Today’s scripture is a wake-up call to all of us. A too often ignored scripture that bears repeating, and ingraining into our imaginations. It’s known as the Great Criteria. There are three tasks for the church in the New Testament, there is the Great Commission, the Great Commandment and the Great Criteria. The Great Commission is “Go ye into all the world and preach my Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commandment is “Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbors as yourself. Upon these commandments, rest all of the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40). Then we have the Great Criteria: see Christ in everyone, especially the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned. The Great Commission is idolatry without the Great Commandment and the Great Criteria.
When I arrived interviewed at Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco seventeen years ago, they told me how they had spent an entire season looking at Matthew 25. They recited it over and over again, like we do with our affirmation. Only it caused them to look at the world in a different way. It caused them to open their building to the Central American immigrant homeless community. It caused them to have their building open at all hours of the day and night as a community center, and the home of several congregations.
I must say that we do a pretty good job of opening our building in a similar fashion. We all know that there is an alternative school housed here, that three congregations share space, that tango dancers and writers and musicians and therapists and restorative justice activists all use this space that is entrusted to us. Sanctuary means “making a place for” people in need. Sure, it helps us pay our bills, too. But I think the best reason to open our doors is to see Christ. When was the last time you saw Christ?
The disciples were doing their level best to be faithful followers of Jesus. They were trying to keep up with his priorities. They were trying to make sense of his befriending of the outcasts and sinners. It bucked the trend of successful religious movements. It made them more suspect, more of a fringe movement.
You see, there were untouchables in his society. Anawim is the Aramaic word for the outcast, the untouchable, the stranger. These were ones that respectable people, especially religious folk would seek to avoid. Jesus spent time with lepers, debunking religious and health taboos. He welcomed women into his inner circle, a no-no in patriarchal religious movements, especially at certain times of the month when they are automatically unclean. He ate with tax collectors and publicans. He called into question the injustice of the banking and mortgage system as he turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He even had us pray to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Each Sunday, we repeat his radical words about wealth redistribution. This made him popular with a certain class of people and made him dangerous to another class.
And to put icing on the cake, just in case folk didn’t get it in the first three years of his ministry, he said this in the last week of his life:
“Come unto me...inherit the commonwealth of God that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the righteous sheep said, “I don’t remember seeing you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. When did I see you like that?” And Jesus responded to them, “Just as you did it unto the least of these who are my sisters and my brothers, you have done it unto me.”
Jesus is not only saying, “remember the outcast.” He is saying, “See me in them. Welcome them like you welcome me. That’s how you account for your life.”
Do you know that the only Biblical description of the last judgment is this passage of scripture from Matthew 25? And we are not judged by whether we believed or said the right things. We are judged by how we acted toward the Anawim, the stranger, the outcast. We are judged by our blindness and our inaction. “Oh when shall I see Jesus and reign with him above?” asks the old hymn. The answer from today’s scripture is we see Christ everywhere, if we just open our eyes and our hearts.
You know, there’s a conundrum in scripture. You remember how the unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ body for burial, sensually wiping the costly oil with her hair. Judas, the bean counter of the disciples, rebuked her saying how they should use this money for the poor. Jesus rebuked Judas saying that the poor will always be here, but he—Jesus—will not. This seems to contradict today’s scripture. It kinda lets us off the hook. Don’t worry about the poor and the outcast. They always will be here. But Jesus will not be here always, so we need to put our devotion upon Jesus.
Here’s how I reconcile today’s scripture with that one. Yes, Jesus will not always be here—the person Jesus, who is anointed for burial. He will die a mortal death like all of us. It will be quicker for Jesus because he has been so audacious as to speak the truth to power and those in power seek to silence him. This one person, this Jesus we will not have forever. But Christ will be here forever. Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s the designation of Jesus’ God-character. It is the constant presence of the poor and the outcast. They are the face of Christ today. And yes, they will be here constantly. When did I see you?
