Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Offering the Stuff of Life

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Stephanie Hamilton
Reign of Christ Sunday (November 26, 2017)
Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘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?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


 

Last year I was fortunate enough to preach on Christ the King Sunday and at the time I shared with you, or more like confessed, that I had no idea what Christ the King Sunday was or why it was on the liturgical calendar. I remember the engaging and stimulating conversation that emerged in the eighth day service and how it helped to bring clarity and shape to the sermon for the 11:00 o’clock service. It is still my tendency to shy away from Kingdom language but I cannot divorce myself from how my heart is stirred and the emotion I feel when speaking of Jesus in the context of the Kingdom of God. It is solely because Jesus uses the weak to bring low the strong and the seemingly foolish to humble the wise, that casts new perspective and a fuller meaning in using Kingdom language. I want to live in that kind of kingdom, where God’s love is the rule by which our lives are measured.

Just in the same way that Jesus uses perspective to define the Kingdom of God, so too, our perspective informs how we understand and live out this morning’s gospel. Isn’t interesting that both groups of people were so surprised when Jesus either commended or condemned them according to their everyday choices? Their perspectives governed their attitudes and actions. Lord, when did we see….

For the last three years, I have been asked to preach at a Service of Remembrance on Veteran’s Day. I would consider myself an unlikely candidate to preach at such a service, however, many of my relatives and friends have served in different branches of the military and the invitation came from a very dear friend, so I agreed and worked to bring a good word that was authentic to me while acknowledging and conveying respect to those who have served in our armed forces. Little did I know that I would be asked to come back the following two years. This year was very challenging for me to wrap my brain around a sermon because I felt like I had used up all my good stuff and didn’t want to repeat myself or not have a fresh perspective to share. The scripture I settled on, after googling appropriate scriptures for a Veteran’s Day service, was a passage in Deuteronomy that is very similar to today’s passage. In working with a text that screamed “social justice”in order to create something that would honor all our service people I happened to have an in depth conversation with a friend who served in the Marines for eight years.

Chris was eighteen when he enlisted in 2002 with the war in Afghanistan well underway. He was seventeen when he went to talk with the recruiter and needed his parents’ signatures when he applied. As we talked, I was sure he was going to tell me a compelling story of why he enlisted; that there was a call he was answering, or that he knew serving in the Marines was his duty in protecting the United States’ freedom. Interestingly enough, he told me none of those things. He signed up because he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, his grades in school were slipping, he was messing around, and getting into trouble. He knew college wasn’t going to be an option for him and so he enlisted in the Marines. And it was while he was serving those eight years,and as he was maturing into adulthood, the Marines began to shape him and create meaning in his life. He recounted the work he did in his different deployments and noted that he struggled, the whole time he served, to find his purpose. And as we talked he spoke of friends who served and that when they were in battle their main purpose was to protect the person on their right and the person on their left. Whatever ideals they held when they joined the Marines, moved to the periphery when they were in battle; their immediate focus was to keep the person on their left and their right alive. And of course that quickly became his main purpose when he was in combat.

As he continued with his reflections he went on to say that whatever he thought he was going to get from the Marines he didn’t find and it has taken the better part of seven years as a civilian for him to realize that his perspective was skewed when he enlisted. When he made the choice to enlist in the military he went into the recruitment center and talked with recruiters from every branch. Each had some sort of “bonus” they were offering as a way to entice recruits. Consequently, Chris went in with the mindset of signing with the branch of the military which would offer him the best deal or the most money. And so, fifteen years later, he states that instead of asking what he was going to gain by joining the Marines, he now believes that he should have been asking what it was he had to offer the Marines in order to make the world a better place.

He is thankful for the time he served, the experiences he had, grieved by the friends he lost, and more grounded in what his purpose in life should be.

This idea of offering what it is we have in order to make the world a better place, is what it means to see the face of Christ in the face of our neighbor. There are those people who are clear about their purpose in life, those for whom it seems second nature, to live in such a way that they offer themselves on a daily basis. For others, it may be a moment of crisis that causes them to rise to the occasion.

This past week I came across the story of a young woman who, while attending a private girls school in middle school, experienced two years of extreme bullying. As I was reading Natalie Hampton’s story, I learned that there is such a thing as “social capital.” Researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Rutgers University teamed up to study the causes of bullying. It was surprising to learn that children who are isolated or who don’t have a friend with whom they can sit with at lunch are the most susceptible to bullying. A child who has friends has social capital which functions as a layer or buffer to being singled out or alienated. Natalie didn’t have any friends at her middle school. She spoke to the teachers and tried to enlist their protection and help but to no avail. As they observed the dynamics, their observations led them to believe that this young woman must have done something to deserve the treatment and they too, judged her more harshly because she didn’t seem to be able to get along with her peers. Social capital or social acceptance goes a long way in stemming the tide of bullying.

Well, this young woman survived the two worst years of her life and transferred schools when she began high school. And on the first day of school a fellow student approached her during lunch and asked if she wanted to sit with him. That simple gesture of kindness changed her whole life. She has since gone on to create an app that encourages kindness ambassadors at middle and high schools. Kindness ambassadors are students willing to invite others to sit with them at lunch time. The idea is for each student who uses the app to fill out a small survey of interests and hobbies and then ambassadors who have similar interests will invite those folks to sit with them at lunch. It’s a way of making sure nobody feels the isolation of not being welcome, especially in a school cafeteria. Those same folks who conducted the research have reported that discipline problems have declined and the reported incidents of bullying have decreased dramatically at the schools where the sit with me app is used. It is impressive that this young woman, who is still in high school, recognizes the power in kindness and is using that to help other students build social capital which then becomes an effective tool for combating the problem of bullying.

As with any story, there are two sides and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at times I haven’t always chosen compassion or recognized a need for grace in any given situation. And now, as a parent of two teenagers and one tween, I find the challenge even greater in helping my children understand the power they have within themselves to create change by leading with compassion. This past fall, when #45 decided to bring changes to our DACA program, students from Tucson High Magnet School walked off campus. Derek and I were both at home when our cell phones rang. The school was calling to let us know about the walkout and wanted us to speak with our child regarding district policy of leaving school property in the middle of the day without an excused absence. Just before I answered my phone, Derek looked at me, smiled and said, “You’re going to like this one.” As I listened to the message, it wasn’t clear if this was a general robocall all the families were receiving or if this call was personal because my child had walked off campus. When I picked my son up from school later that night (he had band practice) I asked about the walkout. While he was clear in that students were reacting a policy reversal and he thought that was a noble and necessary act, he was uncertain of his part. He wanted to walk off campus in solidarity but he wasn’t sure what he was going to do once he left school grounds and he wasn’t sure whether or not he would get in trouble. I have to say, my heart broke a little bit. I quickly made it clear to him that any amount of “trouble” or repercussions that would come his way because he chose to stand in solidarity on an issue such as this would be very welcomed in our household. It is our job to stand with and stand up for anyone receiving unfair and unjust treatment. We had a good conversation and I learned that my boy doesn’t quite yet know the power of his voice or how necessary it is to use said power. I do believe he will get there.

Loving God is intricately tied to offering the stuff of life to others. Sometimes it is the basic necessities such as water, food, shelter or clothing. Other times it is looking out for the person on your left and your right as they are looking out for you and the person on their other side. And sometimes , it means offering a warm welcome and a seat at the table. May we all live in such a way that we see the face of Christ in our neighbor in order to create a world where we are governed by God’s love.


Featured image: Vanderbilt Divinity Library, “Christ in Judgment” (~1300, Florence, Italy).