The following are excerpts of a sermon recently given at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., by the Rev. Jim Somerville:
I will never forget Mrs. Griffin. She was the person at my last church who always called, needing money, or food, or a ride to the doctor, or someone to pay her rent or someone to help her move. She was not a member of the church, but I probably spent more time caring for her than any other person. It would have been all right if she had been gracious about it, if she had started by saying “Please,” and ended by saying, “Thank you.” But she didn’t. She was quite often rude and more often demanding, and when the secretary buzzed me to say Mrs. Griffin was on the line, I would roll my eyes toward heaven and wonder, “Why me, Lord?”
And then one morning, after a particularly exasperating experience with Mrs. Griffin the day before, I wrote in my prayer journal, “What if it’s you, Lord? What if Mrs. Griffin, with all her interminable needs, with all her rude and selfish ways, is really You in disguise, testing me to see how I will care for ‘the least of these?’ ” And that changed things. The next time I saw Mrs. Griffin, I looked deep into her eyes to see if I could catch a glimpse of Jesus looking back. And I began to treat her differently, too. Less like a burden and more like a blessing, as if when she called it were Christ himself asking, “Can you let me borrow $20?”
I’ll have you know I wasn’t completely successful in my efforts to treat Mrs. Griffin differently. Sometimes when she called, I would still wonder, “Why me?” But it did help to think of her as Jesus in disguise. It was an act of religious imagination that altered the way I received her calls and responded to her demands. I’ve tried it on other people since then, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities since I’ve been in Washington. That man at the corner of 18th and Massachusetts, for instance, who asked me for change as I sauntered past last Monday night, what if he was not just another beggar, but Christ himself, waiting to see how I would respond to his request? Will I someday stand before the Son of Man and hear Him say, “Ah, yes. Jim Somerville. Pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington. I remember you. But do you remember me? I asked you for change on Massachusetts Avenue one night, and you walked right past.” And will I say, as I am herded off with the rest of the goats, “But, Lord! I didn’t know it was you! I would have treated you much differently if I had only known!”
But of course that is His point.
He doesn’t want us to treat Him any differently than we treat anyone else. He wants us to treat everyone else as we would treat Him. While He is the child of God in a unique sense, there is another sense in which every human being is a child of God. Part of our calling as Christians is to see that, to look for the worth and the dignity of every person, to find in that filthy, stinking wretch behind the Dumpster something of Christ Himself. Some of the saints of our tradition have done that. Francis of Assisi did it. Mother Teresa of Calcutta did it. And you and I can do it. But it will take the regular exercise of our religious imagination.
We will have to look deep into the eyes of those who most offend our senses and see if we can catch a glimpse of Jesus looking back. And if we do it often enough, we may soon come to that place where we don’t have to do it at all, where responding to those in need will be as natural as breathing, so that when the Son of Man congratulates us for our loving care of Him, we will say, “But when did we see You in need? What did we ever do for You?” And He will answer with a chuckle, “Every time you treated someone like a person instead of a thing, that was Me. Every time you took time to listen, to laugh, to love, to serve, I received it. Every time you extended a hand to lift someone up, rather than strike someone down, I rejoiced. So, come on, sweet sheep: Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!”
And it will feel strange to us, receiving this inheritance we don’t feel we truly deserve, this “reward” we haven’t really earned. But don’t worry. That’s how grace always feels. Just ask the next person who receives it from you, whether it be one who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned, or strange or Jesus … in disguise.