"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?" they ask. When?
When was it? Were you there, Lord, among the 850 million malnourished people around the world?1 Were you there, Lord, amidst the line of guests at Urban Ministries? In those villages across Sub-Saharan Africa without access to clean water or at the corner asking for a bottle of water? Was that you, Lord, who was pushed out of your home by military insurgents, by religious zealots or left on the street to fend for yourself? Were you there, Lord, among the endless number of children orphaned by disease – by Ebola and AIDS and alcoholism and drug addiction? Or standing in a prison cell, chained to the wall, given no justice, no due process? Was that you?
Today, we celebrate Christ as King, as Lord of all, as our ruler full of glory and strength. Christ, the King of a pained, sinful, broken kingdom. Christ, the King of all people, of the most and the least and the in-between.
Today, we celebrate that Christ is a different kind of King. A king who lives among those whom the world shuns and shames. A king who chooses grace over greed and mercy over might. A king who loves all – all – and gave of his life for all. Christ is not an ordinary king, a ruler who divides and conquers, who pillages and sets forth caste systems, drowning in riches while his kingdom drowns in debt. No, our King, is different – do we perceive it?
In our passage from the gospel of Matthew, Christ sits with his disciples for the last time before the passion narrative begins. He has few moments left with his friends, with those who will share the Good News of his life, death, and resurrection, with those who will be responsible for building the church in the days to come. He has told them what is good and what the Lord requires of them – told them in parable and deed, in miracles and prayer. And now, he reminds them one last time of their calling, of our calling.
To feed the hungry and offer thirst to the weary, to clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit the prisoner, befriend the stranger – what daunting tasks. And yet, this is what Christ calls us to do. We who have busy schedules and demanding jobs; we who have our own family to tend to, our own hungers and thirsts and hopes. We who have limited resources and unlimited anxieties. If we took into consideration all the hungry, all the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the estranged and ostracized, our daily thoughts would know nothing else. The call is consuming and full and bigger than us.
Christ knows that. Christ knows that his kingdom demands constant attention and dedication, constant compassion. But Christ also knows that he has left us with instruction on how to respond. He says it plain and clear in his final discourse to the disciples: feed, clothe, visit, tend. Take it bit by bit. The sin and sadness of the world is too looming to take on by one’s lonesome or to respond to all at once. We aren’t called to cure world hunger or to house every homeless person we meet. We are called to be of Christ’s kingdom and to respond when we can with what we have as much as we possibly can. Bit by bit.
I am often reminded of this passage from Matthew around Thanksgiving. Many years ago, my dad and I were leaving my grandma’s nursing home after an exhausting, anxious, last turkey dinner with her. We had packaged up the mushy sweet potatoes and dry turkey in a styrofoam box to take home, he a bachelor, me a college student. As we drove home in the bitter cold of a Kentucky November, we passed a man walking through an abandoned parking lot. My dad pulled in next to him and rolled down the window. I don’t remember what was said but I do know how my dad chose to respond. He took the box of lukewarm food and handed it to the man. They nodded to each other, as if it was understood: today was sad for many reasons but right now, in this short moment, it isn’t. Right now, the kingdom is aching and we will respond with what we have, how we can, with our imperfect offering. Right now is all we have and that is enough.
Within the confines of our own hearts, we can feel the weight of our own hunger and loneliness, imprisonment and sickness. It holds us hostage at times, binding our hands and feet from moving forward. We attempt to hold the brokenness of our beloveds – our partners, our parents, our children, our friends – but sometimes, their pain is too heavy for our weak shoulders. To even begin to consider the pain and suffering of others – of others outside of our daily circles, of our routines, of our boundaries real and imagined – is frightening and too much to bear. We know the answer to the question When was it that we saw you, Lord?, for we are not blind. We see the homeless men and women and children lining up outside for a warm meal; we see the news of yet another bombing and siege; we see the ways men of color are incarcerated at an undeniably unjust rate.2 We are not blind. But we are often unsure of where to begin.
The enormity of the world’s grief is too much for one to take on all at once. The Talmud, the body of Jewish law, interprets our beloved Micah 6:8 as such: "Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."3 Christ, our King, did not expect us to solve all manner of injustice and pain in his earthly absence. He did and does expect us to respond – to start with what we have, to give when we can, to see what we’ve dismissed. To simply begin – for indeed, his kingdom is at hand.
The writer Catherine Woodiwiss reflects beautifully on how people often respond to trauma, after experiencing several traumas of her own. The pain of this world is a trauma unto itself – the ways we’ve allowed for sin to break us and break others, break the goodness God created. Woodiwiss writes, "In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team – those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew – those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world."4
Friends, we are not and cannot be everything to all people at all times. But we are capable of filling the roles we can – of being present at time of crisis, of rebuilding when the long nights come. Some of us are firefighters and some are builders and the kingdom requires both – requires all – to respond to the suffering of the world. Bit by bit, doing justice now, loving kindness now, walking humbly now.
Earlier this week, the staff and several members of our church gathered under a tent, huddled close to space heaters. American flags boldly flew in the wind and veterans of different genders, ages and races. On that cold morning, the Denson Apartments for Veterans was dedicated and opened, providing permanent housing to eleven formerly-homeless veterans. These homes, these warm, safe, new, clean spaces were named after our own Alex Denson, the first board chair of CASA, the supporting agency for the apartments that "develops and manages affordable rental housing, primarily for veterans and people living with disabilities."5 It was a most humbling event – to hear the trumpet sound out the songs of each branch of the military, to see politicians and social justice leaders, the formerly homeless and the never homeless all stand together, to gather in joy as one small part of Christ’s kingdom was repaired. Alex walked to the podium to offer a few words and quoted this week’s words from Christ, saying, "‘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.’" And then, Alex looked at all of us with recognition and hope saying, "We are in a position to give help." We, the people of the kingdom. We, who like Alex, have gifts and passions and can respond to the kingdom’s deep suffering. We, who like Alex, can join with others to do justice now, love kindness now, walk humbly now. We, who have much among a community that needs much.Whatever we can do with whatever we have whenever we can do it – we are capable, we are called, we are needed.
When Jesus gathered his disciples for one last lesson, they asked, "When was it that we saw you, Lord?" When were you in need? Truly I tell you, the answer is always. Go and do justice now, love kindness now, walk humbly now. The kingdom is waiting and needs you and all that you are. In the name of Christ, our King. Amen.
1. Hunger Statistics, World Food Programme.
2. An article to consider on the mass incarceration of black men. I also recommend reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
3. Pirkei Avos (Ethics/Chapters of the Fathers) 2:16 (although this was hard to find and I’m certain this is a paraphrase of what it actually says).
4. Catherine Woodiwiss, "A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma," Sojourners.
5. From CASA’s Facebook page.