They will be the naked and hungry and thirsty and thrown in prison because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the wrong color skin or didn’t have the funds for a lawyer. They will be the ones who are misunderstood and mistrusted by organized religion. They will be the scapegoats for the difficulties we all face, the target of fear and smear campaigns. This is the face of the poor that we will have with us constantly. And here’s the rub. That’s where we will find Christ: in and amongst them. And as we unlock our own compassion, not pity which feels sorry for someone’s sorry plight, but compassion that walks alongside them and asks the hard questions about how we solve these problems. When we have compassion on them, then we find a bit of Christ even amongst ourselves. We are slower to judge. We are fixated on meeting immediate needs and then asking the harder questions about how we might solve the systemic problems that keeps them in such dire straits. This is the impetus and the power of the Gospel message which we celebrate today.
There was a picture I saw on Facebook this past week. It held two panels. On the right side were two men kissing. On the other panel it had two poor African children obviously starving with extended bellies above a very thin rib-cage. The caption said, if the panel on the right offends you more than the panel on the left, then your priorities are in the wrong place. When did I see you? Whenever you saw the poor and the outcast, the naked, the imprisoned. Then you saw me.
When did I see you poor or hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in prison or sick? Whenever you have done it for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me.
My mind and heart go out to our friends and neighbors in North Minneapolis this morning. As I mentioned earlier, our Custodian Billy Cooper’s nephew was murdered in Minneapolis last Saturday evening. One week later, as his body was newly buried in the ground, the decedent’s best friend was murdered last night. I attended the funeral yesterday and I saw the rawness of the community gathered around the family. I was one of a handful of white faces amongst the 300 or so people gathered at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. I found myself uncomfortable in that situation, not so much because of my race, but because of my cultural dissonance that I hold in my very bones. What word of comfort or challenge could I offer there that didn’t sound like a platitude or a short-sighted viewpoint of someone who is really a cultural foreigner? Living in such a violent time, is it enough to just shun violence? In such a situation, what is the right response? Do we see Christ in the angry, distraught people who seek out revenge in response to violence?
There is a Biblical mandate that we need to constantly pay attention to and see the stranger, the misunderstood alien who seeks to be among us.
So given all of that, what else are we to do? Well, we will do what feel comfortable to us. We will bring gifts forward during the season of Advent to remind us of our need to help the poor. Look in your bulletin to see the schedule. That’s a good start. But ultimately it’s about our posture toward not only our friends but our enemies. Treat everyone as you treat me, says Jesus. Because when you see someone, anyone, even your worst enemy, you see a part of me. When did I see you? The question we ought to be asking ourselves is when did I not see you? When we have ignored or dismissed or forgotten the God-spark in someone else, then we have gone truly down the wrong road.
I would ask each of you to consider your own posture toward the stranger this morning. Think of the outcast, the foreigner, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. Think of them and their unique circumstances. Think of them as the present-day images of Christ. And when you do, consider how you would respond to Jesus’ invitation to be sheep in a world of goats.
Amidst the Occupy Wall Street movement, a group of clergy and religious leaders are emerging and making the connection between this movement and Matthew 25. Some have even gone to YouTube and advocated occupying the churches—meaning opening up the churches for the good of the people, not simply the fiefdoms that they seem to represent. The question that we are called to ask is, “When did I see you?”
When I eat way too much food this coming Thursday, I know that I will stop at my prayer and remember those less fortunate, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the shunned, the homeless, the victims of violence, the mentally ill, the people in the two-thirds world. I’ll pray that the food I eat will sustain me and help me to be a better servant of Christ, a companion with Christ, a sheep with Christ so that a portion of the world might be a brighter and more hopeful place. May we all pray and work for the vision that we see Christ in all people—that our tables witness to the fact that we are all connected, all blessed by God and responsible for and accountable to each other. May we see Christ in everyone and may we respond in such a way that we live up to the name Christian. This we pray in the name of Christ who is with us always. When did I see you we ask of Christ? We see Christ everywhere.