In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells a story about some people who ministered to him and some people who didn’t. And the plot twist in that story is that what really happened was that some people ministered to those in need, and some people ignored those in need. In that story, Jesus told us that when we minister to people who are in need, we are ministering to him “in his most distressing disguise,” (as Mother Teresa liked to say).
Part of our missional strategy here at Zion is at least once per year we corporately find ways to address the priorities of Jesus in Matthew 25: Feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prisons. We honor the emphasis Jesus placed on offering preferential treatment for the marginalized, on doing charity. We are called to do justice, but we are also called to do charity, which is necessary because we don’t yet have justice. The first week we talked about welcoming the stranger, the second week we talked about visiting the prisoners, last week we talked about clothing the naked. This week we are talking about feeding the hungry.
In this whole series, I think there are two real opportunities for spiritual growth for us, the mostly middle-class folks at Zion UCC. The first is to challenge our assumptions about people who are hungry, thirsty, sick, unsheltered, lonely, and imprisoned. We make snap judgments that lead to our choices about how to respond. We all do. Let’s challenge those assumptions.
And the second opportunity is to think about where our security comes from. What is it that makes us feel safe? How do our needs get met? So 1. what are we assuming about people who are in need, and 2. how do our own needs get met? Whichever issue we might be talking about, those are the things that we need to consider.
First, the assumptions we make. You have all come to stop at the end of the exit ramp or at an intersection and seen someone standing there with a sign. IF you’re a better person than I usually am and you can get past your initial reaction of how to avoid eye contact, if you can get past that moment, what story does your head start to tell about that person? Maybe something about their work ethic? Or their personal habits of consumption? I know, we’re good people, but honestly, do you look to see what’s gathered around their feet? Or wonder how much money they really make by panhandling?
Psychologists have demonstrated that all of our brains do a thing called Assumption Bias. This means that when something bad happens to us, we assume it’s because of external circumstances. I was late because my alarm didn’t go off. But when the same thing happens to someone else, we assume it’s because of a character flaw. You were late because you’re lazy. Assumption bias: if it happens to me, it was something outside of me control. If I see it happen to you, I assume it was something inside your control. Do you follow me? Assumption bias.
So, when we see someone who is in need, the first instinct for most of us is not to say, “Oh what kind of terrible thing must have happened to them to get them in this situation?” which is what we would do for ourselves, but instead we make assumptions about the terrible choices they made along the way.
Now, are some people in tough situations because they made bad choices at some point? Sure. As do we all. As are we all. Most of the problems I currently have, I made for myself. My point is, if we are going to develop the kind of deep empathy that moves us to actually meet these needs, we need to start challenging the stories we tell ourselves about other people. We need to see other people as valuable as we are, with situations as complicated as ours, and choices as tough as ours. If we can’t imagine what might lead us to be in that situation, it will be hard to have compassion for someone else. We need to challenge the assumptions we make about people who are in need.
Second, we need to consider where our security comes from. Like I said last week, for the most part, most of us have not been in situations where we consistently could not meet our own needs. Seasons of it maybe, occasions when things are tight, certainly. But for the most part, most of us rely on ourselves. That’s fine, except that kind of self-reliance gets deep into our souls. Real community is interdependence, the balance between radical independence and abject dependence. The more we think we have what we have because we made it happen, the more we rely on ourselves, the harder it is to remember that all we have comes from God and the harder it is to rely on other people. A good way to gauge this is to consider how easy it is for you to ask for help. A lot of you are not good at it. And I know because I am your pastor and I am someone that you come to when you need help and I know how hard it is for you to let anyone other than me know that you need something. My dear ones, that is not good for you. It’s not good for your souls. And frankly, it deprives the rest of the community of the joy of helping you.
If you were here last week, you heard me read a story where John the Baptist says that anyone has two coats should give one to someone who has no coat, and the same with extra food. That’s interdependence, where security comes from trusting and sharing instead of from hoarding. But for those of us who are used to “taking care of ourselves,” it’s a hard thing to learn.
My second year living in Columbus, I was working for a tiny church that paid me barely anything, so I had one or two other jobs. Some friends of mine moved up here as well and we rented a house: me, two others who are a married couple, and our other friend and her daughter. My friend with the daughter was going to trade school and wasn’t able to work, and my other friends were still looking for jobs. Because we had child in the house, we qualified for food assistance. And y’all the judgment is real at the grocery store when you are paying with food stamps. I know. I’ve experienced it. Sometime in those first couple months, a few friends from church showed up at our door with groceries. A lot of groceries. They knew we were in need and they helped. In that season of my life, I discovered what it was like to have other people make assumptions about my situation. And I discovered what it was like to rely on God and on community to meet my needs.
I said it last week and I’ll say it again: church is our practice ground. This is where we practice actually loving other people. This is where we practice nonviolent responses. This is where we practice not making assumptions. This is where we practice being vulnerable, on not acting like everything is ok when it’s not. This is where we practice asking for help. This is where we practice relying God and one another instead of always and only relying on ourselves. Our foundation for that practice is our covenant: we belong to God and to each other. Which is what we remember when we come to this Communion table.
In this ritual, we are reminded that being together at the table is the most sacred thing we can do. On a week when we talk about feeding the hungry, we remember that our most holy moment is when Jesus feeds us and we eat together. Eating together is a great equalizer. Not serving each other, but sitting down together where we are all the same. That’s interdependence.
And so, Beloved, this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at this table with the Risen Christ, who is the host at all our tables. Amen.