to love God and to love our neighbor. By doing good to our neighbor, we are loving God, as God is in our neighbor. And in doing good to our neighbor, plainly, we are loving our neighbor.
And we are called to do good to all our neighbors. This includes our near neighbors—that is, our friends, our family, our next-door-neighbors, those in our city. And it also includes distant neighbors—those who live at remote distances from us.
But Jesus singles out certain kinds of neighbors to whom we are to exercise charity in a special way. Jesus speaks of showing mercy to the hungry, the naked, prisoners, the sick, and the stranger. In other words, Jesus calls us to show mercy to those who are down and out.
This makes me think of Edmonton’s plan to end homelessness in ten years. It also makes me think of the problem of mass incarceration, or the problem of prisons and recidivism. These are issues that churches need to be sensitive to, it seems to me.
I’ve heard the damaging myths about the homeless. Some people have told me that people choose to be homeless. I have even heard someone say that some of the homeless are doctors and lawyers who simply don’t want to work. These ideas are false. When the temperatures get down to minus 30, can we actually think that people choose to be homeless? Many of the homeless have drug dependency issues. Some have mental illnesses and haven’t been helped with psychiatric care. Some are fleeing abusive homes. None choose to be homeless.
As president of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, I recently signed a document rededicating our efforts to end homelessness in ten years, supporting the Edmonton Homeless Coalition. This document was signed by faith leaders from many different traditions. This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. To date, Edmonton has housed 2,909 homeless persons. At this signing ceremony, we heard a speech by Joe Roberts, a man who was formerly homeless, but became the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. His talk was called, “From Skid Row to CEO.” It was an illuminating talk and equally inspiring. Joe was forced to leave home at the age of 15 to escape domestic abuse. He lived on the streets of Vancouver for years and became addicted to heroin. He was about as hopeless a man as you could run into. Some might have thought him as worthless a man as you could run into. One day he heard something that started his road to recovery. Someone told him, “There’s more to you than you see.” Joe entered drug rehab and later enrolled in a university. In university he excelled, graduating with straight A’s. He entered the business world and built up a small company into a multi-million dollar company. He was now CEO. In his talk, Joe passed over the wealth he acquired rather quickly. Now he is dedicated to raising public awareness to homelessness. This worthless bum is now a millionaire.
We need to see the homeless as faces of Jesus and we need to treat them as such. There are ways to get involved. In fact, I have brochures about an excellent program that requires nothing but friendship to homeless persons who have been placed in housing. The dynamics of homelessness are complex. And finding someone a home doesn’t exhaust the needs of the individual. Support in learning to live in an apartment or home is needed. The program I’m thinking of asks only to visit homeless individuals who have been housed. It asks people to take them out for coffee, to a movie, in other words, to help orient them to living in a home. And, no surprise, this initiative is run by the Catholic Church
The second problem that comes to mind from our Matthew reading is the plight of prisoners. Society is structured so that certain ethnic and racial demographics are far more likely to end up incarcerated than others. There are certain neighborhoods that are more likely to have its residents end up incarcerated. There is an injustice built into society that unfairly targets individuals for imprisonment.
Then, once in prison, an individual is much more likely to return to the system. This is because living in prison is so unnatural that one loses normal living skills. I have a friend who ended up incarcerated. When he was released, they gave him a few dollars in his pocket and dropped him off at Claireview Station. That was it. We were able to help him get readjusted to life on the outside. But for those who don’t have family or friends to help them get set up, what alternative is left? Homelessness? Hunger? Crime and reincarceration? As a society we need to consider other ways of treating offenders. I knew of a program by a university that offered classes in prison. The inmates could continue in the university after their release and complete their degree. So they had a better chance of adjusting to society after their incarceration. This was in Ohio. But the people of Ohio complained about inmates getting degrees for free while others in the state had to pay. So they cancelled the program. The irony is that is costs several hundred thousand dollars to incarcerate someone for a year. The cost of an individual returning to prison far outweighs the cost of educating them and providing them with the means of gainful employment upon release. And to break the unbalance in the ratio of certain neighborhoods and racial groups who end up incarcerated, we need to recognize the full humanity of all sorts of different races and socio-economic groups.
Perhaps this talk today is more worldly in its topics, speaking of homelessness and incarceration. But these are situations that a prosperous society shouldn’t have in it. And we have the words of Jesus pointing to justice for the marginalized in society. We have enough food, we have enough wealth, and we have enough charity to end homeless and mass incarceration for unjust reasons.
The face we see in another is Jesus’ face. For God’s Divine Humanity dwells in everyone in the depth of their being. When we say hello to someone, the god in us is greeting the god in another. And when we act to help those less fortunate than us, we are helping Jesus. And when we show that we love our neighbor, whoever they are, or whatever racial group they come from, we are showing love to God. Thus the two great commandments are realized–love for God and love for the neighbor. “A man is another man’s face.” When you do it for the least of these brethren of mine, you do it for me.
Lord, you have come to us as a human. And in doing so, you have hallowed the human form. You dwell in the depths of each one of us. So when we see the face of another human, we are seeing your image. Soften our hearts to our fellows. May we treat each other as we would treat you. You have said that when we do good to the least of your children we do good to you. May we always remember that the way we treat our fellows is the way we treat you. Give us, we pray this morning, to look upon one another with love. And may our love for you find its expression in the love we show to each other.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.