The Last, the Lost, and the Least

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon Video:

There is trouble in our democracy of late. And not the good kind John Lewis talked about.

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

That is the opening couplet from the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” which we heard nearly a year ago from Amanda Gorman. On that chilly January morning, Gorman reminded us,

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

We’ve never been a perfect union, but always striving to become a more perfect union. We keep striving; we keep working to be better.

The senate is preparing to vote on the Voting Rights Bill soon. It is a bill that puts limits on gerrymandering, tightens restrictions on financial contributions from hidden sources, and increases access for voters – particularly minority voters through measures including automatic voter registration systems, fewer restrictions on mail-in ballots, and making Election Day a national holiday so working people have a better chance to participate.

It was Gandhi who said “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” How well are we doing on that count? Are we protecting the vulnerable? Are we looking out for the marginalized among us? The House of Representatives has passed the bill. It is, however, expected to die by filibuster in the Senate. The vote has been put off until this coming week, hoping perhaps a few more senators discover their moral backbones.

In his 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered this searing analysis of the situation back then on how the federal government had rendered itself impotent on the issue of voting rights back then. 

This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.

And here we are again 65 years later, the landscape is changed, but the issues continue. And democracy remains in trouble for us today.

As a faith community, Unitarian Universalists are committed to the principle of democracy. For decades we have included democracy in our official statement of religious identity: Our Principles and Purposes. The wording in the 1960’s of our original merger principles says we “unite in seeking … the use of the democratic method in human relationships.” Later in the current version from the 80’s which we still use today, it says “we affirm and promote … The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

In short, we see the use of democracy not only as a political issue. For us, it is a matter of moral importance as well. Free and fair voting access is the foundational aspect of a functional democracy. It was Susan B. Anthony who declared that, “Suffrage is the pivotal right.” This matters to us politically as citizens and this matters to us morally as people of faith. We recognize that religious interest must include moral interest in the workings of the nation.

As professor Samuel Thomas said–6 in our reading about the prophet Amos this morning: “Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need.” In case you wonder if Thomas is exaggerating or reading in to Amos what is not actually there … he’s not.

Here’s what prophet Amos said more than 25 hundred years ago (Amos 5:11-12);

You levy a straw tax on the poor

    and impose a tax on their grain.

For I know how many are your offenses

    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes

    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

It is important to give access to the means of change to all the people. So, while there are those in power now attempting to suppress access and deny a voice to the marginalized among us, we do well to remember that our faith, and indeed many of the faiths represented in our nation, call us to do the exact opposite. Our faith, and indeed the faith of many in our nation, calls us to care for all the people of our nation, not just some.

My title for today’s sermon is a reference to a series of parables in the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a direct line from American politician and voting rights activist, Stacey Abrams. Abrams was part of the 2021 Ware Lecture this past summer. The Ware Lecture is an annual prestigious event at our UUA General Assembly. The shared lecture this summer focused on voter suppression and voting rights. Abrams talked about her work helping people get vaccinated. She talked about how the people she tended to be helping were the “last in line to receive support and the first in line to receive punishment.” She noticed how often her constituents were the last, the lost, and the least.

Abrams spoke stirringly about growing up with the lessons her parents gave her and her siblings. She said her parents said the children had three jobs – “go to church, go to school, and take care of others.” She and her siblings were regularly serving at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and prisons to help those in need. Her parents would remind them that no matter how little they had as a family there was always someone else with less and our job was to serve whoever had less: The last, the lost, and the least.

In chapter 20 of Matthews’s Gospel, Jesus declares “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This is paired with the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). A little earlier, in chapter 18 Jesus said, “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying?” This parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14). Then a little later in Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:40-45) with the character of the king proclaiming: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ In the span of a few chapters of this gospel, the message arises again and again. The message that we are to care for the last, the lost, and the least. The message that God cares for them and we are do care for them as well.

I am aware that among traditional interpretations and conservative interpretations these parables are often used to speak of God’s judgement rather than of God’s love. There are interpretations of these parables I just listed saying that God separates the saved from the unsaved, that a death-bed conversion after a life of callous oppression is okay, and that leaving the conformity of the herd is considered a sin in need of saving … but those are just interpretations, and when reviewing the fullness of the message I believe the power of love is a better guide than the power of hate. It matters what we use to guide our interpretations of scripture. I lean strongly in the direction of love.

For example, pastor and blogger Mika Edmondson wrote:

“In Matthew 25, Jesus describes true converts as being marked by a peculiar empathy toward the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated. But he describes false converts as being outwardly religious but marked by a peculiar callousness toward the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated.”

That is an interpretation I can work with. We are called to take care of each other, to build a society in which we all can thrive, not just some, but all. We are called to denounce the idea that some people are disposable or unworthy. The last, the lost, and the least ought to be the barometer of where we spend our time and attention. We are called to be marked by a peculiar empathy.

What does this all mean for us today, here in our little Binghamton congregation? What are we to do with this call to include all voices, to have empathy for the people on the margins? “Think globally and act locally” is one answer. Yes, there is a lot at stake with the Voting Rights bill this week for the senate, but you and I are not senators. Our work is a little different. We can certainly agitate for change at the highest levels, but we can also be the change right here in our own lives and in our own neighborhoods.

During her Ware Lecture this summer, Stacey Abrams offered an insightful reframing of the dynamic at play. Where most of us, from a certain privileged perspective, see the poor, the marginalized, and the incarcerated as “the last, the lost, and the least.” She saw them as “the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.” She pushed us to see them not as lowly people in need, but as those with whom we could partner – the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.

Her suggestion that they are powerful is only accurate from a certain vantage point. But the other two qualities are resoundingly accurate. The poor and marginalized people of our nation are prayerful. That is often quite true. But I was most struck by the third attribute on Abrams’ list. Consider her assertion that they are our protectors. She said she saw them as “the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.”

I suspect Abrams finds her time serving the Last and the Lost and the Least to be work that protects her. It protects her from growing callous, from growing jaded by the politics of the job, from losing her soul to the systems that strive to keep privileged people from caring about the poor. In this way, the vulnerable are our protectors. 

Over the years I have preached a message about how we can use our privilege to serve justice. I have also preached a message about our brokenness – mine and yours – in the face of the difficulties of the world. We are called to be marked by a peculiar empathy. We are called to see our neighbors in need as ourselves, and to love them. Not because we are better than anyone else, we too are in need after all. But many of us have certain privileges that help us weather the storms of life. In service, we step closer to one another. In service, we are protected from feeling better than others. In service, we share the dream of “a nation that isn’t broken/ but simply unfinished.”

On that brisk January morning nearly a year ago, young poet Amanda Gorman reminded us of our goal, reminded us of what our nation can be when we live into our promise. (from The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021)

We will not march back to what was,

but move to what shall be.

A country that is bruised but whole,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free.

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation,

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain,

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy,

and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

For that, my friends, we need all of our voices and all of our beautiful diversity to be better together as a nation, as a people. In service, we will climb this hill together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.