In the Ooze

MATTHEW 25:31-46

I bring greetings from a sister in Christ who writes us from Iraq. My friend and I went to seminary together, and now she serves as the Delegation Coordinator at Christian Peacemaker Teams based out of Chicago.

She writes about her experiences at an IDP camp in Iraq. IDP, or Internally Displaced People, are people who are still in their home country but that have had to flee to these special camps to escape the violence that has taken over their homeland.

Update from Iraqi Kurdistan:

On Thursday my colleague and I traveled with a Women’s Rights group to Duhok to visit the Khanke IDP Camp, about a 7 hour drive through the mountains. The Khanke camp is currently the home of 1000 families, mostly  Yezidi families from the Shengal Mountain. According to my colleagues they look much better than during their last visit two weeks ago, but you can still see the scars of where they were sunburned from being on the mountain with no shelter or water.

  This is truly one of the most humbling experiences of my life to date. We spent the last two days collecting the names of 961 women who were taken by ISIS (we noted the names of men on a separate sheet). I am sure we could have collected many more names, but we ran out of time. We would literally go from tent to tent and sit with families and hear their stories. One man we spoke with has 66 members of his family missing. At times it felt like this work would never end, as the sun would literally set on us and the camp would close for the evening, as we heard of more buses on their way to the camp from Kobane. We also met with two women, who had literally run from ISIS having been in captivity for 15 days.  

Along with sharing the names of their family members, people expressed their concerns about the weather. One man shared with us that he had family that died because they couldn’t escape ISIS, family that died on the mountain, family that died on the long walk to the camp, and now he feels that the survivors will die in their UN tents. Winter is fast approaching. The families are no longer allowed to have heaters in their tents because two tents burned down last week due to a heater fire which killed two adults and three children. The Kurdish Regional Government and the UN are trying to come up with solutions as fast as they can.

 Even among this sorrow, children played soccer, braided one another’s hair, and hugged teddy bears and dolls. Parent’s held babies, cooked what food they could, and folded blankets neatly. Life continues, and hope continues where it can.

 So what is there to do in the face of all of this? You all are my friends that pray, please keep praying for these families, for the people missing and the people returned. Please pray for weather to hold off until appropriate solutions can be found. Pray for the Syrian refugees who now find themselves even lower on the resource chain. Pray for the people of Kurdistan who don’t officially have a land of their own, but are willing to take in everyone who needs help. Pray for healing and pray for peace.

It’s words like these depicting horrifying conditions for some of us here, and a new everyday reality for ‘the others’ around the world, that give us pause when reading scripture about God’s judgment as it relates to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and welcome to the stranger. What is the Good News offered in this Scripture? What does God call us to do in this world? And how do we begin to confront what seems like endless violence and injustice today? These are important questions to ask as we get into our scripture this morning and as we begin to understand the nature of Christ on this ‘Christ the King Sunday’.

We pick up in the Gospel of Matthew with Jesus in Jerusalem, just a short time before he will be arrested and ultimately executed by the authorities. Previous to this parable, Jesus has shared similar parables about different subject matters pertaining to the Kingdom of God including themes of preparation, fairness, and God’s invitation. This time Jesus chooses to teach about how one’s faith must be reflected in one’s actions. The consequences, as we hear, are eternal. Are you one of those who will sit with Christ in Heaven, or will you spend eternity in punishment?

This particular story is pretty popular amongst Christians because of its correlation between service and faith. The moral of the teachings is pretty straight forward: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, and so on. In some ways, we tend to gloss over the passage because of what we perceive as the direct message of the teaching. But it’s important to look at Scripture with new eyes every now and again. What new insights does God open to us in the reading of this passage this morning? How can we grow in our faith lives through this text?

In verse 32 we read that the Son of Man (Jesus) will gather all nations and separate the people from one another. If we understand this text to come from the Gospel of Matthew, then we are also made aware that this Gospel in particular was intended for a specific Jewish audience, and the small detail of the Christ gathering ALL nations has particular significance. This is not just the Messiah for the Jewish people, but all of Creation.

