Katey Zeh, author and activist for women’s reproductive rights, as well as a member of Pullen, stood in the pulpit this week. We thank her for daily work as well as her interpretation she brought to the pulpit.
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Growing on up on St. Simons Island off the coast of South Georgia, it wasn’t just considered cool to be Christian. It was a requirement if you stood a chance of fitting in, which in high school was pretty important to me. These were the rules of engagement:
Rule one: always bring your bible to school. For optimal coolness, always choose the neon-colored NIV Teen Study Bible
Rule two: attend bible study prior to the beginning of the school day, and insist that any tardiness to your first period class be excused on account of your “learning about the Lord.”
Rule three: adorn your notebooks, lockers, and all other personal property with your favorite bible verses. Extra points if it’s John 3:16.
In that context the Christian identity as we understood it as young people was primarily performative. It was about showing up in the right places—bible studies, youth group– being seen by the right people and speaking the right language while sporting the right accessories-that aforementioned teen study bible, perhaps a gold purity ring if you were really serious about things.
We somehow managed to reduce our sense of faith into becoming members of an exclusive club defined by strict, often unspoken rules and yet devoid of any actual community. We were too busy making sure the images that we projected of ourselves hit that Christian mark.
To be fair to my younger self, there were probably worse things I could’ve been doing besides showing up to early morning bible study, but having spent my formative years in that evangelical culture that emphasized appearance over substance, I recognize my daily need for these words from Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning.
In this passage Jesus is speaking to his disciples about what it means to live a righteous life.
“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 you gave me clothing”
“I was sick and you took care of me.”
“I was in prison and you visited me.”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the most oppressed among you, you did it to me.”
What becomes clear in reading this passage from the Gospel of Matthew is that the life we are called to ought to be centered on the ministry of what I will call “loving presence,” a phrase I first heard from the psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach.
In relationships “loving presence” is a way of holding another’s suffering with attentiveness, tenderness, and compassion.
By offering this ministry of loving presence to one another, especially with those who are oppressed and marginalized, we reject the notion that any human being is disposable and instead we uphold the truth that each and every one of us is created in the image of God with inherent sacred worth.
To be clear, we are not called to the miraculous. Jesus doesn’t say, “I was sick and you healed me.” He says, “I was sick, and you visited me.”
He doesn’t say, “I was in prison and you helped me escape.” He says, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Our call is simply to be present, to tend to one another’s needs, and to love. Fiercely.
A few weeks ago Brian Crisp and I were discussing this passage and what kind of framing I might bring to it for this sermon.
As a reproductive health and rights activist, I added my own language to these words of Jesus: “I needed an abortion, and you went with me to the clinic.”
Brian said, “I was transitioning, and you accompanied me.”
After our conversation, I thought of more like it:
“I was a single parent, and you watched my children so that I could get some rest.”
“I was unemployed, and you helped me keep the lights on.”
“I was pulled over by the police, and you stopped to make sure I was safe and unharmed.”
“I was an immigrant without documentation, and you provided me sanctuary.”
Just this week I saw the cover of the latest edition of Sojourners magazine. The feature article this month is about how churches are responding to the opioid crisis. On the cover the headline read, “Lord, when did we see you addicted?” Indeed.
But this passage includes some troubling divisions to say the least. There are those who answer the call to the love and those who do not. The fiery words of eternal punishment are probably somewhat off-putting for all of us, but especially those among us who may have heard this kind of language in other faith communities.
I don’t believe there are those of us who always choose to act with love—or those who never choose it. Like the problems I have with the clear-cut, rigid rules of my evangelical upbringing, I don’t buy into this simple binary of those who are in and those who are out.
Instead what I think about is what we are doing to ourselves—and to one another—when we choose love or not. In the moments when we turn away from the suffering of another person—and we all have moments when we do this—we are saying no to an encounter with the divine. We are missing out on an opportunity to grow in love—and in so doing, we impose a form of suffering on ourselves and we increase the suffering of the one who is already hurting so much.
But when we choose love, we are transformed.
In preparing for this sermon I revisited the writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest known for his foundational work in Latin American liberation theology. This passage from Matthew’s gospel is one that Gutierrez cites when explaining his central theological tenet: the “preferential option for the poor.”
“The text is one of the many in the gospels that underscores the importance of action [on] behalf of the poor in the following of Jesus. But there is something distinctive in the passage from Matthew: it reminds us that what we do to the poor we do to Christ himself. It is this fact that gives action [on] behalf of the poor its decisive character and prevents it from being taken simply as an expression of the ‘social dimension’ of faith. No, it is much more than that; such action has an element of contemplation, of encounter with God, at the very heart of the work of love.”
