Passage: Matthew 25:31-46
When I first became rector of this church and was on campus on a regular basis, I was a bit surprised by how many people in need tend to stop by. Most of the time, the level of practical help I personally can offer, that our church can offer, is pretty limited, but I have found that some the most meaningful relationships I have had so far as a priest in this neighborhood have been with people that I can’t offer much to except a cold cup of water, some company, a hug or a handshake, and a prayer.
Another part of what I do on a regular basis is hospital visits. Sometimes I visit regular DMAC attenders, sometimes I get called in by the chaplain’s office if someone has requested an Anglican priest, sometimes, I hear about a friend experiencing homelessness that had to go to the ER, and I visit. Each time it is a special moment, because there’s not always much I can do—in fact there’s usually nothing I can do—to take away physical pain. But I can be present. I can listen, and I can pray, and I have had the honor of witnessing to the presence of Christ between me and the person I am visiting.
I’ve seen Christ with the needy person that spends the night in the ally right over there. I’ve seen Jesus comfort the lonely and the sick, and the only part I ever played was showing up and being willing to be truly present.
Now, I’m not at all opposed to things like service projects or programs that provide structured and consistent help to those in need.
There is a world of difference between a typical social justice type program and being present with people.
There is a temptation to take Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 about giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, and set up a very well-intentioned program to do just that. And why not? Programs are efficient, cost effective, and distribute the labor well. Nothing wrong with those things. The problem is when we stop at the program.
See, if a program remains merely a means to the end of getting something done—providing a meal, making second hand clothes available, and so on—then it creates an automatic distance between the people serving and the people being served.
Think of the classic soup kitchen set up:
One group of people is on one side of a long table, serving those that come through the line. The ones getting the food go and sit down, away from those doing the serving, who spend their whole time managing the food, cleaning, and organizing before heading home.
Contrast the classic soup kitchen set up I just described with how we were trained to host meals while the i-HELP program was active at our church. We invited our neighbors experiencing homelessness into our space as friends and as honored guests. We socialized, we hung out. We prayed together. Then we all sat around the same table—family-style—and ate together. Passing the food to one another. Everyone helped clean up, even the ones quote “being served.”
And those of you that were part of those interactions can witness to the fact that while it wasn’t always easy, there were always moments where a space would open up to speak a word of hope, of truth, of encouragement. There were moments where hosts and guests would listen to one another, and the presence of Christ among us was palpable.
This also why I love our bread delivery ministry every Wednesday. Each week our members visit the same people—offering some food to meet a physical need, and words of kindness, hospitality, and hope to meet a spiritual need. Because we are committed to the same location and the same people, real relationships have developed and we discerned the presence of Christ.
See, as well intentioned and as genuinely helpful as the classic soup-kitchen set up can be and is, I believe that by itself it falls short of what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel passage, because it falls short of relational presence.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35–40, ESV)
The King says, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Now, would you want to put any kind of distance between yourself and Jesus? Would you balk at the chance to sit and eat with him?
We find in this passage language of family, language of presence.
Christ is claiming the hurting and downtrodden wherever they are found
as specially identified with him as family.
You and I know—of course!—that God is with us, and indeed that’s how he came to redeem the world.
““Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:23, ESV)
It’s not that Jesus didn’t do anything—of course he did. He lived a perfect life. He preached the Good News. He did heal the sick, deliver the oppressed and possessed, and so on. He took action and cleansed the Temple of corruption, he laid down his life willingly and took all the ultimate consequences of our sin down to the grave, and because he was God, he rose from the grave, took his place on high in heaven, and is coming back for us. But…
It all began with a posture of presence.
So you and I, too, should begin by simply being with the least, the lost, the lonely, and the left-out. As we emulate Christ in this way, you see, we are becoming more like Christ in us. So we find new family members, and we encounter Jesus in others in special ways. David Fitch reminds us in his book Faithful Presence that if we take Jesus at his word that as we do the least we do to him, this means “his real presence is sacramentally located in the discipline of being with the poor.”
The church has always recognized the sacramental nature of being with the poor,
and so the sacrament of unction, that is anointing the sick with with oil and praying for them, developed over time. The practice of almsgiving, which is just giving freely to those in need without asking anything in return, became a defining discipline of the church from the very beginning. And the Gospel “spread like wildfire,” David Fitch says. The practice of being with the poor was and is a powerful witness to the new kind of Kingdom that Jesus is building.
An Anglican priest and theologian named Sam Wells lived for some years in one of the poorest parts of London.
He wrote this:
Poverty is not primarily about money. It is about having no idea what to do and/or having no one with whom to do it. The former I called imagination and the latter I called community. To the extent that our neighborhood had imagination and community, we were not poor. But without imagination and community, no money could help us…
the role of the local church is to be a community of imagination…
I think what Fr. Wells is getting at is that there are issues deeper than cash flow. In order to make a difference at those levels, we must recognize our first calling is to be a true community, living in relationship with one another, and sharing one another’s burdens—physical and spiritual, financial and emotional. And we live this radical sharing of burdens out with creativity and imagination fueled by the Gospel vision of God’s Kingdom family united in Jesus, where all are valued, all are loved, all are cared for and all are provided for.
In other words, our responsibility as the church is to allow God the Holy Spirit to renew our minds to such a degree that his vision of a people that considers the last, the lost, the left out and the lonely not as “the least” but as family actually begins to manifest.
What might this look like in the three circles?
First, in the close circle—the community of the faithful—we might begin by committing to be with one another in meaningful ways, regardless of our level of income or social standing. There is no more “us” and “them” in the Church.
Each of us gives what we can to the church family as an act of worship. That’s what our offering is about every Sunday. As we do that, and pray over those gifts we do our best to express in this community the same creative reality that was manifested in the first churches described the book of the Acts of the Apostles, where we read,
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34–35, ESV)
In addition to contributing to the common needs of the church, we use our offering to meet individual needs as they come up. And we can also give directly to one another—not just financially, but of our time, labor, and other resources too—as the Holy Spirit leads and opportunities present themselves. But—listen!—the opportunities will not present themselves if we are not present to Christ and to one another.
We must also be present, not just with one another here in the close circle, but in the dotted circle of our homes as we become the hosts to our friends and neighbors. Needs we hadn’t seen before and solutions that had escaped us will surface in the context of real, ongoing and intentional relationships, and Christ will become present as we spend the time to be, to listen, and to give from what God has given us.
In the open circle of the world, there will always be someone–in the coffee shop we frequent before heading to work, the grocery store we go to Thursday nights, the bar we enjoy on the weekend—there will always be someone that needs something we’ve been given by God so that we can provide for them. As we develop relationships with those the rest of society tends to overlook, we can have the courage and love and creativity of imagination the rest of the world does not have. As we develop ongoing relationships with these people in the open circles of our lives, we can even give by inviting them into the dotted circles our homes to share our table. We can do this regardless of religion, immigration status, social skills, or whether they have permanent place of residence or not.
This is the kind of vision that requires Gospel imagination and Gospel community to realize.
Brothers and sisters, as Christians, we must be about justice, including social justice. It is not the biblical Gospel we preach if it gives us no vision for a real manifestation of the Kingdom in the present. But true social justice, that is, setting things right in our communities, will never be accomplished by justice programs alone. They must be accompanied by presence.
True social justice is always accompanied by faithful presence.
And not just any presence, but the presence of Christ in you, as you go to be with Christ by tending faithfully to “least of these” wherever they are found. Amen.
 Fitch. Faithful Presence, p. 119
 Ibid., p. 123
 Ibid., p. 115.
 As quoted by Fitch. Faithful Presence. P. 124