Every person matters.
That was a phrase that speakers came back to, over and over again, at breakfast on Friday. I got to sit proudly with about 25 other Westminster folks at a breakfast in support of Housing for New Hope, a remarkable organization that fights homelessness in Durham and Orange Counties.1 They build apartments, create networks of supportive services, meet immediate needs, advocate for affordable housing in all levels of government. We ate and heard powerful stories, stories that remind us that there is deep human need, that the right combination of passion and understanding can have a tremendous impact but that, through it all, we must not forget that every single person matters. From the formerly homeless man who was given an apartment but didn’t sleep there for 2 months – he went back to the park he had slept in before – because the apartment reminded him too much of solitary confinement in jail. To the board members in Washington a few weeks ago meeting with our congressional delegation. To the new tenants learning to read, to write their own stories, to learn what it is like to have hope about their lives. Speaker after speaker, the theme was strong. Every person matters.
Jesus sets up a majestic scene. We are in the heart of it now, right in the middle of Holy Week. Matthew gives us 20 chapters on Jesus’ birth and baptism, preaching and teaching from village to village, town to town. In the final 8 chapters Matthew slows things down, focusing us in tightly. Jesus enters on a donkey on Palm Sunday in chapter 21; he moves right into the temple and begins throwing tables over, with the moneychangers who have made it, he says, ‘a den of robbers.’ He speaks right to the Pharisees and Sadducees, answering those who challenge his authority, warning them, through his parables, that they should be careful. They aren’t the ones who get to decide who is in and who is out, who gets invited to the wedding feast. He turns from the religious leaders to the crowds, calling those crowds to see through those religious leaders’ hypocrisy, to see through their greed and their legalistic pronouncements.
In chapters 24 and 25 he moves into his closing argument. In these two chapters, Tom Long notes, we find Jesus’ fifth, and last, major section of teaching. This time the main theme is the final judgment and the ultimate victory of God at the end of time.2 This section includes the last things Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples. Immediately following he records the plot to kill Jesus, then we move right into the Last Supper, Jesus betrayal, and his arrest. We are right on the edge of the end of this part of the story, and Matthew records Jesus reaching out, far beyond, even in some wild apocalyptic language.3 He is trying to help them understand that, as hard as things are about to become, there is a promise even beyond this age that matters, that gives them hope as they fight through each day. They don’t know it yet, but He is giving them promises they will cling to long after He is gone.
And here, at the end of that final teaching section, Jesus draws us a scene of the final judgment. He has been swimming in arguments with the religious leaders about the law and the promise, about who is truly grafted into the tree of the descendants of Abraham. In some ways they were not terribly different from the theological debates that raged throughout the Reformation, and that remain in play in many corners of the church. Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Who gets to decide? Who has gifts they get to use to serve, who gets to be ordained, and who has to sit outside as the arbiters of righteousness clang the gates shut in their face? Jesus draws a magnificent portrait of the throne room, angels bathed in glory. All the nations are gathered, and there will be a sorting, like a shepherd sorts the sheep from the goats, the chosen from the not chosen, to sit at the right hand of God. The king, Jesus says, will issue his invitation, and then he tells them why: “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 sick and in prison and you reached out and helped. You did something for me.
But the blessed sheep still don’t get it. When did we see you that way? When was it? They repeat each situation exactly. And then comes the punch line, the line they didn’t see coming, the line that would make the gathered crowds gasp. “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 imagine they sat in silence for awhile.
This dramatic disclosure, Long again argues, that Jesus Christ is present in the world in the least of these, is the focal point of this parable. The world will be judged according to whether it did or did not show hospitality to Jesus Christ, the Messiah clothed not in royal majesty but coming to the world hidden among the least of these.4 Jesus is always to be found hanging out in places we don’t frequent, with people the world shuns and discards. With the old woman sitting in a nursing home alone. With the homeless man huddled over a trash can. With those who are poor and sick, left out and mentally ill, with those society shoves aside because they can’t do anything for us, can’t get us anywhere, can’t influence anyone powerful on our behalf. With the young woman who checks us out at Harris Teeter with a sad look in her eye. With the teenager who wonders if he is gay, but fears his family, fears his church, will tell him he is damned, instead of holding him close and telling him that we love him, that God loves him. It is easy to quote this passage as a rationale for serving a shelter meal. ‘We do it for the least of these,’ we say. And this ministry of service, which is at the core of our identity as a church, is crucial. But even below that, I believe Jesus is telling us – here at his last opportunity before he moves towards his death – that he is, even now, transforming each and every one of our relationships. They don’t have to be what they were. I am among you, he says. Beside you, in front of you, in the line with you at the post office. My Spirit is alive in every single person you meet, alive in a special way in those who the world ignores, uniquely present in the poor and powerless. The church that seeks to follow this Jesus MUST be in those places, with those people, looking and listening, bearing witnesses, seeking that Christ alive and loose in the world.
So I need you to help me make sure we are that kind of church. One of the many things I love about you is how well you greet people here, the strangers that come into our midst for worship. You are great about welcoming them, bringing them through the line so Betty and I can meet them afterwards. But I have learned about a couple of times recently when folks have come to worship and no one greeted them. When or who or why don’t matter. What I need you to do is make sure this never happens again. Even more, I think this could be an opportunity to practice what this text calls us to do – to welcome each person we meet as if they were Jesus Christ himself. You wouldn’t ignore Jesus in the pew beside you, would you? So I want us to be serious about it. I, like Haywood did before, ask the officers-elect to meet one new person each week. They come to officer training on Tuesday night with their notes. They have met one of you, and tell us a little about you. The group this summer has done a great job of it. I emailed all of our officers last night and asked them to do the same thing throughout the fall. We are going to come back to it at session meeting and deacon’s meetings, learn who they met, who else they are getting to know. You can’t be in community with people you don’t know. I want to challenge you ALL to join us, to really pay attention every single person in this community in the month coming up. I am going to bug you and ask you when I see you. I want you to stop me in the hall and tell me. I want you fill up my email inbox with messages. I met Sally, I don’t know why I hadn’t met her before, we realized we lived near each other, that our kids knew each other, that she has some wonderful gifts. I want you to do it in three ways. 1) In worship. Right here. 2) Not here. Folks who aren’t here who you haven’t seen in awhile. Go home and call them. This is really important. 3) Out there. In the world. Particularly those that seem powerless, pushed to the margins, that nobody else seems to be paying attention it. This can be tough. It is really hot outside. We are so often tired or late, making lists in our heads. But we must be at work in those places. The church must be at work in those places.
Last week we all gathered in the fellowship hall to say goodbye to our dear friend and youth director Rebecca Mattern. She stood up, after some people said some nice things about her, after the youth sang, and thanked you. For loving her, for seeing her through some really hard times. You all have transformed my life, she said. Because that’s what real community does. It makes us better than we would be otherwise, freeing us to continue to push and serve and make a difference in the world. As you did it for Rebecca, I know you will do it for Taylor, for Kara and Katherine, other new staff members starting soon. I wonder who else, in the pews beside you, standing at an intersection, in line with you at Target, that we might get to know, that you might meet with extraordinary kindness. You never know, she might be Jesus.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Learn more at www.housingfornewhope.org
- Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 265.
- “In order to teach people who were fully in the stream of history about a divine victory that is anchored out beyond history’s edge, Jesus’ language is stretched almost out of recognizable shape.” Long, 265.
- Long, 285.