I remember being told as a child that God is everywhere. I think that was meant to be reassuring, although to tell you the truth, it could also be a little scary.
Now as an adult, I do hold onto that assurance of God’s enduring presence as one of the fundamentals of my faith, but I’ve also come to realize that there are places where I experience that divine presence in a way that feels especially real and immediate, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Some people might feel that way here in church, while for others it’s more likely to happen when they’re out somewhere enjoying the beauty of nature.
And sometimes it’s only later that we realize that we’ve encountered the living presence of God in a place where that was totally unexpected.
That’s what happens to Martin the cobbler in a short story called “Where Love Is, God Is,” by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
Martin is a humble sort of fellow, an honest man and a hard worker, but his life has been touched by grief. His wife dies, leaving him a three-year-old son to raise alone; all of their other children had died in infancy. He isn’t sure how he’ll manage to take care of this child by himself, and he considers sending the boy away to his sister, but then he has second thoughts. He’s worried about how difficult it would be for the child to live with a strange family, and so he decides to keep the boy and do the best he can to raise him.
* Sermon as preached isn’t exactly the same as the written text.
Things go well for a while, until one day the boy falls ill. A week later he dies, leaving Martin completely alone. Overcome by grief, Martin blames God for his loss. He stops going to church, and prays only to die.
But his whole life is turned around as a result of a visit from an old acquaintance who speaks to him about living for God, not for his own happiness.
This message affects Martin so powerfully that he buys a New Testament and begins to read it regularly, and slowly his life begins to change. The more he reads, the more at peace he feels, and the more he wants to live the life the Gospels described. And one night he falls asleep in prayer, and he seems to hear a voice which promises that God will come to him the next day.
Of course Martin spends the next day watching and waiting for God to arrive. Sitting by his window, he sees a poor man, an old soldier, clearing snow from the street outside. The man looks tired and cold, and Martin invites him to come in, and gives him a cup of hot tea.
Can you see where this is going?
They talk while the man drinks his tea, and Martin tells him about what he’s been reading. When he leaves, Martin goes back to waiting by his window. He sees a poor woman go by with a child, and he can see that they’re cold because they don’t have proper winter clothing, so he invites them to come in and get warm. The woman is hungry; Martin gives her a plate full of food, and offers to hold her child while she eats, because he is after all a man who knows how to care for a small child. When she’s ready to leave, he finds an old coat and gives it to her to keep her warm before he sends her on his way.
And so it goes. The day passes, and Martin does what he can for those poor people who pass his window by while he’s waiting for God. And when evening comes, he finishes his work and gets out his New Testament, and as he sits down to read, he thinks he hears a voice behind him, saying “Martin, did you not recognize me?”
And just at that moment he looks down at the page in front of him, and reads, “For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
And Martin realizes that the promise he heard has been kept. God did come to him after all, in the form of those people he took care of. Through his acts of mercy to these least brothers and sisters, it turns out Martin was caring for Jesus himself.
Tolstoy’s story, “Where Love Is, God Is,” turns out to be a retelling of this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus describes the Son of man seated like a king in judgment of “all the nations” who are gathered before him. In the Gospel, this king separates the sheep from the goats, and he rewards the sheep, telling them, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me.” And the sheep who are judged righteous are surprised to hear this. They want to know when exactly it was that they performed these acts of mercy, and the king explains, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
So Tolstoy’s story turns out to be a sort of parable about a parable. But it turns out that Tolstoy is a different kind of storyteller from Jesus, whose parables are meant to be thought-provoking—so much so that at times it can be a little challenging to figure out exactly what the point is supposed to be. Tolstoy, on the other hand, stays focused on making one very clear point.
He understands that the main thrust of this Gospel isn’t the threat of punishment at the end of time, but rather the values we’re supposed to live by in the meantime. This is a story pure and simple about seeing the face of God in poor and suffering brothers and sisters in need.
By sticking to that single focus, though, Tolstoy passes over some other aspects of the story that seem worth mentioning. For one thing, it’s significant that the sheep and the goats weren’t separated on the basis of doctrine. It wasn’t what the sheep believed that mattered, it was what they did, and how they lived. They were judged on the sincerity of their prayer life. They were judged on the basis of how they cared for other people, even if they weren’t aware of these interactions as encounters with the living God.
And there’s one more thing that’s worth noting in the original story. It’s a matter of just a few words, but the implications are huge. The Gospel says that “all the nations” were gathered to be judged by this king, but who, exactly, are all the nations?
In most places where that phrase turns up in Scripture, it doesn’t mean all of humanity but refers specifically to Gentiles who aren’t Christian or Jewish believers. These Gentiles are the sheep and the goats, and some of them are judged righteous—not on the basis of their beliefs, but because of their acts of lovingkindness to the least brothers and sisters of Jesus.
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
You did it to me.