November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23
Christians are often accused of being hypocrites by people who see our actions being incompatible with what we say it means to be Christian. Dr. Robert Kopp, a pastor in Pennsylvania, was driving through traffic one day when he spotted a cheery bumper sticker on the car ahead of him that read, "Honk if you love Jesus!" Dr. Kopp honked and the driver responded with an obscene gesture. ("God is Love, But He Hates..." by Dr. Robert R. Kopp Feb. 18, 1996)
We talk about created in the image of God and that says so very little about our looks and so very much about our way of being in the world. Our actions are a way that we reflect God every day if we choose to do so. There is a line from the Ephesians text that says, “I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see the hope God’s call holds for you.” (1:18 paraphrase) When we talk about being made in the image of God, it means being given eyes to see the world as God sees it. Each person in front of us gives us a chance to respond in the same way we would to Jesus.
Kathleen Norris tells a story in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography of a seasoned monk, long accustomed to welcoming all guests as Christ, saying to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes,” the monk continued, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”
The gospel reading from Matthew is a story of judgment. We tend to cast the word judgment as a negative, but it really means bringing to light what is true. The people in this story are being called to account for the choices they made to respond to people in need or to ignore those needs. Fred Craddock says, “The question that will measure our lives is ‘how did you respond to human need?’” (The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 95)
We talked in text study this week about the guilty feelings we have when we don’t think we are doing enough for others (for some of us, that is most of the time). I don’t think this is a text intended to make us feel guilty but rather to take an honest look at our lives and ask ourselves if we have fed those who are hungry, did we visit those who are lonely, did we share our resources with others who needed them?
One exercise that people may find helpful is writing our own obituary or the words we might want on our tombstone as a way of naming the life we feel called to live. If we start there, we can live toward that. Catherine Grandia died this week. Catherine was 97 and was very clear that the scripture that has guided her life is Micah 6:8 “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” She tried to live those words every day.
In the reading from Matthew, Jesus is telling us clearly how to live. He is telling us to treat every person as if it were him. That sounds so easy until someone cuts us off in traffic, or rudely asks for help.
I read a sermon this week by King Duncan (“Hungry for Bread”) that talked about the importance of credibility and it said that the church should be especially concerned with credibility since we represent God. The sermon went on to say that one area where the church’s credibility gap is most evident is in our lack of compassion for the poor and hurting. In 1982, New York City was facing a budget crisis. Winter was approaching, and the city's social service agencies were unable to care for all the homeless citizens who needed help. Mayor Ed Koch called upon Manhattan's religious institutions to help care for 36,000 homeless men and women who would "fall through the cracks" that winter. If every one of the city's 3500 churches and synagogues would help out 10 homeless people, the problem would be solved. According to an investigative piece in The New York Times, the churches and synagogues didn't exactly jump at the idea. The article quoted one Protestant minister who said, "The mayor never mentioned this to me. Nobody in his office apprized me of this." The Catholic spokesman sidestepped the question, and a leading Jewish rabbi said, "We haven't money to heat the building for this extra service." (Bruce Larson, Living out the Book of Acts, p. 80)
I don’t believe that there is a big credibility gap at First Congregational. We are feeding the hungry, caring for vulnerable children and youth, providing for those who have been in prison, offering sanctuary to Kadhim, supporting organizations in our community that serve homeless families and immigrants and care for creation. I am just getting started. I think we work hard here to live God’s love, justice, and inclusion, but it is good for all of us to have Jesus set this story down before us from time to time and consider how we are doing.
Honestly, I am blown away by the multitude of ways you all give of yourselves so I hope you see the light reflecting what you ARE doing instead of finding you a failure because you aren’t doing enough. That said, we have a chance every day to respond to someone through the lens of God’s love. We aren’t always feeling that love, but we can act in loving ways until the feelings follow.
We can also allow others to open the door for us to serve in a way that we might not choose to otherwise.
During the war in the Balkens, a Catholic nun in Croatia found a unique way to get help for the war refugees. Dressed in her nun's habit, she would go to a door and plead with those who answered her knock, "I have no place to stay. I'm hungry. Can you take me in?" Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, so the answer to the nun's plea was almost always, "Of course, Sister." Then the nun would step back to let the real refugees with her be seen. They were usually taken in by the family. (From Plough magazine, cited in Salt, as quoted in "Sisters of Mercy," Connections, 20th Sunday OT, Year A, Aug. 1993)
Then there are times that we just need to be reminded of the powerful words from Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…”
In Germany after World War II, some American soldiers were cleaning up a large cathedral which had been hit by a bomb. It was the task of one soldier to gather all the fragmented pieces of statues into a pile. He found a beautiful statue of Jesus that was completely intact except the hands were missing. He searched all through the rubble but could not find the missing hands. Finally he placed the handless statue on the altar and put a sign in front of it. The sign read as if Jesus were saying, "Your hands are my hands."
As the days get colder and more human needs present themselves to us, may these words serve as a reminder that we have the opportunity to be Christ in the world every single day.