June 23, 2019
Joshua 3.14-4.11 and Matthew 25.35-45 and 28.16-20
Rev. Sandra Larson
Transition to call a new pastor provides opportunities to reflect on priorities of the church. What beliefs do members value most? What beliefs guide members’ lives? With both a personal and a congregational focus, I ask: How do we live up to the challenges we heard from Jesus today? Jesus is clear about what he expects his followers to do: Make disciples of all nations and to help the “least of these.” What is our response today to his challenge to “Make disciples of all nations” and to help the “least of these?”
To “make disciples of all nations” seems to be a united task that requires the efforts of Christians from every part of the world. If each of us is intentional about sharing why we are grateful for our Christian faith, then listeners will be curious to learn more. If we share how much Christ and Christian teachings mean in our daily life, then others will be inspired by our story—unless we drone on and on about it. “Making disciples” does not require knocking on doors or being judgmental or preachy about our faith. If we first listen to the other person’s story and then connect their experience to our own faith story, then we build bonds of trust and respect. Such “I statement” dialog can spark interest in what makes us tick. So, who might you share faith stories with? Faith sharing does not need to be verbal or face-to-face. Even in an old fashioned letter or Internet or Skype? Who might it be fruitful to talk with about faith and spirituality? Can you think of anything more meaningful to talk about? Except maybe bragging about our grandchildren?
Jesus’ expectations to serve the “least of these” seem super-idealistic.
Teenagers tend to have a habit of ignoring anything that seems ridiculous, too demanding or pie-in-the sky. Did teenagers learn this silent inaction response from us? When we hear Jesus’ challenge to minister to prisoners, do we dismiss this expectation without a second thought? To Jesus’ call to show substantive hospitality to any odd stranger we might meet, do we perhaps smile at them, but go on with our own affairs? What do you guess that interviews with people who beg on the side of the road reveal? Being ignored by people who pass by without even acknowledging them is most hurtful to them, even beyond their hunger for food. People crave human connection.
Jesus says provide clothing, food and water to anyone who is destitute, so most of us make infrequent small donations to service groups who actually serve those in need. Is that what Jesus meant by serving “the least of these?” or did Jesus mean more than that?
Union Food pantry volunteers and donors help many people with food and other needs. Perhaps most importantly, the volunteers acknowledge and welcome each person who comes for help. Jim Halprin knows most regular recipients by name and recalls bits about who they are. I recall that George Furniss was a hospital chaplain when the cause of the HIV Aides virus was undiagnosed. Fear of Aides being contagious prevailed throughout the country. Yet George took his discipleship of Christ seriously. He donned a medical mask and visited the Aides patients. George knew he was risking his own life.
How much have we risked lately to help suffering people? Jesus challenged his followers, saying: ”Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8.35) Do we tend to ignore this teaching? How many times will we need to experience the joy and life-fulfillment that comes from helping others before we are convinced that Jesus is saying this in order to help us fulfill who we are meant to be? Or, will it take loneliness, depression, or addiction to wake us up to Jesus’ wisdom? Have we learned that being a Scrooge with our talents, resources and our time can only deplete our lives? I know a young man who is a billionaire hedge fund manager. Yet he is probably the most crabby, miserable and self-centered person I know. His gorgeous wife seems no happier. Do you know egoistic, self-focused people? Are they vigorous and joyful? What about people you know who focus on humbly helping others? Are these out-focused people more filled with positive life energy? Jesus bluntly stated: “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In what ways is each of us currently serving “the least of these?” About 14 people from Union Church are involved in the Food Pantry and Samaritans Way; and a few Union Church people are active in Habitat for Humanity. If we include all of “the least of these,” not even Mother Theresa could serve every one. Jesus expected Christian communities to combine talents and resources to serve the “least of these.”
