Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Loving them because He first loved us . . .

     This day we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. In terms of feast days within the church, this is a very new feast. It was not instituted until 1925. Pius XI, the pope who added the feast, realized that the members of the Church were engaged in a terrible spiritual and intellectual battle. Chiefly, the Church saw its members becoming supporters of dictators in Europe and questioning both the Church’s authority as well as that of Christ’s. To the leadership of the faith, secularism seemed to be winning. Pius published a work called Quas Primas, in which he detailed the reasons for the new feast and the effects he hoped the feast would have in this battle. I mention it not just because we celebrate Christ the King Sunday this day, and not because it is an interesting read for those wishing to examine the world in the light of their faith, but because we seem to be involved in the same difficult struggle which gave rise to the feast in the first place.

     I noticed this need last week at the Churches United Thanksgiving services last week. Most of you know of my work with Ron Quay, their director, of Bev’s work on the Board of directors, and our own parish efforts to stay involved in the many ministries of Church’s United. When Ron called me last week, he asked me to speak about the ministries of Church United in an inspirational way and to inform the members present of our work in Human Trafficking in 5-7 ½ minutes. Off hand, he had forgotten the text, but he promised to get back to me. Knowing that time was an issue, I began crafting a sermon. For three or four days I worked on doing my best, within the time allotted, to educate Churches United about Human Trafficking and to inspire those that would be present to continue the good fight. I succeed in keeping it to 8 minutes.  No small feat on my part.

     Unfortunately, when I arrived, I was able to engage in and overhear a number of conversations. Chiefly disturbing to me was the spirit of oppression that seemed to be hanging over so many faithful workers in the field like a pall. I had gone to the celebration expecting to meet with a group of Great Commission Christians like ourselves and prayerfully hoping to gain a couple necessary volunteers in our efforts to combat human slavery. What I found was a terrible sadness. People working at food pantries commented how the need was up and they could give only half the food they had before. Some were disappointed that, of 165 member churches or so, fewer than 75 people were showing up. A few were griping about monetary resources. A few were grousing about how overworked they were and how little a difference they were making. Now, as you know, I may have the discernment skills of a slug. But this was so obvious that a blind man would have said “would you look at that!”

     Thankfully, before I strode to the pulpit, Bev preceded me with these words from Matthew, the words that we read, study, and inwardly digest on Christ the King Sunday. I promised them only two stories, as I was constrained by time and wanted to honor Ron’s request. I sneaked in a third story, by way of telling the first two. You know them well. I told them of “horseradish man” and his Ash Wednesday lesson for us, and I told them of Sarah and her white flower which led, eventually, to her escape from human trafficking. By way of introduction, I also managed to work in the death of Stevie’s sister here on Garfield and our neighborhood’s response to the circumstances of her death. And then I led them back to the passage which we read.

     Notice the response of both groups to Jesus’ judgment. Neither group thinks they have had the opportunity to serve Jesus. In the case of the sheep, they claim never to have helped Jesus by giving Him food or drink or clothes or simply visiting with Him. They would have remembered that. He must have them confused with someone else. Similarly, the goats claim that had they seen Him, they would have certainly helped Him. Obviously they did not see Him, and that is why they gave no help. Jesus, however, in answering them takes us back to Genesis. As you did this to the least of these . . . you did it to Me. Jesus reminds us that everyone we encounter has been created in His image. He ties our service of others to our service of Him.

     When we are like the sheep, we serve Him through the gifts and service that we give to the least in our midst. That is why we reach out in love to the homeless and provide them with feasts when a meal will do. That is why we work hard to meet the needs – spiritual, emotional, and physical – of women and children in our community who are victims of spousal abuse. That is why we gathered for almost 5 full years unloading trucks and loading baskets for 5100 families who, in the end, had little or no interest in joining us in our walk with God. That is why those in the choir meet week after week and work hard when, in reality, they’ll be a new song to learn tomorrow. That is why we try hard to meet the discretionary of as many as possible while trying to discern whether the need is real or the “victim” a con artist. And what difference do we really make? The hungry are still here. Battered women still come in. AFM collapsed because of who knows what reason. And we, like fools, have decided to take on a $300 Billion business and are actively recruiting others to come and join us in our efforts. Were the tragedies not so terrible, it would be laughable. But we are called to continue the work, not because of the successes, but because such work glorifies Him.

     Similarly, when we are like the goats, we ignore Him when we ignore the needs of others. When we cross the street to avoid a beggar, when we feel that tug to offer a ride to someone without reliable transportation, when we decide to keep that article of clothing we haven’t worn in years because “you know, I might get back down to that weight this year,” we are choosing not to serve Christ. We are choosing to ignore the fact that those in need were created in His image every bit the same way as you and I. And for our willful resistance to serve Him, we are judged as goats.

     Notice this is not a singular success or failure. The sheep respond to the Master’s call with no thought that they are serving Him. Their service simply flows from their hearts, hearts that have been circumcised by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the goats ignore Him at all opportunities. Just as the sheep’s service flows from their hearts, the hearts of the goats cause them not to serve others. Had they seen Him, they admit, they would have served Him. Their lack of faith blinds them to His presence in the least.  Their hearts are still stubborn and fat because they have not yet been circumcised.

     Such service, though, becomes second only to acceptance of His offer of salvation. For the past several weeks, we have been reading about Jesus’ last teachings during Holy Week. During these final days of His earthly ministry, Jesus spent a great deal of time reminding us of our need to bear crosses and to serve Him. He has explained that the greatest of His disciples will be the servant of all. On and on, He has taught the distinctions that exist between His people and others in the world. Now, near the end, He takes up His scepter and reminds us of the judgment that we all face. That judgment will be without fail. And that judgment will remind us how we served or how we failed to serve Him. It seems a strange way, perhaps, to end a church year by talking about judgment. Yet we are beginning a season of expectant waiting next week, a season in which we will ask Him to come again and usher in His rule, a rule He tells us that begins with a separation. Until then, though, we are called to labor in His fields, honoring and glorifying Him through our service of others. It is through such service that we see His face, a face that first put aside the crown and scepter for a cross, and it is through such service that others may see His royal face in our own, loving them because He first loved us.

Christ’s Peace,


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