Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison? It’s the question that stands at the heart of this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25. When was it that we attended to your needs, or failed to attend to your needs, Lord? And notice what happens here, it doesn’t matter if it’s someone on the Lord’s left or right hand – if they’re a sheep or a goat – because none of them recognized the Lord Jesus in the least and last. Which makes me wonder if we’re missing it, too? Well, no, not really. I don’t really wonder if we’re missing it. I’m sure we are. So let me ask it this way instead: What examples might we name where we’re missing the face of Jesus?
Now, I use that term deliberately – the face of Jesus – to refer to a phrase attributed to Dorothy Day, a Roman Catholic activist from the last century who was a fierce advocate for those living on the margins of society. Dorothy said of the poor that they are the closest thing to the face of Jesus we will ever see. This is such a profound thought, especially when applied to the incarnation.
In the person of Jesus, we confess that God has become truly human. But Jesus, in this parable, ramps that thought up in a powerful way. You’ve heard me pointing to this text several times in my preaching over the last couple of months, and what I’ve said before, I say again – Jesus doesn’t say: what you’ve done or failed to do to these least ones is somehow analogous to, or kind of like you, maybe, did it or didn’t do it to me. No! Jesus associates with the least and the last in this text in a powerfully incarnational way. Jesus takes on human flesh in the poor. Jesus says that he is the hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, stranger in our midst. What we do, or fail to do, to the other, we do, or fail to do, to Jesus. Period.
When we look into their faces, we are looking into nothing other than the very face of Jesus. In this, I guess, I’d wish that Dorothy Day had gone one step further. The poor are, in fact, not just the closest thing to the face of Jesus that we will ever see. They are, in fact, Jesus, because that’s what Jesus says here in Matthew 25. Or as Mother Theresa once said: The poor are Jesus in a distressing disguise.
So let’s think a bit about some of these categories that Jesus names in this parable from our own theological, ethical and missional position as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
When did we see you hungry?
Hunger, poverty and homelessness are a scourge in our land. The National Center on Family Homelessness just released a study titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts.” The report calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. They calculate this largely by working with the Department of Education, tracking school age and preschool age children. This number of homeless children in the U.S. represents an all-time high, amounting to 1 in every 30 children. Among the many reasons or causes listed in the state-by-state report are the nation’s high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of pervasive domestic violence.
It’s also worth remembering what you heard me share last month, on World Hunger Sunday, about poverty and hunger right here in New Jersey, because the numbers are startling! According to the non-profit organization, Legal Services of New Jersey, 20% of Asians, 22% of whites, 47% of blacks and nearly 55% of Latinos in NJ live in poverty, or face resource insufficiency, meaning they struggle to pay for rent, food, utilities, clothing, childcare – just the basic necessities of life with nothing left over. Using the real cost of living numbers as published by Legal Services NJ, 39% of children in NJ live in households with insufficient resources, as do just shy of 34% of adults over 55.
When did we see you hungry, Lord, and give you something to eat?
You know about our feeding ministries here at Reformation, and you hear about, and have the opportunity to support each month, those feeding ministries with which we partner, like Family Promise, and Meal at Noon and the like. And several of you take opportunities to support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal at various times, and when crisis situations arise.
And, if we had all day, I could go on and on about the many ways we as a congregation, and through the ministries of the whole Church together, seek to address the other things Jesus lists in this parable – how we clothe the naked through the clothes closet and how I and a couple other members visit and care for the sick and homebound in an ongoing way.
And you might remember that just last summer, meeting in Pittsburgh, the Churchwide Assembly approved the latest ELCA Social Statement on the issue of Criminal Justice, calling for widespread reforms in our prison system. And I could tell you about the resolution our NJ Synod Task Group On ministry to and with the LGBT community plans to bring to the next Synod Assembly, about how LGBT individuals are routinely, and nearly automatically, sent to solitary confinement as soon as they’re imprisoned, and about the detrimental psychological effects that result from such solitary confinement for anyone so confined.
And, if you go to our web site, or simply search online for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, you’ll see how we’re involved in welcoming the stranger. You can find out how LIRS and congregations all over the ELCA, including several right here in NJ, partner with the State Department to resettle refugees from all over the globe – those whose lives are threatened by war, famine, ethnic cleansing and the like.
These are all things we do together, because we are the Church together – because we are God’s people in Christ. And, of course, there’s much much more – I really could go on all day long, if I thought you’d let me. But you get the point, right?
Now, the connection you might not have made, yet, that I want to make perfectly clear, especially on this commitment Sunday, is that all of this is only possible because of our generous sharing and holy stewarding of the gifts and resources God has first given to us.
So allow me a moment to address in the plainest way I know how, one last time as we bring this stewardship cycle to a close, our current financial situation, with no guilt or accusation intended. Just the facts.
As of a handful of years ago, our budget was over $400,000. Because of many reasons, like Pastor Acer’s death,
Pastor Stechman’s departure, the closing of Fort Monmouth which necessitated several key members of the congregation to move away, the financial collapse of 2008 and the sluggish economic rebound since then, the aging and retirement of some of our members, and the deaths of many members over the past 6 years, coupled with a fair number of members who have either left or otherwise stopped supporting our mission and ministry together since my call, people whose lives have been disrupted by Sandy, others who have found themselves in long term unemployment – and there are probably other reasons I’ve not included in this list – all mean that we’ve had to make real changes to our budget. Last year we cut on the order of $70,000 from our budget, and even still, it looks like we’re on track to miss that reduced budget by maybe $30,000 this year, meaning that next year’s budget will be even less. And you may have not noticed much of a change in what we’ve been able to do, because, well, the things we do are just too important to not do, and so we find a way to make them happen. But we’ve had to draw on reserves and such, and that only works for so long. Once you use a reserve, it’s no longer there. It’s gone. And all of this means that we might have to make some serious changes to vital parts of our ministry, because we cannot continually operate in the red.
So I encourage you to consider before God, just how important the things we do together are to you and what it is you’re really able to do in terms of committing financially to the mission and ministry we do together, because we really do make a difference in the lives of the least and the last – the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned ones who are Jesus in our midst.
So be bold and of good courage, and share as generously as you can of your gifts of time, talent and treasure, so that the Gospel can continue to be proclaimed here in word and in deed.