Sermon transcript for November 23, 2014
The Face of Christ
Belmont UMC--November 23, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was during the holidays last year and I was standing in line at the grocery check-out with a few things that we needed. In front of me was a young man wearing a nice suit and he was holding a basket of groceries and waiting his turn. In front of him was a young woman with her little boy. The boy was sitting in the seat of the grocery cart and he was enjoying smiling at people while his mother checked out. The mother’s cart was pretty full and it was obvious that she was concerned. She was looking at the items on the conveyor belt as they moved toward the scanner. She watched the totals adding up on the screen in front of her and she looked at the money in her purse. When everything was totaled she sighed and looked at the clerk and said, “I don’t have enough for all of this; let me put some things back.” The clerk rolled her eyes and looked impatient. The young man in front of me, without hesitation, said, “Of course, you have enough.” He put his items on the conveyor belt and said, “Put her purchases on my bill.”
I watched the man. He was very relaxed about what he had done. He smiled at the little boy. The young mother, who had tears in her eyes, offered thanks. The man said, “You know, it’s really not that much for me to do for you” and then he looked away as though he wanted to preserved the dignity of the woman, or because he did not want her to see the tears that had formed in his eyes.
It was a brief moment but it was beautiful and rich and I’m sure I saw the face of Christ in all of them—in the earnest face of a young mother, in the smiles of a little boy, in the generosity of the man and in the surprise on the face of the clerk. And these words went through my mind, “And when was it that we saw you hungry, Lord, and gave you something to eat?”
Our Gospel text for today is a familiar one and every time I read it I find it more compelling, radical and profound. Everyday I encounter some of the “least of these” of whom Jesus speaks and every time I’m tempted to close my eyes and walk away, I hear Jesus saying, “Here are the least of these.” They are the persons who are vulnerable, strangers, hungry, weak, poor, voiceless, and imprisoned. Jesus did not say that we were to help those who appear to be deserving or more grateful, he said simply the “least of these.” What Jesus is saying is that we are to look into these human faces and to see his face in there’s.
Dorothy Day struggled to connect her faith to her social conscience—a struggle that gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. It started as a newspaper, but became a house of hospitality for the homeless and the poor. The first house of hospitality was Day’s own apartment because she could not turn away a homeless woman who read her newspaper article and came looking for her help. One hundred and seventy-five Catholic Worker houses were established under her guidance.
Day said that the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty—Christ’s face hidden in the faces of America’s human cast-offs. She once said, “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”
The Gospel text teaches us something radical about God. To quote John M. Buchanan, “The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, in the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look in to the face of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 4, p. 334)
I occasionally attended a Disciples of Christ Church when I was in college. In the narthex of the church was a print of a famous painting, “The Presence.” The original painting is in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. The painting depicts the sanctuary of a beautiful cathedral. The light of the painting draws your eye toward the magnificent high altar, the candles, and all the altar ware. The sanctuary appears to be empty, but upon closer inspection you see a woman in the back of the sanctuary, kneeling in the shadows. She appears to be a poor woman who has come in off the streets. And behind her Jesus is standing reaching toward her to offer his help. Jesus is not standing in the spot light of the high altar, but in the shadows among the vulnerable one in need.
Bishop Ken Carder visited prisoners regularly on death row. He said once, “I thought I was going to the prison to take Christ, but when I arrived I discovered that Christ was already there.”
I like the Greek word for the Holy Spirit that is often translated in Comforter or Advocate in the Gospel of John. The word, parakaleo, literally means “the one who is called alongside of us.” That is where we find God—where people are, especially people in need.
Scholars remind us that this passage is the only description of judgment in the New Testament. And as such, it says something pretty radical about religious practices. A friend and I spent some time talking about different denominations and ways of understanding things like the sacraments recently. I told him about my many visits to the Church of Christ as a child and I was very aware that I was not allowed to take Holy Communion because of I was a United Methodist. And as United Methodists we have our own ideas of about theology and we feel pretty strong about those.
At our All Church Retreat this year Father Charles Strobel told us the story of a homeless man who was a very difficult and contrary man. Charles’ mother told him that the man would be his ticket into heaven. Charles said that he had to learn to love this man and when he did the man’s demeanor changed, because Charles had changed. Father Strobel brought up the issue of baptism to the man several times and the man refused baptism. When the man was dying, Father Strobel asked him again and the man shook his head and was adamant about not being baptized. And Father Strobel said in passing, “That’s okay because God is bigger than baptism.” That line has stayed with me ever since the retreat.
I told Father Strobel, “We will be up here on this mountain interviewing candidates for ministry in March of next year. We will want to hear them articulate a proper theology of baptism or we will not approve them for ordination.” He smiled and said, “That’s because we care more about baptism than God does.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I think baptism is important and it is a beautiful experience of God’s grace. Every time we gather around this font for a baptism, I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love all over us.
But here deep in the Gospels in the only passage about the judgment, there is only one criterion for being invited to inherit the kingdom. It is not baptism or denominationalism or orthodoxy or creeds or theology, “it is this whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not we gave ourselves away in love in his name.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 336) That is all.
“When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” Seeing Christ in others, seeing Christ in those in need is revolutionary. It changes the way we interact with the world and it requires a conversion, a changed heart, a new way of seeing the world around us. And when we are changed responding becomes second nature to us.
Many see the needy as intrusions, as lazy or losers. Some think they deserve their unfortunate positions, especially among the poor. So seeing them different requires a new way of seeing things—it calls us to see as God sees. And it is not easy. It is frustrating at times.
There was a young man named Scotty who came by Grace UMC when I served there. He seemed earnest and he had a way about him that was likeable. He always needed something. He worked as a house painter but he never seemed to have enough to make ends meet. His money always ran out before the end of the month, and over the years I had given him money, food and gasoline. I had bought some car parts so he could keep going to work. He did not always make good decisions. I would get hopeful that he could do better. One day I said, “You know Scotty, I think God has a better plan for you than the one you are living.”
One day I got a letter from Scotty. It came from the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, where he had been incarcerated for stealing. I was so angry and disappointed. He was asking me to help his family out for Christmas. The letter came when I was working on a sermon about this passage and I heard these words in my mind, “When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” My heart was changed and I knew what God wanted me to do.
So I sat down and wrote Scotty a long letter. I told him that I was disappointed in him but I loved him and I wasn’t giving up hope for his life. I told him that I saw Christ in him when we visited. I told him that we would send a gift card to his family so they could have Christmas gifts and food.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
We see the face of Christ all around us everyday. Everyday we are presented with the opportunity to give ourselves away in love in the name of Jesus.
As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.
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