April 7, 2019
Christ in the Other; Christ in Us
Matthew 25:31-46 [NLT]
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
* * * * *
I’ve been reading a biography of Fred Rogers, creator of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was a remarkable man, a man of great faith, who gave so much wisdom to the world. One of the wise things Mister Rogers said was this:
When I was a boy I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power, but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others. [i]
Our parable this morning is a story about helping. The basic message is so clear and so simple, it almost doesn’t need repeating: We ought to help those in need. I would guess that most of us do what we can. We’re basically good people, we want to do the right thing. Nobody wants to see people suffer. But the big problems of the world – like the families pouring over the border from Mexico, or people dealing with opioid addictions and their aftermath, or areas already feeling the effects of climate change - well, all that is pretty overwhelming. So most of us just do what we can in our little corner of the world.
Of course, there are people who do great things, and sacrificially.
I think of people who’ve taken in foster children when families have been ripped apart by addictions and other issues. Casey Wilson, pastor at Centenary across the street – Casey and his wife have taken in two little girls as foster kids.
Janice’s son and daughter-in-law have custody of two little ones who were living in a situation that was just unbelievable. I don’t think I could handle something like that, to be honest. But they’ve made this incredible commitment.
I think of Tracee Laing and Paul Hammond and Healing Arts Mission and what they’ve accomplished in Haiti – it takes years to establish a program like that, and so many things can go wrong. They’ve persevered through a lot…
Or even Fred Rogers – he dedicated his life to the cause of using a powerful new medium to serve children, to help them know they were loved, and treasured, and to help parents do the best they could do to create a world that was safe.
There are people who give their whole lives for others, and I am in awe.
But for most of us, our helping is small. Our acts will be small.
But I think Christ is in all of them. All of it. At least I think that’s what Jesus is saying.
In the days of the early church, everyone was waiting for Jesus to come back – all their hope was poured into the future, when Jesus would return… I wonder if in this passage, Jesus is telling them not to worry so much. That they don’t have to wait to see him. That he’s already here.
They just need to open their eyes and see.
He’s there - in the sick.
In the hungry.
In the stranger.
In the prisoner.
Which makes me wonder – What if “helping” wasn’t just about meeting other people’s needs – as lofty and beautiful as that is? What if those connections were Christ’s way of meeting us, getting under our skin, getting inside us?
And what would be different if we believed that? That Christ is here. I mean here… Would it change how we see each other? Would it change how we see ourselves, if we thought someone else saw Christ in us?
What if that’s exactly what happens when we share our bread with the hungry…
I came across something the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan wrote that describes exactly that. He begins by talking about breaking bread, about communion,
When I hear bread breaking, I see something else; it seems to me as though God never meant us to do anything else. So beautiful, a sound; the crust breaks up like manna and falls all over everything and then we eat; bread gets inside humans. It turns into what [theologians] call the “formal glory of God,” but don’t let that worry you.
And then he offers this image:
Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope you might have baked it or bought it – or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your hands meeting his across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot or suffer a lot – or die a little, even. “Formal glory,” well yes! Maybe what we’re trying to understand is what they’re trying to say, who knows? I don’t think they understand – or every theologian would be working part time in a bread line. Who knows who might greet him there or how his words might change afterward – like stones into bread?” [ii]
The glory of God in the look on a starving man’s face… that’s seeing Christ, isn’t it?
What if that look were on our face? What if somebody saw Christ in us?
Isn’t that possible, too?
I mean, if we were the ones receiving the bread?
There’s a short film I heard about recently, called “The Lunch Date.” The setting is Grand Central Station in New York, and the main character is a 70-ish year-old woman - nicely dressed, carrying shopping bags, buying her ticket to go back to her home to the suburbs.
She’s got time to kill before her train leaves, so she heads to the lunch counter and buys a Chef’s salad. She barely has enough cash; her money must have been stolen when she was buying her ticket, and she doesn’t have her credit cards on her. But she has enough for her meal, and she’ll be home soon. So she settles in to a booth with her packages. Then she realizes she needs silverware and a napkin, so she goes to get them, and comes back.
When she comes back, a stranger is sitting there: a large man, disheveled and dirty, probably homeless. And he’s eating her salad. She’s understandably shocked… and then furious. She sits down across from him and glares. He stares back, but keeps eating. She tells him, “Give me my salad!” He just keeps eating. She reaches for the plate and tries to take it; he just keeps on eating. She’s horrified, and by now, really angry. So she takes her fork and jabs at the salad, and starts eating it, too.
He takes a bite. She takes a bite. They both keeping eating until the salad is gone. Then the man gets up – and goes back to the counter, to buy two cups of coffee. He offers her one. She’s surprised, but she takes it. They sit silently, politely, sipping their coffee, and when they’re done, she even smiles a little. Then, she glances at her watch, realizes that it’s time to go, and rushes off to her train.
Halfway to the track she realizes she’s forgotten her packages. She races back, hoping they haven’t been stolen. She finds the booth; no packages. Her heart sinks. But then … then, in the corner of her eye, she sees them … in the next booth … her packages … and the salad she’d bought. Untouched.
It was the stranger who had shared his meal with her. She was the stranger. She was the one who was hungry, whom he fed.[iii]
I think Christ was present at that table, don’t you?
Was Christ in the giving, or the receiving?
Yes, Jesus says. The answer is yes.
What if it’s true – that Christ is already here… in every act of compassion… in every connection we make? In the stranger, in family, in friend? Even – can I say it? - in ourselves?
[i] Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, (New York: Abrams Press, 2018), 323
[ii] Daniel Berrigan; original source unknown.
[iii] Thanks to my sister, Rev. Christine Chakoian, for this story.