Sunday, November 26, 2017

Welcome and Weakness: Needing God with One Another

It’s the last Sunday of the Church year, of the Christian calendar. Christ the King Sunday, it is sometimes called. Next week comes Advent. Blue and figures of Magi slowly trekking across the nave. A new year. So today’s readings are a bit like a season finale. Words on which you’ll want to hang until next season rolls around, until the next season, only you only have to wait a week. No sweeps season or a summer of reruns.

Unfortunately, as words to hang onto go, these are hard words. This is a difficult gospel. Or a hopeful one, maybe. It depends, I guess, on your appetite for judgment. Not unlike Jesus’ summary commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself, it is tempting to be thankful that Jesus has at least made the expectation clear and at long last given us a tidy list of duties we can handle. Or, if not handle, at least keep track of. Or, if not keep track of, at least aspire to. Maybe fall short of. Okay, so, as with the summary of the law, it is not exactly as if the surprise ending, that those who tended to the least of these did it unto Jesus, increases the likelihood that you and I will do the same. Indeed, the story’s surprise is exactly that those who did unto the least of these didn’t know what they were doing. How can we? Isn’t the unintended effect of using these words of Jesus as a measuring stick for ourselves the accumulation of unverifiable guilt for every time we pass a stranger on the street? Isn’t it a bit like strapping on the insatiable need of the world and then tiptoeing toward the fault-line of despair that knows full well the limitations of even our best actions, either individual or collective? Better to never go out doors and never encounter the need. Better to not know, to plead ignorance. But that can’t be right. Or true. What’s worse, read in this way, doesn’t the whole thing put a wrinkle into what had looked like Jesus’ project up to this point, which has been the gathering and sending of a people called church with the good news that the powers of this world have been defeated with the overthrow of death in Jesus’ forthcoming death and resurrection? I thought the whole last several weeks were about getting the disciples ready to see the crisis of the cross as the good news of God's kingdom. But if Jesus isn’t swapping out the whole Gospel project for a moral checklist on which to embark tonight, what exactly is he doing?

A possibility. “Least of these,” sometimes translated “little ones,” is used in only one other place in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends the disciples, two by two, into the world to announce the kingdom of God. He sends them out with instructions to need help. Pack light. Don’t book hotels, but stay with others. Don’t buy fancy shoes. Don’t carry anything. In other words, rely on those around you. Even the ones who haven’t heard the news yet and so who can’t, strictly speaking, be on your side. Trust the ones you come to help. Be vulnerable and need people to open their homes to you. In other words, be sent and be opened.

A possibility. What do you think? Maybe. But. Well. If it were true, this would be hard to hear, much less to live. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught self-sufficiency. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught not to impose. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught that strength is found in not needing assistance. I don’t know about you, but - if I am honest - I have been taught not to trust, not to put myself at the mercy of others. Maybe we should go back to the reading in which Jesus is telling us to give every panhandler a five spot in exchange for a reserved place at the table of the kingdom. But, no, here is Jesus, speaking to the nations, trying to put in a good word for the ones he sends not only with the mission of serving the poor but - watch this - being poor, to announce the kingdom of God. The strength of God is to be made known in the weakness of the ones God sends. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

What if Jesus is giving instructions to those who welcome the ones he sends? What if the word to us is about trusting and being sent in weakness and poverty?

Now, I’m not about to glamorize or romanticize poverty. And I refuse to separate this passage from the New Testament expectation that followers of Jesus live in community such that no one among them has needs. Matter matters. Material generosity matters. Christians are people who have discovered in a new way how we belong to one another and to God, and we respond to this discovery materially with our lives.

But we cannot assume that our role in the story could only have been as the ones with potential charity to give to others. We have been sent in such a way that needs others to open their homes to us, even to carry us, so that God’s grace might abound in our weakness. This way, being opened, we might become occasions for new communion in Christ, not simply because they need what we have but because we have learned to live our God-given belonging to each other and to make space in our lives for trust in the mercy and provision of God.

Pope John Paul II, describing his early life as a priest wrote about the moment he realized it was not enough to bless the homebound to which he made visits, but that the one-sided nature of the exchange was leaving both sides somehow impoverished. In time, he learned he says to entrust the homebound with prayers for the church and for himself. He risked specificity in his prayer requests, claiming his real and continuing need for God's help, and the mercy of God began to flourish in them both.

The baptismal covenant of our prayer book talks about it this way, that God calls us to seek and serve Christ in our neighbors. We who know our need of God are learning our need of one another in ways that emphatically refuse any misguided superiority over the others but instead call us into the kind of relationship that makes clear our mutual dependence on God.

It's all very strange. But then, we should have suspected a strange calling from a crucified King, and we got one. The church is called and sent to receive mercy. Christians are called and sent to receive mercy. This may strike you as obvious, but as Western American people, I doubt it. Even if it does strike you as obvious, it goes against the grain of your daily training. And my daily training. Which may be why God in God’s wisdom gives us the gift of one another and the rhythm of this table - to which we are gathered, as beggars for bread, and from which we are sent, both to proclaim and to need God in this world. Indeed, our lived reliance becomes our proclamation. We proclaim and trust the one who died for us, that we might live, all together, with God.


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