(Sandy’s sermon at the ‘cutting of the ties’ service on 28th November)
I’ve always loved this parable about the sheep and the goats from Matthew’s Gospel. In this parable, the ruler divides the known world, all the nations, into two groups – the sheep and the goats. The conversation goes like this:
I was hungry and you gave me food….
Then the righteous ones answer, oh but when did we see you hungry or thirsty or..
You see they genuinely had no idea, since the king obviously had enough to meet his own needs.
The king says, whenever you did this to the least of these you did it to me.
They don’t act because they’re trying to be good. They simply see need, and act.
Perhaps we may take from this that Jesus comes to us incognito, as one utterly dependent upon our hospitality. Perhaps Jesus identifies himself with the stranger, the refugee, the foreigner, the vulnerable child, the prisoner, the outcast, the despised minority – even as our enemy. The Church is called to live with an open door and an open heart, because that is where Christ meets it. What we do for others connects us to him. Love of God and love of neighbour have become one.
I’m interested in flipping this parable interpretation on its head, as I’m wont to do – to explore more about the recipients of this generosity, the so-called ‘least’. It has usually been understood as the poor in general. It seems the writer of Matthew’s Gospel identified his own community with the ‘least’, because they had become a marginal group within Judaism, and indeed in the Roman Empire. It would no doubt have been disturbing and disorientating. In this parable, Matthew’s Jesus warns against anyone who would move against his followers. ‘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.’
The ‘least’ may refer to the ‘poor’ in general, or to Matthew’s vulnerable community. Either way, Scripture teaches that God’s preferential option is for the least and the last. There are hundreds of biblical texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that address matters of social justice and which instruct the faithful on how to think about and to treat the poor. The longstanding and widespread belief in Judaism was that economic justice is owed to whoever is on the bottom of the pecking order. In our day and age, we can name so many who are incredibly vulnerable. There is no such thing as ‘you have a go, you get a go’ for those on the bottom of the pecking order. It is cruel in the extreme to suggest it is laziness on the part of those doing it tough. There is no substance behind trickle-down economics – just pejorative intent. It’s always trickle up to those who already have power, influence, status and money. Our call is to care for the least and the last, and to address systems and structures that perpetuate hardship and inequity.
It has been a privilege to have been in this church working with so many people who simply see a need, and act, selflessly, generously, extravagently. Who advocate for the least and the last. This church takes its place in the heart of the city seriously. It has long had a history of compassionate caring ministry, supporting people in need in so many ways. It’s also had a long history of prophetic, bold advocacy, including providing a safe haven for the LGBTIQ+ community, vigils and actions for refugees, bold action for climate justice, and so much more. A place for homeless and disadvantaged people who are welcomed and supported through programs like The Lounge during the week and Sunday Night Tea. This intentionality was present long before any of us were in this place, and will continue long after we have gone.
I have been here as a Deacon which finds its origin in the ministry of Jesus. The bowl and the towel, a reminder of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, is the symbol for diaconal ministry.
A Deacon is not a stand alone ministry but has a representative role because much that is done is also done by others in and beyond the church. This is a ministry that recognises, resources and welcomes the gifts and capacities of others because all are called to the ministry of service.
I’d like to finish with words by Bill Loader, lifted from ordination services for various Deacons. It’s a lively descriptor of the kind of ministry Deacons offer in general.
“As a Deacon you are called to lead in service, to alert us to care, to disturb us by opening new vistas of solidarity and compassion. You will bring to people in word and deed the good news of hope and love. You will hold possibilities before us. You will help us make connections between ourselves and our faith and our world. You will not only see the poor, but identify the structures which create and sustain poverty. You will not only see injustices, but identify the powers at work whose interests are served by injustice. You will help us give shape to our caring and our ministries. You will lead us willingly or reluctantly to the face of change, to the boundaries where we must decide to risk, to the bridges we can cross. Sometimes the bridge will be broad with room for all of us to follow comfortably arm in arm many abreast into the obvious. Sometimes your work will be invisible, at least to those above on the wide bridge. it will be lonely and unattended. Sometimes your caring will be plain and undramatic, sitting, listening, taking time, to hear two minutes of pain over two hours. Your mind will protest about limitations of time and space, about the people you must pass by or never reach. You are not called to serve as a lone individual. It is not yours alone to be engaged in the struggles for justice, that light may shine in darkness, for we are all to pray, ‘Your kingdom come!’ It is not yours alone to hold the hand of the needy, sit with the dying, weep with the bereaved, for the Spirit everywhere urges the fruits of compassion. Yours is a ministry within Christ’s ministry. Yours is a ministry within the compassion of God which will send you out and call you back and send you out and call you back, the rhythm of the breathing of the Spirit. Human need knows no end. There is no final page. The stories go on. Human misery is stark and frightening. You are not asked to carry the world on your shoulders. You do not have to do everything, so you can be free to face human need without the trickeries of denial and without the self indulgence of despair. There are times when you must rest, not in carelessness, but in deliberate nurture of your own being. You are not alone”.
I hope you recognise in Bill’s words some of my ministry here, evident in sometimes small ways and sometimes exercised in significant ways. It has truly been a privilege to share in ministry here at Pilgrim alongside colleagues and in collaboration with the congregation.
And now as I prepare to conclude my placement here at Pilgrim Uniting Church – a blessing:
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in ev’ryone you meet,
And may ev’ryone you meet see the face of Christ in you. Amen.