MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER
“I am curious about words. You know, the New Testament was written in Greek, so I am curious about this word ‘nations,’ ” said Lisa Sharon Harper at the 9 a.m. Aug. 11 worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Just Ones,” and the Scripture reading was Matthew 25:31-46.
Harper acknowledged the Seneca and Erie nations and their elders “past, present and emerging,” as she has done every morning before her sermon. She then led the congregation in a word study of the Scripture reading sometimes called “The Last Judgment.”
The setting for this story is outside the temple. Jesus had been in the temple and had disagreements with the elders, calling them white-washed tombs and vipers. He then tells the story of all nations coming before the king for final judgment.
“I have a master’s degree in human rights, and I know that ‘all nations’ means peoples, ethnic groups — not nation-states,” she said. “The Son of Man (Jesus) is not going to separate Bosnia from the United States or the Fulani from the Tutsi. It is not clear what the picture is here.”
Harper referred to the prophet Micah and the vision of all nations going up to a high mountain to come closer and have intimacy with the king who is God. “God, the arbiter (of justice) is inviting the people on the right hand to come closer, to have intimacy with the king. I picture crawling up into Daddy’s lap.”
Those on the right hand of the king are called blessed. “To be blessed means to be well spoken of. Have you ever thought about being well spoken of by God?” she said. “The word ‘for’ is a logical connector.” In this passage it connects blessed with the reasons these groups are blessed.
Hunger in this story means famished, she said.
“It means bloated bellies and widened eyes. Thirsty, well that is just thirsty. Stranger means immigrant. Naked means stripped involuntarily, to have everything suddenly taken. Sick means diseased, not just a cold, but COVID or heart disease. And prison is just prison.”
The judge called these people righteous. “When you first see this word, what do you think?” Harper asked the congregation. “At first I thought it meant holy or pure. But the Greek word means the just ones, the ones of equitable character and action. What is equity? If I have 1,000 gold coins in one bucket and 1,000 copper pennies in another, are they an equal amount? Yes. Is it an equitable distribution? No.”
As an example, Harper cited the 2019 Federal Reserve study of the wealth gap in the United States.
“The median net worth of people of European descent, the middle class, is $188,000,” she said. “For people of African heritage, the middle class has wealth of $24,000. Why? Historic inequity goes back to the 1930s when land for FHA loans was valued lower if it had more Black people on it.”
In another example, she said, “Imagine a soccer field with a 45-degree slope in it, and one team had to play uphill all the time. Would they ever win the World Cup? I asked a group of chaplains at a retreat what would be a good way to restructure. One person said level the field either by taking out dirt or adding more. A Croatian participant said to put jet packs on the team that had to play uphill. Another one said to turn the field so everyone had a disadvantage. All of these ideas are structural change.”
Harper said, “Ones of equitable character and action are never satisfied with a world where one team would never win. They would do everything to level the field, to make structural change.”
Jesus tells those on the right hand of the judge will go to the Father, while those on the left will go to hell. Why, she asked. “Psalm 146 tells of the God of Jacob who executes justice, sets prisoners free, who loves the righteous — but the ways of the wicked lead to ruin. The wicked are those who oppose what God wants done. As Mother Theresa said, we are the hands and feet of God and do God’s work in the world.”
Harper continued, “How can we not love the least of these? How can we oppose what God wants and still say we love Jesus? Jesus will separate individuals from the people groups in the world and create a new group — The Just Ones. How I long to be in that number.”
Then she sang the line, “When the saints go marching in.”
The Rev. Paul Womack presided. Ray Defendorf, a retired permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and co-host with his wife Patt at the Catholic House in Chautauqua, read the Scripture. The prelude was “Fidelis,” by Percy Whitlock, played by Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Beati quorum via,” with music by Charles Villiers Stafford and words from Psalm 119:1. The postlude was an improvisation by Stafford. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion provides support for this week’s services and chaplain.