The Least of These — December 7, 2003

A sermon delivered December 7, 2003, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun.

A reading. Matthew 25, verses 31 through 46. I’ve chosen the King James version, opting for the poetry of it.

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 for I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 for I was ahungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

That phrase – “the least of these” – is a powerful image. You can’t get any lower than “the least.” Growing up Jewish, I was never schooled in the New Testament, and I don’t know when I first heard that story, but I feel as though I’ve known it forever and it has haunted me forever. And a number of events over the last year or two have led me toward wanting to present a sermon about that concept, a sermon about how we treat the least among us.

When I copied the Bible story into my text for today, my first thought was to delete the part about punishment. Hey, we’re UUs, and we believe in universal salvation, so why should we read the part about punishment? Then, on second thought, I decided that I’d read it and – as a true UU – would apologize for it.

But I had a third thought. I could practically hear the voice of my Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew what he’d say about that passage. You see, Thich Nhat Hanh believes in heaven, and he believes in hell. Not only that – he’ll tell you – but he knows exactly what and where they are. He says that heaven is the presence of compassion, and hell is the absence of compassion. He says that heaven and hell exist right here on earth, and we all have it in us to create heaven and to create hell. He also says that he knows the address of the Kingdom of God, and the zip code, too. The address and zip code are here and now.

So that made me more comfortable about the aspects of that story that deal with reward and punishment. If we care deeply for the least of us, we will enter into the kingdom of heaven, and if we don’t we will suffer eternally.

But caring for the least is not easy. Some of them don’t smell so good, and some aren’t easy to be around. We probably all have some types of least that we can handle and some that we can’t. And some of the least remind us of ourselves – what we could become if we let ourselves slip.

As many of you know, Carol and I have been attending UUMAC regularly for the last eight years or so. “UUMAC” stands for the Unitarian Universalist Mid-Atlantic Community. It’s a one-week summer camp for the whole family, held every year on a college campus near Allentown, Pennsylvania.

There’s a program where veteran UUMACers are assigned first-time UUMACers to help integrate them into the community. We’ll often be assigned a first-time family with a child around Carl’s age, and we’ll be asked to have a meal or two with them in the first couple of days to make sure that they’re getting their needs met – that they’re learning their way around the community and taking advantage of what it offers.

A few years ago we were assigned a woman – we’ll call her June – with a toddler, a 4-year-old and an invalid mother. The mother, in a wheelchair, was constantly berating June and the children. June had her hands full, so the 4-year-old often had the job of pushing the wheelchair, and he got scathing reviews if he failed in some way. June was sarcastic and pushed people away, often making cracks that demeaned her children: “Oh, you don’t want to have dinner with us; you’ll end up wanting to smash the kids’ heads on a rock.” And she would say things like that in front of them.

After one or two exchanges with her, I wanted nothing further to do with her, but Carol didn’t give up. She’d just pitch in and help June, even when June gave strong signals of not wanting any help. The rest of the UUMAC community sized up the situation and made a point of telling the 4-year-old what he was doing right, rather than what he was doing wrong.

June opened up a bit and was able to talk to Carol and perhaps others about her difficulties – her demanding mother just one of many pressures on her. By the closing ceremony on UUMAC’s final day, just a week later, she cried in gratitude for the support the community showed her. I was proud of Carol and of UUMAC, but I had to face up to the fact that this time I had been the priest or the Levite, and not the Good Samaritan.

When Carol and I were new at the Reston UU church, we thought the church should have a retreat. When we mentioned that to the church President, we learned what UUs and military personnel have in common – the definition of the term “volunteer.” We ended up “volunteering” to organize a weekend retreat in West Virginia. Afterwards, as we were packing to go home, a friend – a highly empathetic, generous woman – told us what a great retreat it has been. There was a good balance, she said, between the people who needed help and the people who could give it.

Wow! What a way to think about retreats – or about any community.

There’s also something Chuck Harris once said about this church that made me proud to be a member. We were doing an exercise as part of a planning retreat for a search committee that the church had put together. The exercise was for us each to say what draws us to UUCL – why we’re members. Chuck said what he liked about the church was its weirdoes. What he meant by that, he said, was how we treat our weirdoes. We don’t just tolerate them, we absorb them and we listen to them.

Another great description of an accepting community!

And, of course, sometimes the person who’s “least” today can be one of the givers in the future. I once served on a Committee on the Ministry in a church where one needy member was taking up too much of the minister’s time. It was one of those give-an-inch-and-get-pulled-in-for-a-mile situations, and we all agreed that the minister needed to simply stop responding to that member. Nevertheless, the support that member got helped her recover, and in gratitude she became a tireless volunteer in the church.

