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All Y’All (A Guest Sermon)

October 20, 2014

This guest sermon was preached by The Rev. Margeret E. Howland at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost,  October 19, 2014. Pastor Peggy was a parish associate here for twelve years following her official retirement, and now resides in Florida where she stays extraordinarily active. The “selfie” photo below started appearing on the pizza boxes delivered to my (Pastor Jeff’s) home earlier this year. The sentiment is so ubiquitous that my son has started asking us “Do you believe in your selfie?” 

 Psalm 96          Matthew 25: 31-46

Holy Spirit, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

What a pleasure to be here with you today!  It was 6 years ago today that we celebrated together in this place the 50th Anniversary of my Ordination.  This was the church that welcomed me and ministered to me, beginning 16 years ago, in the days following my retirement from 40 years of fulltime pastoral ministry, and you gave me a new place of ministry as your Parish Associate for more than 14 years.

I have been in love with the Bible since I was a young teenager. It was a desire to share the great love of God with others and to teach the truth I was discovering from the Bible message that led me to know that God was calling me to ministry in the church, even at a time when there was NOT YET ONE woman minister in the Presbyterian Church.

I remember as a young pastor early on, asking myself, HOW will I be able to think of something new to preach about every Sunday?  …and do this year after year? But I discovered, to my amazement and delight, that God always had new things to teach ME out of the Bible, especially as we look at the events of our own day in the light of Jesus’s life and ministry and teachings!

Just such a new discovery and insight into Jesus’ words was a gift to me four months ago, in a message I heard at the General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church in Detroit.  This insight came from a former staff member of this church, who pointed out the meaning of this very Bible story that I just read to you.  The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer is now Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at ITC, the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and in great demand as a teacher and preacher throughout our church.  I met her when I first came to this congregation, while she was Director of Christian Education and the Pastor’s Assistant.

In her talk at a meeting I attended in Detroit, she taught us some GREEK.  She taught us something new that I had not considered before – about how this story of the judging of the nations by the Son of Man READS in the GREEK LANGUAGE of the New Testament.

I suspect that you probably think about these words of Jesus that are so familiar to us in much the same way that I have always thought of them.  “Just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me”.  When you give food to my hungry brother you feed ME.  When you give my thirsty sister something to drink, you quench MY thirst.  When you bring your canned goods to church, and write a Christmas card to a prisoner in Sing Sing, or deliver flowers to a shut-in, or help with an ESL Class, English as a Second Language, you are visiting ME, you are welcoming ME, you are ministering to ME… JESUS.

And if you are like me, you have pictured these actions as your own personal devotion to Christ, your individual commitment as a Christian, to serve Christ by ministering to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner, the stranger in our midst,  the persons society marginalizes, the needy, and those who cannot make it on their own.  This is our Christian ministry and commitment as followers of Jesus.

But the Greek language gives us a different insight.  It tells us this message is MORE than a personal mandate to the individual Christian.

It’s something we cannot see in modern English. We don’t notice it because today’s English uses the same word for YOU, meaning just ONE person, YOU, the individual to whom I am speaking…

And YOU plural, meaning a whole group of people, YOU, the whole congregation to whom I’m speaking right now.

We just don’t have words that distinguish the second person PLURAL, the YOU that means MORE than one person, in today’s American English, unless of course, you’re from the SOUTH, and the plural is “YOU ALL” or “Y’ALL” or even “ALL Y’ALL”.  And if you’re from Pittsburgh, you might say “ALL YOUNS”, or in Brooklyn you might say “YOUSE GUYS”.  I grew up in Philadelphia, where we’d say “HEY, YOU GUYS” and that included everybody we were talking to.  That was our Philly equivalent of the Southern “HEY, Y’ALL”!

