“Jesus is calling us out of our frantic busyness into the healing of the world through deep relationships of time, presence and love.”
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, November 26, 2017, by Mike Kinman.
“Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kin-dom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.”
Stop. Listen. Love.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Gospel readings the past few weeks have been pretty intense. Jesus has been telling stories and they have not ended well for people who don’t do the right thing. And it’s been getting steadily worse. First, we had bridesmaids shut out of a feast – that was rude and annoying but not prohibitively debilitating. Then someone thrown out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – that was a little more dangerous. Finally, this morning, we dispense with the metaphors and just have people sent off into eternal fire and punishment.
So, this is kind of disturbing, right? This doesn’t fit with the God and Jesus we think we know, the God and Jesus we believe love absolutely everyone. And so, we could be tempted to do with our Bible what Thomas Jefferson did with his – literally use a razor to cut out and then paste together just the parts that reinforce our understanding of Jesus and leave out the parts that don’t.
The problem is, that’s basically doing to the Bible what our president and, frankly, too many of the rest of us, do with the news. Just listening to the pieces that reinforce our preconceived worldviews and not allowing for challenge, not allowing for nuance and diving deeper, not allowing for the inconvenient and revolutionary truth that just might change our lives.
So instead of looking away, let’s take just a moment and maybe discover why the same Gospel writer that gave us Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies might be talking about teeth gnashing and eternal punishment.
One of the genres of writing that developed after the exile in Judaism was apocalyptic. It was a way to reconcile the goodness of God with the suffering of the people through the idea that God would come and judge. No matter how bad things looked, eventually justice would be served.
Matthew’s audience was Jewish and likely being persecuted by their Jewish neighbors, so Matthew uses apocalyptic language – language faithful Jews would understand – to try to win the argument. Matthew isn’t concerned with the image of God not fitting with the teachings of Jesus because his point isn’t to describe God. Matthew is using apocalyptic language to defend against persecution using the language and theology of their persecutors.
But Matthew is doing something else equally as important and that is conveying a deep sense of urgency. Apocalyptic language lets the reader, lets us know what Jesus is talking about here is not trivial but absolutely imperative to our entire lives. Apocalyptic language is Matthew’s way of jumping up and down, pointing and screaming – THIS! PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!
You want to talk judgment? Fine! Let’s talk judgment. But it’s not going to be based on what you think it’s going to be based on. It’s not going to be based on how much wealth and power you have or whether you make the right friends or whether you say and believe the right things or even if you can change the whole world for the better.
It’s going to be based on Individual. Corporeal. Acts. Of Healing.
I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you comforted me, in prison and you visited me.
As we are looking around distracted by a million shiny things, many of which feel deeply urgent and some of which actually are, Jesus is jumping up and down, pointing and shouting THIS! PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!
And when we do, we see that Jesus really just wants us to do three things:
Stop. Listen. Love.
Jesus says “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kin-dom prepared for you from the creation of the world.” What we are beginning here at All Saints Church to translate as the kin-dom of God is a covenantal economy rooted in Torah with loving relationship at the center. Loving relationship with God, with one another and with the stranger. It is an economy of grace and hospitality in direct contrast to the transactional economy of Pharaoh’s Egypt, where beautiful images of God were put into slavery to generate wealth not for any sense of the common good but for the benefit only of those who had the power to accumulate more.
And yet what we have done throughout the world, often in the name of Christ, is create not the covenant community of Torah but re-create Pharoah’s Egypt.
Our economy is not only not based on any sense of common good, but indeed was built on and is still sustained by a foundation of appropriation and enslavement. We gather this morning on stolen land. We displaced and slaughtered this nation’s original residents and took their land without payment. We kidnapped millions of black bodies – we did not see them as people – and dragged them across the sea, and on the backs of those who survived we set a standard of production based on the labor tortured out of people given no income.
And when that source of unpaid labor was “emancipated,” we did not adjust our standard of production or consumption but instead found new ways – contract labor and convict leasing, Jim Crow and mass incarceration and mass criminalization of people of color, beneath subsistence wages for service workers and globalized economies that allow exporting of jobs to countries where even the laws we have to protect workers are but a dream … new ways to maintain and even expand slavery fueled by our addiction to consumption.
