Seeing Christ in Every Person
(From Follow Me: Welcome All)
Today, we find ourselves at the end of a string of parables in the gospel of Matthew. It is, of course, Jesus who is telling these vivid stories and the stories precede what may be to the disciples, the most surprising thing Jesus ever said to them. The parable we are about to read comes right before Jesus tells the disciples that the passover is coming and when it does he will be handed over to the powers that be and crucified. First, though, a parable about the judgment of the nations. These are familiar words particularly for us as we have pledged to be a Matthew 25 congregation. Let’s listen with fresh ears and an open heart to what the Spirit has in store for us today:
I want us to suspend, for a moment, our assumptions about this passage. I want us to suspend, for a moment, our troubled hearts and worried minds as we wonder deep down where we fit into this narrative. Am I a sheep? Am I a goat? Am I on the left or the right? Is Jesus talking about me when he talks about being condemned? I want us to stop, for a moment, tallying our good deeds and the times we got it wrong. Maybe. We think. Was that Jesus out there on the bench? Whew. Take a deep breath. Throw out what you think you know and let’s consider the surprises we find in this parable. What’s not surprising is that sometimes we do things right and sometimes we get things wrong. Sometimes we are to be commended for our behavior and other times we are condemned by it. No surprises there. What is surprising, to me and to those in the parable, is when Jesus says ‘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.’ Hold on, Jesus, what do you mean? When did I do or not do these things for you? I don’t remember you being there. I don’t remember seeing you at all. Huh.
So, here’s my question: where exactly do we expect to see Jesus? Where and with whom do we think Jesus spends his time? Now, the parable tells us where we can find Jesus. I wonder, though, where we expect Jesus to be. Because according to the parable, the sheep and the goats, the people who are commended and the people who are condemned have both missed him. And I suspect we do, too.
Now, there are six specific acts of hospitality named here: offering food and drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. The Greek word for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia which means “love of stranger.” Well, I can think of plenty of people who are strange to me. As I’m sure you can think of plenty of people who are strange to you. Those whose way of life I don’t quite understand or relate to. Those who don’t look like me or dress like me or act like me. Those who may believe differently than I do, have a different understanding of God or scripture than I do. Those whose family doesn’t look like mine. Those with a different gender identity or expression than mine. Those who understand the world differently than I do. That list can go on and on. And listen to these dictionary definitions of stranger: a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance; an outsider; a person who is not a member of the family, group, community, or the like, as a visitor or guest. Jesus’ point here seems to be that these are the people we are to notice, at bare minimum, and to love, ideally. These are the ones in whom we see Christ.
The parable doesn’t really give specifics about who these people are other than they are the most in need…the hungry, the thirsty, the ones on the outside and unwelcome, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. I think we can both take a broad look at these things and get down to specifics. Most people hunger for something. Most people are thirsty for something. Most people long to be included and brought in. Most people are exposed in one way or another. Most people are hurting or sick in one way or another. Most people are bound, imprisoned by something. We can include ourselves in this number but we’re doing so from a place of power and privilege. So, today, I’m not going to include us because the parable doesn’t either. We are the followers of Jesus who are called to see Christ in everyone, to love the stranger. And according to this parable, we will find Christ in the places of deepest need, in the people who have been pushed out, excluded, ignored, unseen, neglected, judged.
And we don’t have to go very far to find deep need. We can just open those beautiful, heavy, wooden doors out onto Sycamore Street. I wonder, do you know the names of the folks who sit and sleep on our benches? Have you asked them how they came to be here?
We don’t have to go very far to find those who have been pushed out of their homes and communities. Did you know that 40% of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ? I wonder how many have been abandoned by their faith communities, as well.
We don’t have to go very far to find those who are imprisoned. You may or may not know that Stewart Detention Center with close to 2,000 detainees (that’s human beings imprisoned for seeking asylum which is not a crime) is in Lumpkin, GA just a 2.5 hour drive from this sanctuary.
We don’t have to go very far to find hunger. The Atlanta Food Bank reports 1 in 7 children who go to bed hungry and more than 715,000 persons who are food insecure in their service area which is where we live.
We don’t have to go very far to find strangers….those for whom we have had no personal acquaintance; outsiders; those who are not a part of this family, this group, this community. Did you know that upstairs in our building at the Global Village Project there are 31 female students representing 9 nationalities, 14 countries of birth and 17 languages in addition to English? Do you know their names or their stories?
It seems we don’t have to go very far to find Jesus.
Among the strangers, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned: I suspect that’s where Jesus spends his time. The question is, are these the places where we spend most of our time? I bet we’re missing some opportunities to see Jesus.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We’re missing out. The natural consequence of staying close to home and within that which we already know and is most familiar to us is that we miss out on what God is doing in other places and other people. We miss out on the full breadth and depth of God’s love. Set aside questions about where we’ll spend eternity, we miss out on the presence of Christ here and now. We miss opportunities to love others as Christ has loved us. We miss opportunities to welcome the stranger as God has welcomed us. We miss opportunities to do everything we’ve been called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. And loving others is not about some checklist of good deeds in order to earn God’s favor. It’s about living life the way that Jesus did, with concern and regard and love for everything and everyone the world deems worthless: not worth knowing or love or energy or time or resources.
Seeing Christ in every person means putting ourselves out into this hurting world so that we have every chance to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, and clothe the naked. To spend time with Jesus, we have to spend time in the places where Jesus is found. Scripture is pretty clear that Jesus is found at the edges: of town, of society, of the community, of our safety and comfort. And Jesus is found among the strangers, the smelly, the sick, the imprisoned, the misunderstood, the unseen, the passed by. So, if we want to be around Jesus, we need to be around those whom Jesus sees, heals, touches, loves. He came to show us a different way to live, a different way to be, a different way to love.
Hospitality is something that every disciple of Jesus Christ is called to practice whether the six acts of hospitality outlined in this parable or a myriad of others. It’s not hospitable only toward those who we deem as deserving of it. Jesus doesn’t say, when you saw me deserving of a hot meal or working hard for water or when I was unjustly imprisoned or on the outs because someone made a mistake. We are called to offer hospitality to all regardless of our own judgement of their particular circumstance or personhood.
So, I want you to think about your circle: where and with whom do you spend the most time? Does that circle ever expand? Can you think of one way to make that circle a little bigger? Who might you include? Where will you go? Who might you introduce yourself to? You may not have to go very far to start. You may be able to start right in this room. Talk to me later if you’d like some ideas. Keenan and I just signed up for the GVP Welcome Walk on Nov. 6, we’d love for you to join us. Talk to one another, as well, and share your own stories of expanding your circle. Where have you seen Jesus lately? Tell someone about it.
It takes practice, intention, and prayer to see Christ in every person. It takes community, accountability, and a whole lot of Holy Spirit. It is here in this place that we are equipped and sent out. It is in our quiet time with God that we are equipped and sent out. The movement is always outward, outside of ourselves, outside of this place, outside of our comfort, toward other, toward God. That’s where we see Christ. By God’s grace, may it be so.
Rev. Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church