"The Welcome We Offer"
A sermon related to Matthew 25:34-40
The unity of humanity and life (non-dual consciousness) is the Good News and our realization of this Good News (salvation) is illustrated by how we engage the margins.
Then the Sovereign will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you that are blessed, 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, ‘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 Sovereign will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
For the Word of God in Scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
This scene of the Last Judgment portrayed in Matthew, Chapter 25 is familiar to many in our tradition. Like most Biblical stories and scenes, it is not literal, but is a collage of symbols and images. It is a teaching vehicle. Such end time or final moment scenes are a way to teach about ultimate values, a way to say when it is all added up, in the end, this is what matters, this is what is true, this is what is of value to Life.
So what is Matthew’s Jesus trying to show us, to teach us? Apparently, it involves the margins of life and our relationship to that. The sick and the imprisoned, the thirsty and the hungry, the naked and the alienated. These are the people and realities at the margins of life, aren’t they? These are those who are suffering and struggling for what is necessary to live. They seek the life-giving realities of health and freedom, clean water and food, shelter and a place to connect and belong, a place to be welcomed.
In one sense, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching a simple faith of compassion that is known in its simple concrete compassionate actions. There are those in need, meet their need; visit them in prison, care for them in their sickness, provide the basics of clothing, shelter, and food. Participate in giving directly to another in their need.
If that is all you get from this story, that is good and faithful. That is an important part of the way of life.
And … we can go further. This can be an image also of social, systemic justice. To use another image, we can give people fish, and can even teach them to fish, yes, but we can also ask why there are so many without fish. We can ask why the waters are not plentiful with fish or why only certain people get to fish in the waters that are plentiful? This systemic understanding also is a worthy and faithful teaching of this story. We can extend this story to the collective common good and be faithful with our communal and political actions to serve that good; we advocate, we vote, we act in large blocs and seek to organize our society differently.
A second layer of this teaching. Go and do likewise.
And there is yet another truth level to this story. There’s a deeper layer, a paradoxical spiritual truth of the unity of Life, a mystical reality where we include ourselves in the marginalized possibility, where identity of self and other is not so distinct.
Over the years, in churches like ours, we may have gotten used to hearing this story as the one in which we are the givers always, the ones with water and food and shelter and clothing, always the ones visiting. But in Jesus’ identification with those on the margins, The Christ Voice is acknowledging the whole condition of life as including the margins. In Jesus’ life, as one who was willing to be at the margins, to be the suffering one, to be the one in prison, he is including the margins as part of the whole for all of us. As it is said in the wisdom traditions of the East, “I am that.” At the level of spiritual paradox, beyond individual egos and individualism, we are each humanity in all its forms. Indeed, we are that.
The root spiritual knowing of the unity and interdependence of humanity and all life is the taproot for the welcome we are called to offer, a welcome of compassionate engagement with the margins. It draws the circle wide and wider still.
Let me clarify: This does not erase the difference in our social locations. The damaging fiction of race and the realities of unequal wealth and education and opportunity and healthcare are real and have real world consequences. But even as that is true, the good news from Matthew’s community is that the way through this injustice and inequality, this separation and hardheartedness, requires also the mystery of unity so that we are always engaging the margins with a compassionate egalitarian welcome as partners, as kin, as compatriots in the situation and miracle of life.
The spiritual truth of Christ being there, of us being there as humanity, keeps us from a sense of superiority and separateness. We cannot be a gated community of secure givers, seeing ourselves only as havers and helpers. We also must have a humble identity of sameness, equality, and solidarity.
As Lilla Watson, Gangulu nation woman, professor, and activist of Australia says….“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
As the hymn we will sing today at the end of our service says,
In Christ there is no East or West,
in Christ no South or North;
But one community of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
Christ Presence is on both sides of the equation because ultimately there are not two sides at the deepest level. The Christ Presence is the one that meets the needs, alleviates the suffering, is in solidarity with those on the margins and, at the same time, is the suffering one on the margin receiving care and experiencing relief and liberation. I wonder if we can stretch our spiritual imaginations to imagine that.
Perhaps you are one of the people who has seen themselves as resourced, as having those things that people on the margins do not, and you see yourself as a person trying to meet those needs of those on the margin. Wonderful. That is one of the good and simple teachings of the story.
And it is also in our Bible story that the very conception of giver and receiver breaks down as Jesus in the role of the Christ slips into the mystical identity of the other.
Just as God-with-us, Immanuel, became the imprisoned one, the naked one, the suffering one, the vulnerable one, so we too know this can be true for any of us, literally or spiritually, and that at a deep level, we are all in this being human together.
Perhaps another story can help us. Once upon a time there was a wise abbot of a monastery who was the friend of an equally wise rabbi. This was in the old country, long ago, when times were always hard, but just then they were even worse. The abbot’s community was dwindling, and the faith life of his monks was fearful, weak and anxious. He went to his friend and wept. His friend, the Rabbi, comforted him, and said “there is something you need to know, my brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.”
"What,” exclaimed the abbot, “the Messiah is one of us? How can this be?”
But the Rabbi insisted that it was so, and the abbot went back to his monastery wondering and praying, comforted and excited. Once back in the monastery, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder, ‘Is he the one?’ The abbot had always been kind, but now began to treat all of his brothers with profound kindness and awe, ever deeper respect, even reverence. Soon everyone noticed. One of the other brothers came to him and asked him what had happened to him.
After some coaxing, the abbot told him what the rabbi had said. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently, with deeper respect and wondering. Word spread quickly: the Messiah is one of us. The monastery was suddenly full of life, worship, love and grace. Their prayer life was rich and passionate, devoted, and services were alive and vibrant. Soon the surrounding villagers came to the services, listening and watching intently, and many joined the community of monks. After their novitiate, when they took their vows, they were told the mystery, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength, the richness of their life together: The Messiah is one of us.
The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and the monks grew in wisdom and grace before each other and in the eyes of God. And they say still, that if you stumble across this place where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same: The Messiah is one of us.
Welcome has been named as core value of this congregation, a radical and abundant welcome. The very first strategic goal listed in the recently approved strategic plan. The welcome we offer will need to come from that place of compassion that meets the concrete needs of those on the margin, yet also calls us into the deep place of nonduality where we are no different from and even identify as humanity marginalized and in need, each seeing that we can be The Christ giving and The Christ receiving.
What if we welcomed each other and anyone as The Christ?
What if we welcomed ourselves as having Christ within us, both the humble Christ in need who receives and the Christ of compassion who responds?
This is Good News that is offered to us. Let us welcome it.
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more