Monday, March 6, 2017

Matthew 25: feeding the people

Exodus 16:4-31
Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew 25:31-46

            This lent we will be doing a series during worship focused on Matthew 25, along with related passages.  I want to begin this series by providing an overview, but also by looking at the first of Jesus’ instructions in the passage – that of feeding the hungry.  The bottom line of Matthew 25 is, very simply, "When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me".  Whatever it is – when you do it to the least of God’s children, of God’s people, you do it to Jesus himself. 
John Buchanan said it this way, “Jesus said it: profound, radical words. Every day I walk by half a dozen people, poor people, asking for money. Recently it was a family—a mother and three children. Another man said, "I just had surgery and I'm hungry," as he lifted his T-shirt to reveal an ugly surgical scar. "Come in," I said, "our social service center will help you." He swore. "I don't need their help; I need money." Matthew 25 makes me very uncomfortable when I think about it much. I cannot help everyone. I do not have either the money or the time. Besides, who can tell who is really needy and who simply wants a bottle of cheap wine? What can I do?”
            I think it is helpful to put this in the context of the other two scriptures that were read for today.  In the first story, from Exodus, we are shown a God who gives all that we need in each moment.  God gave enough manna for the Israelites to eat in each day.  No more, no less, except on the 6th day when they were then allowed to collect more so that the Sabbath day would be a day of genuine rest, another gift of abundance from God.  In the midst of the desert, in the midst of the hardship, there would not only be enough to eat, but there would also be rest, each week, from the struggles, from the hardship.  We are offered the same promises.  This is a story about who God is and how God is and God offers to us the same.  Enough.  We have enough.  And in the midst of the hardship we are also given rest from the labors of the calls God asks us to do.  This is hard to trust.  It is hard to believe that if we start doing God’s work, we will find rest.  And it is hard for us to trust that we will have enough.  But we are called to have faith that when we respond to God’s call, in this case, to God’s call to give to the hungry, to see the “least of these”, to treat each person with respect and dignity, that there will be enough for us, too.  For myself, I find this to be amazingly true. When I am generous, especially with the church and with the poor, I find I have enough.  It is the years when I am less generous that I also find myself struggling to make end’s meet.  And while this is not a stewardship sermon, I find this consistently to be true.  When I was only making $400 a month in college, but giving half of it to the poor, I lived comfortably on that $200 a month.  When I fail to tithe, I struggle to pay the bills.  God only knows why this happens but it does. 
I’ve told this story before but it is worth repeating.  Dorothy Day, founder and organizer of the Catholic worker shared similar stories of times when their house community, a community built for the purpose of and dedicated to serving the poor and destitute in and around them, would be on its last penny.  Time and again they would spend that last penny on whoever came to them for help because Dorothy and the workers had faith that the needed money would always come.  And come it did.  On one such occasion the electric bill had to be paid and there was no
money at all in the house.  The bill was for $9.57, not much now, but a lot at the time.  The power company said that the electricity would be turned off if the bill was not paid by the end of the day.  So everyone in the house began to pray. At 4:30 that afternoon, the mail arrived and within it was a check – for $9.57, enclosed with a note apologizing for the odd amount and stating that the donor had found that much on the sidewalk and had felt called to send it to the Catholic Worker community.  God provides enough, when we are faithful and giving, God provides enough.
            But while we give generously through organizations such as Monument Crisis Center, community meals, heifer project, etc., I think we are also afraid to help, especially those on the street or those we encounter in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations – those who wander in off the street into our places of work or who approach us while we may feel “trapped” pumping gas or waiting for the bus.  We are afraid that if we give to those who ask, that they will just come back and ask for more.  We are afraid that we won’t have enough.  We are afraid that our resources will be tapped out.  We are afraid of how they will use “our” money.  We are afraid they don’t deserve our help and that we are being used and conned and that we will only make things worse by allowing them to become more dependent on us. I, at times, have felt afraid that if I take the time to talk to someone on the street or even someone who comes to the church asking for help that I will be trapped into listening to an elaborate but untrue story.  We are afraid, and for good reasons. 
But here’s the thing: Jesus did not say, “When you did it to the least of these WHO are deserving, you did it to me” or “when you did it to the least of these WHO are being honest with you about what is going on with them that you did it for me”. He didn’t say, “Do it for the least of these WHO have been checked out by the larger community and are found to be genuinely in need.” Or “when you did it for the least of these who will not spend it on alcohol or drugs.”  There were no qualifications on any of this. None. The only criteria here was “when you do it the least of these” – when you are giving, when you are generous, when you are loving, when you take time to listen and hear and care for those who ask for help: for the downtrodden, those who are poor, those who are weak, those who are dependent, those who are needy, those who must resort to begging… and especially children, then you are doing it for Christ.  We are called to look, to see, to not ignore – to look into the human faces of all of these people, no matter who they are or how they spend their money or time, what stories they weave or how they go about asking for help, to look at them, and to see there in those faces we fear and distrust the most, the face of Jesus, the face of the Christ, because he has told us that this is where we will find him, again and again, in these people, in the “least” of these people. 
And then we are given the story of the manna, the promise that what we need for today, especially when we are listening and obeying God, will be enough.  We will find enough if we choose to give, as God asks us to give, to the “least of these.”  That is a promise we can count on.  It is when we hoard and try to store up for ourselves, like the Israelites tried to store the manna, that we find ourselves struggling and in danger of falling.  When we are generous, when we are trusting, when we are obeying and following God, we will find there is more than enough.  MORE than enough.
            In the temptation of Christ passage that was read for today, we are told that humans do not live by bread alone.  Normally we focus on how this means that we cannot just search for material gain and neglect the spiritual. But today, I challenge all of us to think about this as encouraging us again to be generous. We must live by God’s love and God’s law. God’s love tells us that we will have enough.  And God’s law tells us we are called, therefore, from that place of love and abundance, to share it. Living by our own need to hold on to our “stuff” will not lead us into life!  It just won’t.  We cannot live by bread alone.  And if we try, we will find that we aren’t really living. 
            So where is the Good News in this?  The Good News is that this passage from Matthew is more than just a call to us to “be good” and “do right” and care for God’s people.  It is all of that.  But it is also, first and foremost actually, a statement about who God is. And who is God?  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 tells us, God is here, in the least expected places of human life. God is here, in your neighbor, in the stranger, in the one who needs you, in “the least of these” – the least person you can imagine, the least deserving person you can imagine, the least capable and least prominent and least interesting.  You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.  That is where God is. 

            During lent we walk towards the cross.  And we are called to prepare for that by repenting, by facing our fears, by confronting that within ourselves that does not want to live generously and lovingly. God’s will is clear – seek God.  Seek relationship with God, with Christ. Find God in the “least of these” and you will see God, touch God, know God.  Feed God in these least of these, and you will find yourselves fed in return, fed to fullness and beyond.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.