“This is a work of love that implies a gift of self and is not simply a matter of fulfilling a duty. It is a work of concrete, authentic love for the poor that is not possible apart from a central integration into their world and not possible apart from bonds of real friendship with those who suffer injustice. The solidarity is not with ‘the poor’ in abstract but with human beings of flesh and bone. Without love and affection, without tenderness, there can be no true gesture of solidarity. Where these are lacking there is an impersonality and coldness (however well-intentioned and accompanied by a desire for justice) that the flesh-and-blood poor will not fail to perceive.”
“If there is no friendship with them and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.”
What I appreciate so much about the way Gutierrez interprets this passage from Matthew is that he emphasizes that loving those who are oppressed and marginalized ought not be—in fact cannot be—just something we do out of a sense of duty because it’s the right thing to do.
If we follow his understanding of caring for those who are oppressed, our ministry of loving presence, then, cannot be transactional—because it would not be rooted in godly love. Instead it must be deeply relational in order for it to be transformational.
What Gutierrez helps us understand is that this relationship work is how we encounter God in our lives. And those encounters with the divine transform us in radical ways.
When I was working for the United Methodist Church public policy office, I created a campaign focused on global reproductive health. I was able to use some of our grant money to bring global health workers from our different country offices around the world to the United States on speaking tours. One of my most memorable trips was with Alice, a public health nurse based on the banks of Lake Victoria in rural Kenya. Alice serves a population of more than 10,000 whom she calls “the forgotten people.” With sky-high HIV infection rates, maternal and infant mortality, and abject poverty, the people who live in the Kopanga region are among the most disenfranchised populations of our world.
Alice left her home in Nairobi to start this medical facility. Her husband, a United Methodist pastor, and their two daughters live several hundred kilometers away from where Alice works during the week. On the weekends she takes an 8-hour round trip taxi ride to spend just a few days with her family before returning back to the clinic, which is the only facility to serve the population of Kopanga. She and her staff faithfully see and treat more than 1,000 adults and children every single month. Folks travel from far away on foot to get their babies vaccinated, or to get tested for HIV, or to obtain contraceptives.
Very few of them are able to pay, and the clinic receives limited support from the Kenyan government. At the time of her visit to the United States her clinic had no running water or electricity, and they often ran out of critical supplies. And yet despite these challenges, Alice had been able to achieve the near impossible: eradicating measles in that population by making sure each and every child born in their community was vaccinated.
I was amazed by this. “How in the world were you able to do that?” I asked her.
She told me this story. When she first started her clinic, she rented a small room in a house using her own money and a few donated supplies from local churchwomen. One day a mother brought in her baby who was sick with bronchitis. Alice didn’t have much, but she had what was needed. She placed the woman and her baby under a bed sheet with a pot of boiling water filled with menthol crystals. The healing stem cleared up the child’s infection. The grateful woman went back to her village and told everyone that Alice had made her baby well. Sounds a lot like Jesus to me.
“I have cared for my community for many years,” Alice told me. “I have shown them that I love them by showing up every day at the clinic. I treat them with kindness and give them what they need even when they can’t pay. Now they trust me to take care of their children.”
Alice is not able to heal everyone who walks through the clinic’s doors. She is not a miracle worker. But what she offers is her time, her compassion, and her loving presence to those who would otherwise be forgotten.
I’m hesitant to call Alice a hero—or a shero. Yes, her work is brave. Yes, her story is extraordinary. Yes, her dedication to this hard daily work of caring for her people is remarkable. But if you were to ask her about it, she would tell you that she simply is living out her faith and following the call to love her neighbors. And she does it with great joy.
That is the work of loving presence that we are all called to—and that we are all capable of.
In fact, offering our loving presence is central to our humanity.
Gutierrez writes, “God first loved us. Everything starts from there. The gift of God’s love is the source of our being. We have been made by love and for love. Only by loving, then, can we fulfill ourselves as persons. God’s love for us is gratuitous; we do not merit it. Gratuitousness thus marks our lives so that we are led to love gratuitously and to want to be loved gratuitously. It is a profoundly human characteristic. Such is our makeup. True love is always a gift, something that transcends motives and merits. Gratitude is the space of that radical self-giving and that presence of beauty in our lives without which even the struggle for justice would be crippled.”
I know that we are a justice-seeking people at Pullen. My prayer for all of us is that we might find new joy, new connection, new friendship in answering the call to offer our loving presence to the beloved children of God who have been forgotten, ignored, silenced. May we be the light, love, and compassion that every human being deserves and desires. Amen.