To those who he separates for the kingdom, the King says in verse 40: ‘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.’

On the other side of this invitation to the kingdom, there will be others who will be thrown into eternal punishment.

Verse 45-46 reads: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Well, okay! I guess we are done here! Lesson learned! Right?

But I want us to go a little deeper this morning. I would like for us to think about the phrase that has been attributed to Jesus here:  ‘you did it to me.’

As we celebrate ‘Christ the King Sunday’ what does it mean for Jesus to associate the ‘Son of Man’ as first ‘king’, and then as one of the ‘least of these’? What new ideas is he putting in the heads and souls of those who are listening to his teaching at this moment? What challenging perspective is he sharing with the world about God and faith? And how can we, in the year 2014, be challenged to understand God in new ways today through this Scripture?

It’s pretty easy for us to look at this text and say something along the lines of ‘good actions = eternal heaven’. If we live by this motto, then we are in line with the majority of the world, and with the majority of faith traditions for that matter.

But I think we can get a little deeper into this whole ‘Christian faith’ thing this morning. Christ is not only telling us to feed the hungry; Christ IS the hungry. Christ is not telling us to give drink to the thirsty; Christ IS the thirsty. Christ is not only telling us to welcome the stranger; Christ IS the stranger.  Christ is ‘the other’.

Okay. We also may have heard this. Go deeper.

In the midst of all that is broken and imperfect; all that is ‘not good’ in the world, all of those dark places where many would choose not to go, Christ is there also.

What does it mean that Christ is ‘the other’ in today’s world?

Christ IS the older Iraqi man who is now living in the IDP camp. Christ IS the woman who ran from ISIS through the desert mountains. Christ IS the child who plays with the doll; maybe the only toy they have on this earth. Christ is in Iraq, and Syria, and all of those horrifying places, and in all of those other people we only seem to hear stories about.

Still not challenging enough?

When you hear about these people, these ‘other’ people, how do you feel? Does your heart break open for them? Do you feel pity? If so, …then why? Is it to make you feel a little better about yourself; the fact that you can feel bad about injustice in the world, while you sit on your comfortable couch in your comfortable home and go about life as usual watching the evening news about ‘those poor people’?

Feeling challenged yet?

I think this is what Christ wanted to get at. It’s not enough in this world to feel sorry for someone. And maybe this shouldn’t be our response to the world’s affairs these days—pity. Maybe we are being called to see these individuals with new eyes. Maybe we are being called by Christ to see each and every person… as Christ, here today.  And instead of feeling sorry about encountering Christ in the other, a more appropriate response would be an open heart not of pity, but of a yearning to experience God’s grace offered by that very person. Christ in ‘the other’.

The Good News; the challenging Good News: by the grace of God, we are invited to help realize Christ’s Kingdom throughout all Creation, each and every day of our lives…by recognizing Christ in ‘the other’. We are invited to see Christ in the dust and cold of the Iraqi mountain IDP tent cities. We are invited to see Christ in these people and NOT feel pity, but experience grace.

Christ offers us grace in this world in the most surprising, and challenging of ways. When we experience ‘the other’ in this world, whether here in this community, or on the other side of the globe, we are offered God’s grace, and the opportunity to help realize God’s Kingdom here on earth. Some will travel to Iraq to realize God’s Kingdom. Some will travel outside their front door. In all of this, we are helping to realize what Jesus had in mind when he described the King gathering all nations unto his self.

And when our hearts are open enough to encounter ‘the other,’ when we are willing dwell in the ooze of Creation, with all of its brokenness, and injustice, and pain, we will encounter the living Christ, be open to God’s grace, and in response live out acts of everyday righteousness as we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger. ‘The other’ is not someone who is to be pitied; they are to be received with faith, hope, and love.

Let us be so inspired and challenged by God’s grace this morning as we seek God’s will in our lives.

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