We do it here at All Saints. When rising costs force us to cut back on staff, we combine jobs, give the person a little more money and maintain the expectation in the community of how much work they are able to do. And so 40 hour work weeks become 50 and 60 and 70 hour work weeks. And the way we live our lives resembles less and less the kin-dom of God Jesus longs for us and more and more the kingdom of Pharaoh from which God liberated our Jewish ancestors in the first place.
In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger notes that “as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual.” The version of capitalism based on limitless production and consumption, a system that we have made normative for the entire planet, is working us more deeply and deeply into enslavement. Junger writes, despite “long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time, it created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation and more work.”
Jesus is telling us the most important thing is deep, personal relationships of love and healing, the kind of relationships that take time and energy and focus to establish, deepen and sustain and yet time, energy and focus are exactly what we have less and less and less of.
We are hamsters on wheels being told to run faster and faster in the name of remaining competitive in a global economy designed for the accumulation of wealth by the few and bent on the consumption of every resource we have to the point of environmental cataclysm, global apartheid and spiritual disintegration and Jesus is saying “for the love of God, STOP!”
Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.” But we are so frantically busy, how will we ever know that our sister is hungry? How will we know they are thirsty or sick or in prison?
On the most basic level, we have to stop. We have to stop what we are doing and encounter one another, spend time with one another. This is not about “dealing with” “the hungry” or “the homeless” or “the poor” or “the prisoners.” It is not about solving society’s ills writ large, It is intensely personal. God is saying I … I … I was hungry. I was a stranger. I was naked. I was thirsty. I was in prison. But how would we know?
Alice Walker writes: “The world cannot be healed in the abstract. That healing begins where the wound was made.” It is, she says, a process of “earnest speaking and fearless listening.”
We have to stop and we have to listen. We have to speak our deep truths earnestly and we have to listen to one another fearlessly. And that takes time and energy and focus. And there are no shortcuts. Because only when we build those relationships of earnest speaking and fearless listening will we build up the kind of trust where we can share our wounds. Only then will we be able to find out whether our sister is hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison. Only then will we be able to share the terrifying yet liberating truth that we are poor and sick, hungry and thirsty, naked and held prisoner, too.
The world cannot be healed in the abstract. The healing begins where the wound was made. We have to stop and we have listen. We have to stop and listen until the trust is built and the wounds are revealed. It is deeply personal. It takes stopping. It takes speaking earnestly and listening deeply.
And then, we get to love.
Probably the most loving place I have ever been is Ghana, and that love was expressed so simply and beautifully. Because I am directionally challenged and this was the age before smartphones and GPS, I sometimes found myself on the streets of Accra with no idea how to get where I was supposed to be.
Every time, without fail, the same thing happened. A person, noticing my confusion, would ask me if I was OK. I would tell them I was lost, and I would tell them where I was trying to go. They would listen. And then, they wouldn’t just give me directions, they would say “come with me” and they would physically walk me to where I needed to go. Sometimes it was right across the street and once it was 8-10 blocks away. Once I got violently ill from food poisoning while I was at an internet café and a complete stranger slowly walked me through the winding streets of the neighborhood where I was living and did not leave me until he had entrusted me into the arms of my host. He asked for nothing in return, and I never saw him again.
When I think of Jesus and what he is asking in this parable, I think of these people who took the time to do those three simple things.
Stop. Listen. Love.
Each one of these people put aside what they were doing, the places they had to go, the things they had to do, and instead focused their attention on a complete stranger. They took the time to ask me what my trouble was and then they gave of themselves, their time, their knowledge of geography, the compassion of a held hand and a soothing voice.
Stop. Listen. Love.
There is a gift to knowing another’s wound and to having someone know ours. It is the gift of the choice to be a part of their healing and of letting the other be a part of ours. It is the gift of time. Of energy. Of resources. Of presence. It is the gift of stopping and listening. It is the gift of love.
We live in a world of users. Where those who have power use the labor of those who have none in order to fill their coffers. Where stories of sexual assault and harassment from the Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.’s among us are not bizarre outliers but natural outgrowths of a graceless patriarchal society and economy based on relationships of utility and abuse.
And we as the church have a choice. Will we mirror this society or transform it? Will we be the covenant kin-dom of Torah or the enslavement kingdom of Pharaoh? Will we be just one more user, just one more capitalistic provider of goods and services trying to do more and more with less and less? Or will we see and hear Jesus right here in our midst, jumping up and down, pointing and screaming – THIS! PAY ATTENTION TO THIS! THIS IS WHAT REALLY MATTERS!
Stop. Listen. Love.