February 3, 2019
Sometime between 80 and 90 C.E. the writer of the Gospel of Matthew attributed these words to Jesus: Matthew 25: 31-40
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom 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.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “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?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I wrote in my statement on Ministry years ago: I am passionate about social justice, which was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. When I was in seminary I was asked to officiate a memorial service in a local park for a man who had been homeless. Several days later I found myself kneeling in a prayer circle on the grass, clasping the hands of those on either side of me, singing Amazing Grace at the top of our lungs. A dozen people had come from their tent homes under the bridge near the river to sing, pray, cry, hug, grieve, share stories and remember their friend Matt. This was one of the most profound experiences in ministry I have ever had.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling incredible sadness for those people living out there in the elements, people we try to ignore and pretend don’t exist - people whose faces and names I now knew. It came crashing in on me in a very personal way that this is what Jesus was calling us to do, and it isn’t easy.
Jesus led by example. He did hands-on, face to face ministry with persons who were homeless, sick, oppressed, imprisoned and rejected by society. In these past years I’ve been graced with so many opportunities to witness the needs of others, and in each instance these words of Jesus helped dictate my response.
For several years my last church supported a program called Get On the Bus. It brought children from all over California to visit their dads in prison for an afternoon around Father’s Day. I had the privilege of visiting the fathers at the prison a few days later. One young man asked me to thank my congregation from the bottom of his heart. “I’ve made mistakes,” he told me. “I did things that were wrong. But despite what I’ve done, your church has affirmed my humanity by enabling my children to visit me. It means everything. When I get out of here I never want to come back. I want to be a good father.”
In December of last year, on Christmas Eve afternoon I was working late preparing for the evening services when I heard a loud pounding on the side door near my office. There stood a distraught man in need of help. I invited him in and listened to his story, prayed with him, provided him with a box of kleenex, and gas money to get him back home to Maryland. This was a modern day Christmas story if ever there was one. That opportunity filled me with the Christmas Spirit. After Christmas his elderly parents sent me a check to cover what I have given him, along with some extra to pass on to someone else in need, which I did.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs reminds us that “God asks us to do what we can, when we can. We mend the world one life at a time… We can change the world, but we need partners, and the best way of finding them is to lead by example.” That is what many of us try to do.
Our signs out front say a lot about who we are as a church. Our ‘Be The Church’ sign includes the words: Care for the Poor / Fight for the Powerless. Acts of charity are a necessary part of our work as a church, but it only goes so far in addressing the systemic problems facing this country.
What have we been doing to Fight for the Powerless? This is a whole different ballgame. It’s political. It involves showing up for legislative action days at the state house, meeting with our representatives and senators, signing petitions, writing letters and post cards, making phone calls, showing up at rallies and marches. That is what we are called to do in the coming months and years.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his life addressing these challenges, and they are still with us. In a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in late 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, he spoke these words:
"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day,
tell them not to talk about my Nobel Peace Prize....
I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry--
that I did try to clothe the naked--
that I did try to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
I just want to leave behind a committed life."
He certainly did. We celebrate his life by walking in his footsteps and leaving behind a life committed to the work of peace and justice.