I also think there was a time, from 1988 to 1990, when I drew far more from my UU community’s resources than I gave, and the help I got then sustains me in my volunteer work now.

I’ve been speaking mostly about how we treat the least in our church communities, but I’d like to shift focus now to the larger community and return to an episode in my life that I’ve discussed before in sermons. I’d like to tell you a little more about my cousin Barry, and this time my story will end with a hero I’d like to recognize for ministering to the very least. I feel like apologizing for talking again about my family’s tragedy, but it seems to me that life’s extremes are rich in life’s most meaningful lessons.

For those who don’t know about Barry, he was my first cousin, and we grew up together in a close-knit extended immigrant family in Philadelphia. Our grandmother – my mother’s mother – lived with my nuclear family until I was 10, so we were frequently visited by my grandmother’s four other children and their families. Since I was a late child, most of my cousins were a lot older than me. Barry was the closest to my age – just a year and a half older.

So Barry and I were frequent playmates. He was kind and accepting toward his younger cousin, and I admired him. He was handsome, with auburn hair, socially poised, smart, and artistic. I envied him, too, since his parents had made it more than my parents had in the New World. Uncle Eddie, my mother’s brother, was a manufacturer’s representative for RCA Victor products at a time when record players, radios and TVs were selling like computers and cell phones do today. Margaret was fashionable and artistic.

I’ll jump ahead of my story to describe Eddie and Margaret a bit more. Eddie didn’t like retirement, so he worked until the day he died, but he also spent a lot of his energy in volunteer activities. At his funeral, his rabbi of many years described him as always standing over his shoulder saying: “Here, Rabbi, sign this. Thank these people for donating prayer books.” Eddie spent some of his Saturdays going into jails to perform Jewish services for inmates. When my mother met a woman who couldn’t pay her heating bills, she told her to call Eddie, and somehow Eddie got the bills paid.

When my mother was feeling depressed one day when she old and widowed and living alone, Eddie took her downtown to one of Philadelphia’s fanciest department stores and told her he’d buy her anything in the place. She could pick out her own present. He knew, of course, that she wouldn’t spend much of his money. She picked out this mother-of-pearl jewelry box that’s now a proud possession of mine.

Margaret was not as relaxed and social as Eddie. She was a bit stiff – a bit cold. But she also had a calling to do community service. She got herself certified as a Braille transcriber and volunteered for a school for the poor blind in Philadelphia. The day she died there was a black history book half finished in the Braille machine in her apartment.

But back in happier times, Barry and I attended the same high school, and he won a scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Art. When we were both college age, our paths had both similarities and marked differences. We both joined the Philadelphia counterculture, and we both dropped out of college. We hung around Powelton Village, Philadelphia’s center for tuning in, turning on and dropping out. But my passion was antiwar protests and community organizing in the ghetto; his was drugs. We both knew Ira Einhorn, but I crossed the street when I saw him coming, and Barry became a disciple.

I grew up to be me, and he grew up to be a paranoid schizophrenic. That disease often appears at around that age – 20 or so – in people who have had apparently normal childhoods, so the drugs may or may not have played a role. They may have been symptoms rather than cause, but nonetheless drugs and alcohol played a big part in Barry’s life.

When we were in our early 20s, Uncle Eddie and Aunt Margaret would sometimes need to travel to New York City or San Francisco to bail Barry out of some sort of trouble and bring him home to a mental hospital. In those days, Margaret would encourage me to visit Barry in the hospital, and I never could bring myself to do that. Later, she stopped asking. I think she had reached a point where she gave up hope.

Move ahead 15 years or so, new anti-psychotic drugs enabled Barry to live outside a hospital. He held a job or two for brief periods. He had his own apartment, subsidized by his parents. And there were times when I felt as though I had my cousin back. I could actually have a conversation with him, touch his sense of humor, for awhile before descending into those strange schizophrenic associations.

Uncle Eddie was able to have a joyous 70th birthday party. It started with Saturday morning services at the synagogue and continued until well after dinner. Both of Eddie and Margaret’s older sons were there – Carl, a research oncologist, and Martin, who had just retired with 20 years in the Army. Barry wore a three-piece suit and tie all day and was always quick to get up and perform any chore – getting someone a drink, taking out the trash.

It was less than three months later that I got the call around midnight on the Saturday in October when we turn the clocks back. Eddie and Margaret had been shot to death in their apartment. Barry was an obvious suspect, and some of us learned enough about the circumstances to know that he must have done it, but he was with us for the shiva and funeral. Five days after the bodies were discovered, he was charged and confessed.