But then I made another discovery, from the dim distance of my youth, where I grew up on the King James Version of the Bible, full of its thee’s and thou’s in the Elizabethan English of 400 years ago.  Did YOU memorize Bible verses when you were in Sunday School?  I MEMORIZED lots of BIBLE PASSAGES in the King James English.  And I have found myself going back to my King James Bible to help me here.  Yes, I also took out my Greek New Testament to read some of these passages again in the original language.  But even YOU can do it with a King James Bible, and you don’t have to learn Greek.  Because old English had separate words for you singular and you plural!

“THOU” is singular, and “YE” is plural. while they are both just “YOU” in a modern English Bible.

THOU means you’re talking to an individual as the subject of a verb.

THOU shalt have no other gods before me”.  THOU shalt not steal”  As in the ten commandments.

THEE is the object form for “you” meaning one person.

“How do I love THEE? Let me count the ways”, as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem.

Those are singular forms.

YE is the plural form whenever YOU (meaning more-than-one-person) is the SUBJECT of a verb.

“Seek YE first the Kingdom of God”  from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come YE to the waters, and YE that have no money, come, buy, and eat.”  from the Prophet Isaiah.

And actually, the word “YOU” does have a place in the old King James Bible – but only when YOU PLURAL is in the OBJECT form.

“Come to me, all YE who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give YOU rest,” was the invitation of Jesus.

“If YE forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive YOU” said by Jesus when he taught his disciples to pray.

IN OTHER WORDS, when it’s the subject….

THOU is singular, meaning one person.

YE is plural, meaning more than one or a group of people.

And YE is the word Jesus is using throughout this story of the judgment of the nations by the Son of Man. YE – second person plural.

So this teaching becomes for us, not merely an individual ethic, but an ethic for the church, for society, for Christendom, for the nations.

selfie

We live in a time when SELFIE is one of the newest words in the language, and putting myself in the picture makes me the center of attention.  We live in an individualistic society, where I and my needs are paramount, and selfishness is considered a virtue more often than not.  America was built on “rugged individualism”. But when you stop to think about it, this rugged individualism is not always good.  It is the essence of what causes crime and gun violence, which are at epidemic proportions in our American society today.

It is a strong part of bullying and of hatred of those who are not like me, in nationality, in language, in culture, in sexual orientation, in race, in religion, and such self-centered prejudice is causing an epidemic of violence in our world.  We are even fighting wars over it.

In Matthew 25, we have too often mis-understood YOU to mean THOU, when Jesus said YE.

Thank you, New Testament and Greek Professor Margaret Aymer for pointing this out to me.

“The truth is that most of us rarely consider the second person plural when we’re reading the Bible.  We tend to read it as a personal message for our personal faith.  So, in turning to Matthew 25 … “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” …. we hear a message directed to individual persons. We hear “Thou” when the text is saying “Ye.” We hear a call to the SELF when Jesus is issuing a call to COLLECTIVE action and collective responsibility.” (1)

This story encourages us, URGES us as a church, to become “counter-cultural”, to be different from the society and culture we live in.  “When we gather as a church, as a congregation or as a whole denomination, to pray and worship and serve together – it is the second-person plural YOU, the “YE” in this and many other biblical passages that challenges our increasingly self-centered society, calling us back from self – to   community, as a faithful response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  (2)

This is the TRUE ETHIC of the Bible – what we as a church and society do in this world based on how we see other people.   Our entire culture needs to SEE people differently, so we will ACT toward them with the same respect and love with which we would respond to Jesus.

This ethic of collective responsibility which Jesus taught in the Matthew 25 story, was also commanded again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament in the law and the prophets and the writings that were the only Bible Jesus knew in his day.

…..

Now, all y’all have probably heard that this past week was designated by the Presbyterian Hunger Program and others as The Food Week of Action – from last Sunday Oct. 12 through today, Oct. 19.  It included World Food Day on Thursday as well as the International Day for Rural Women on Friday and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty yesterday on Saturday.  It was a time for thinking about issues for migrant farm workers, who pick our crops, to think about one billion people in the world who are malnourished and starving, including some 50 million in the United States who are malnourished and hungry, a large number of them children.