How do we clothe the naked? In Jesus’ time, lepers and many poor were literally naked. “Clothe the naked” today may mean mission support for third world victims of violence. Clothe the naked may mean advocacy for victims of human trafficking. What about prisoners? Prisons welcome pen pals, prison tutors and book donations. A great program called Alternatives to Violence was started by Mennonites. Or promoting a prisoners’ art show to raise money for victims of criminal violence and families of murder victims is the kind of vision that helps prisoners regain self-esteem.
George and I spent last week with 700 active witnesses for Christ and who follow Jesus’ mandate to “care for the least of these.” We met with Christian leaders in Washington DC for a Bread for the World Summit and a Sojourners Conference. All the participants are engaged in active care for downtrodden people. Some established financial investment funds that only offer loans to women and people of color who are unable to get conventional loans to start a private business that serves their community. Others work to diminish discrimination, gun violence or water deprivation. Most of the participants are young adults. And, notably, many of the participants are probably in their 80’s. All the participants have a passion for their mission.
The very young Naisa Wong led a forum to train leaders in spiritual renewal for victims of trauma. Another young woman leads Project Hip-Hop, an organization that teaches young people to use the arts as a tool to raise awareness about social issues. One series focused on using storytelling and poetry to weave together people from divergent social groups.
A forum on “Resisting ableism in the Church” focused on including all people: Resisting ableism made us think proactively about wheelchair ramps,and accomodations in church spaces. Resistance to ableism also includes less socially able and mentally challenged people in congregational life. Other sessions included Countering LGBTQ discrimination and Anti-Muslim attitudes, Advancing Just Energy and safe water, a new documentary about Howard Thurman and “What our lives would look like if we tried not to focus on the riches that our culture encourages us to seek, but to focus on things that God calls riches.”
I was deeply moved by Sister Helen Prejean. Sr. Helen lives in a Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor. She began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. Two years later, when Patrick Sonnier was put to death, Sonnier and Sister Helen looked into each others’ eyes until the jailer covered his head with a sack to protect the sensibilities of official witnesses. Sr. Helen told of her experience sitting next to Sonnier strapped in the 1900-volt electric chair; and she brought nearly all of us to tears as she recounted Sonnier’s last words. “I love you,” he told her. Sr. Helen became a spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, and ever since witnessing those executions, she has vigorously opposed capital punishment. Sr. Helen committed to heart-wrenching work to write a book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Dead Man Walking hit the shelves when national support in favor of the death penalty was more than 80%; and in Sister Helen’s native Louisiana, closer to 90% endorsed the death penalty. Dead Man Walking ignited national debate about capital punishment and inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a play and an opera. For 35 years, Sister Helen has been giving countless media interviews and about 100 talks per year across the globe with people of all faiths, agnostics and atheists. At age 80, Sister Helen divides her time between educating the public, campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ families. Her newest book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, will be published in August.
George and I talked and shared ideas and support with many inspiring leaders. Reverend Jen Bailey founded Faith Matters Network. Even at her young age, Jen has hosted over 1400 People’s Suppers that focus on bridging divides between N Americans. Bread for the World and Sojourners emphasize an urgent need to work on eradicating sources of poverty. So we took action. Conference participants visited our Congressional leaders’ offices and made a practical and heartwarming case for the human right to dignity and a decent life. George and I joined hundreds of Christian leaders to lobby Congress on behalf of food-insecure people. George and I lobbied at the offices of our Rep, Sean Maloney and Senators Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. After our advocacy, NY18 Rep Sean Maloney voted to cosponsor a global nutrition bill. Senator Chuck Schumer become an original cosponsor of the Collins-Coons Global Nutrition Resolution. Both had been reluctant for political reasons but decided to sponsor nutrition initiatives after our visit. Did George and I tip the balance for their decision?
Of course, immigration is a major focus for Bread for the World and Sojourners. We shared vision and strategies like “building Peace on the Borderlands” in which all stakeholders collaborate to analyze root causes, identify power and co-design messaging campaigns to inspire action regarding immigration issues. Being Christians mean being Christ’s witnesses. Making disciples and helping the least of these... Are these high priorities for us in our daily lives...and for the Christian witness of The Union Church?