Now I’ll stop here to note one least-of-these hero. Margaret’s sister May went to Barry’s apartment the night that the bodies were discovered and brought him to stay in her home during the shiva. She knew that he might have murdered her sister and brother-in-law, but she treated him with kindness. She honored her sister’s wishes that she look after Barry.

Barry’s brother Martin had a secret he kept during the shiva and funeral at the request of the police. The recently retired Army officer had given Barry, as a gift, the bullets he would use to kill their parents, and then Barry set Martin up to discover the bodies and see the spent ammunition.

So it’s easy to see why those closest to Barry might eventually erect walls of separation. His brothers did try to maintain some contact during the trial and the start of the incarceration, but for reasons they’ve never discussed they eventually stopped having any contact with Barry and refuse even to talk about him.

I wrote to Barry and asked him to put me on the list of allowed visitors, but he refused. I think it was because of a way that I had confronted him during the shiva. His refusal released me from ever wrestling with the prospect of visiting him in jail. He started his sentence in a state mental institution but asked to be transferred to a jail instead, so he spent most of his remaining years at the Mercer Correctional Facility in a remote area in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania.

One day in 1996, my brother got up the nerve to ask one of Barry’s brothers – the physician – how Barry was doing. Barry’s brother didn’t say anything. He just made the hand-over-head tilt-your-neck and stick-out-your-tongue sign. That’s how we learned that Barry, at the age of 50, had hung himself. The son of my Uncle Eddie – who had performed Jewish services for prison inmates – had died alone in his jail cell.

I felt as though my cousin’s life had ended with no one to mourn him, so I organized a small memorial service at the Reston church. But somehow there was something that still felt unfinished.

About two years ago, I did some more investigation of Barry’s death. I wrote to the Mercer Correctional Facility and learned that, as I suspected, no one had claimed Barry’s body. The procedure in those cases is for the body to be cremated. What surprised me to learn was that a local United Presbyterian minister took the ashes, gave Barry a funeral, and buried them.

I looked up that minister, the Rev. Donald Wilson, found his email address, and wrote him to thank him for not letting my cousin’s death go unmourned. It seemed important to me that the little belated memorial service at Reston was not the only one for Barry. Someone else had performed a ceremony to mark his death. And I added in this email that I had a request that I was sure to be unfeasible, but I wanted to make the request anyway. I asked if there was any way that Rev. Wilson could find any of Barry ashes and arrange for me to get them. I wanted at least some of Barry’s remains to find their way to someone who knew and loved him before the schizophrenia set in.

The next evening, our home phone rang, and the Rev. Donald Wilson, in the small United Presbyterian church is a tiny rural area where the jail is the biggest employer, called to reach out to me. I learned in that phone conversation that Rev. Wilson had visited and chatted with Barry, and that he had called Barry’s brothers after the suicide, but they refused to take the body. So he had a little spot in the back of the church that was available, and he made a service for Barry and buried his ashes there. He was pretty sure that he could find the spot and dig up the ashes and send them to me, he said – parcel post.

I asked if there was some procedure we were violating. Didn’t I have to prove my relationship or anything? Rev. Wilson wasn’t worried. He’d just do what he knew was the right thing. He, too, wanted Barry’s ashes to go to someone who had loved him. I offered Rev. Wilson my FedEx number, but he declined it.

Some months went by, and the ashes didn’t arrive. I figured that Rev. Wilson had made a mistake in the address and they had ended up somewhere else. But it didn’t matter anymore. Making a connection with someone who knew Barry at the end of his life and who cared and who had given his ashes a respectful burial was enough for me.

But one day there was this box at the door. I knew when I saw the return address – One Stop Mail Service in Hermitage, PA – what was in it. There was also a letter apologizing that it had taken so long for Rev. Wilson to dig up the ashes.

So now I had this quandary about what to do with them. For more than a year, they’ve been sitting on my shelf, but this past summer at UUMAC the thought started going through my mind of doing a sermon about “the least of these.” As the idea grew, I realized what I could do with Barry’s ashes. I could mix a pinch of them into the sand where we light our candles to remind us of the Rev. Wilsons of the world and to encourage us not to turn our backs on the least.

I decided also to make a concerted effort to offer this sermon, with its pinch of ashes, to other UU churches, so I could honor Barry’s memory and Rev. Wilson’s kindness by becoming a sort of Johnny Appleseed for the least among us. I’ll be delivering this sermon next in Silver Spring on February 22.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, where there’s compassion, there’s heaven.

As Rev. Wilson did for Barry and for me, and in the words of the song we sang earlier, we can all make it seem better, make it seem better for awhile.

#####

We’ll sing Hymn #131, Love Will Guide Us.

Copyright © 2003 Mel Harkrader Pine

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