I am thankful that our Presbyterian Church sees our collective responsibility, not only that we as a denomination, along with our counterparts in other churches, are following the teaching of Jesus to feed the hungry, heal the sick and visit prisoners, but that we work together in ADVOCACY AND JUSTICE to see that our nation and the community of nations understand the imperative to provide food and healthcare for ALL, the imperative to rehabilitate our prison systems to help people and not merely to punish people.  That we not just give water to thirsty people and welcome strangers, but that we advocate for our government and the governments of the world to improve safe and adequate water supplies for ALL people, to reform immigration laws in our own country and remove barriers to welcoming strangers, barriers that are most often based on racism and nationalism and privilege.

Because, dear friends, this story Jesus told is not a parable about sheep and goats.  It is a story addressed to nations.  In Greek, the word translated “nations” in our Bible is ETHNE – from which our word “ethnic” comes.  The Son of Man, sometimes called “the Human One”, Jesus, will gather the nations and divide them, some to the right and some to the left, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.  But it is the nations to whom Jesus is speaking, the ETHNE – the peoples and tribes and cultures and societies – to see that food justice and water justice and health justice and immigration justice and shelter and clothing justice and prison justice are provided for all people.

This is what Jesus is saying to ALL Y’ALL, to YOUNS, to ALL OF US TOGETHER.  He’s saying it to us in the church, that WE are RESPONSIBLE TOGETHER.

Ah, but there’s a complication. It’s the question that always gets raised. Remember how the lawyer raised a question when Jesus pointed out to him the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  The lawyer asked, “And who is this neighbor that I am to love?”

Well, the “lawyers” in our midst, the people who aren’t sure that it is OUR collective responsibility to see that EVERYONE in need has food and water and healthcare and welcome and a hand up when they are down…. They will ask, well just which ones of the needy are we to love?

There is a long tradition, even in church charity, that only those who were considered the DESERVING NEEDY should be helped.

The part that is most difficult for us about this entire business of “the POOR among us” is that we do not recognize our own complicity in the systems of our society that benefit some, but are the underlying causes of poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, crime, injustice, prejudice, violence, war, addictions, diseases, and so many other problems.

It is because we also benefit from the systems that create poverty, that we are unable to acknowledge our responsibility, our complicity, and our privileged status.  That is why we ALL ask the question “And who is my neighbor?”

That is why we – you and I – all of us together – still need to hear Jesus tell us in our church and in our nation, “Just as YOU ALL did NOT help the needy who are my family members, my sisters and brothers, who are crying out in their suffering, YOU ALL did NOT SEE AND RESPOND TO MY suffering and need.  YOU ALL DID NOT HELP ME.”

I hope we think about this as we go to the polls to vote next month.  I’m not following New York political issues these days, but I know this message of Jesus will affect my vote in Florida, where these are important issues.  And our congressional and state representatives need to hear from Christians about how we see our responsibility as a nation to 50 million hungry people.

Jesus tells us it’s about how we see people and whether our culture, our society, our nation, our church, recognize our common humanity, that humanity that Jesus shared with us and with all God’s children.   ALL Y’ALL, are Y’ALL listening to Jesus?

Amen.

(1) “Second Person Plural – Biblical Ethics and Matthew 25”, written for Presbyterian Voices for Justice at General Assembly June 17, 2014 –The Rev. Margaret Aymer, PhD

(2) Ibid, slightly altered

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One Comment leave one →
  1. LESLIE MARDENBOROUGH permalink
    October 20, 2014 12:07 pm

    I wish we had this sermon on tape.  I’ve been trying to talk to a few people at WPPC about the priesthood of all believers.  Those people were not in church yesterday.  Peggy did a phenomenal job…in Christian Ed., too.

    Leslie

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