November 23rd, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Psalm 100 & Matthew 25:31-45
“For whatever you do for the least of these, whatever you do to one who is a member of my family, you do to me.”
Last month when we gathered down by the docks in a grassy spot after walking the streets of our community together, we talked about this thing called the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a series of readings that walk preachers and congregations through the Bible in a three-year cycle. And I shared how I, as your preacher, have chosen to use this calendar of scripture for our worship services. Now, there are a variety of reasons for this choice, one of the main ones being that it makes it so I don’t just pick the readings that I like—or that especially speak to me—and use them over and over and over again. I want to, and to have us all, be challenged by reading the breadth and variety of Biblical texts, and to have a shared accountability that we don’t just keep going back to the same scriptures, and preaching the same sermon over and over again.
With all this in mind, you can laugh with me when I tell you about our gospel text for this week, Matthew 25:31-45, the parable of the sheep and the goats. This scripture more than any other, is the one that I have preached on, wrestled with, been inspired by, and worked with in the forming and developing of this church. I’ve read it backwards and forwards, written papers on it, had it preached to me at pivotal moments, chosen it as the text for my ordination sermon, and, and—I’m not making this up—I have it engraved on the back of my iPad. “For I was hungry…” Matthew 25.
And seriously, it is integral to why we’re here today, starting a church that integrates the natural and spiritual, individual and communal needs, and a church that is committed to working together for changed spirits and hearts, in conjunction with changed physical lives. It has led me to believe that the spiritual and the natural work are inter-connected, and that Jesus is pointing to this reality when he equates one’s eternal place with what one does for “the least of these who are members of God’s family.”
So, out of all the Sundays of this three-year cycle of scripture, out of all the passages of the Bible that we could explore. it’s today, at our third Gathering, that the Revised Common Lectionary lands on this passage. And I laugh and I wonder at the movement of God and the confirmation that there is such a thing as Divine Providence leading and guiding all things. You with me?
This story has been following me around for years. But it first came into my life in a meaningful way when I was in an undergrad psychology course in 1998. Dr. Sonia Werner, a brilliant psychologist and Swedenborgian scholar, made a chart that changed my view of the world and of what church and ministry and following God might mean.
Along one side of the chart she put:
For I was hungry and you fed me
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
I was a stranger and you welcomed me in
I was naked and you clothed me
I was sick and you cared for me, and
I was in prison and you visited me.
Along the other side of the chart she had outlined what Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian mystic and theologian whose teaching our tradition turns to, and outlined what he calls, “the levels of the neighbor.”
So along the top of the chart she wrote:
Spiritual useful services—love toward God and love for the neighbor
Moral and civic services—love for the society in which a person resides
Natural useful services—love of the world and its necessities
Corporal useful services—self-preservation for the sake of higher uses
Dr. Werner’s offering, carried in the Swedenborgian teaching that there is an internal meaning, or layers upon layers of teaching that we can find in the Biblical text. It awoke something in me as it moved from being an edict on what boxes I had to check off to “inherit eternal life,” to a story that Jesus is telling us about how engaging others is how we engage the spiritual life, in an interconnected and multi-layered way.
The intersection of these two series—the natural, mental, emotional, spiritual and the call of Jesus to give food, offer drink, clothe, visit, care, and welcome—are at the core of vision of the Garden Church.
To re-imagine church as an entity that cares about people—mind, body, and spirit—and to be a body that engages individual transformation within the context of communal, societal, and global relationships. Because I really do believe that it is in these actions, of feeding those who are hungry, and clothing those who are naked, and caring for the sick, and so on, that we also find spiritual transformation.
And so when people ask us, “is a church or is it a garden?”, the answer is always, “Yes” because we’re about the transformation of mind, body, and spirit. We’re about the transformation of earth, food, health, and community. They are all intertwined.
Just the way that when Jesus was asked how to inherit eternal life, he didn’t talk about just what you believe, or a certain formula of morality codes, he talked about actions and the way we treat one another as the way we interact with God.
Each of us have sheep and goats in us—ways that we act and engage the world around us from a place of love, wisdom, compassion, and action; and parts of ourselves that look inwards in ways that further our own selfishness and gain. We’re invited to hear this passage not dictating a specific set of delineated instructions that will let us know whether we pass or not. Instead, this story calls out as a herald of the interconnected whole. That the spiritual life is housed in the physical life. That tangible actions of goodness to those around us, are the way that we experience eternal life and where we see the way of Jesus, the face of God, in the world around us.
And so this call to action is not about, “Go, quick go! Sign up for one more ‘helpful’ volunteer opportunity to make sure you get enough points to get into heaven!” I believe it’s calling for something much more profound and beautiful than that. This story calls us to transform the way we see God and see our neighbor. It is telling us that how we interact with the people around us is also our interaction with God. It is telling us that when we look and truly see and connect with the humanity in front of us, we are seeing and connecting with the Divine.
This passage not only calls us to action, to the acts of feeding people, clothing people, engaging those who are imprisoned, and caring for those who are sick. It calls us to something even more profound and transformative. After the first half of this tale, when Jesus lays out these six areas of care, he says that the righteous will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you drink, a stranger and welcome you in, naked and give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or imprisoned and visited you and cared for you?” And Jesus says, “whenever you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it for me.” When we’re doing our own internal work towards compassion and goodness, it changes our external work. When we come together to work and serve with others on the physical level, our hearts and spirits are changed, transformed, saved from the draw to the insular, selfish, materialistic lives that we can all get caught up in.
In a few minutes we’re going to gather around the table and share in the sacred meal, in Communion. We come around the table every time we meet, because at the table we are reminded—in these physical, natural elements of bread and wine—of the profound spiritual realities. We will bless and share the bread and say, “the bread of life” and the cup and say, “the cup of salvation.”
Because in these acts, we remember, we experience the abundance of life and love, and that there is enough for all to feed and be fed. And we remember God’s new covenant that is made with this cup. That transformation, or salvation, for each of us, and all of us, as God is constantly drawing us together, making all things new.
And we come around the table because we look across the table, and we see each other, and the love and wisdom in each other, as we answer God’s call to see precious humanity in each face we meet. We engage these natural elements, bread and wine, flesh and dirt, water and lettuce seeds, because they are the container for the spiritual—as we are the containers for the spiritual. Each of us, the least of these, are interacting with Love Incarnate when we engage flesh and blood.
And we come around the table, to share in this sacred meal, in a spirit of Thanksgiving. This ancient Christian practice of sharing the bread and wine as the Lord did with his last meal while he was on earth has been named throughout traditions as “the Eucharist”—the Great Thanksgiving. And so as we are in a season of collective Thanksgiving, of gratitude and awareness of the abundance, we come together and share this Sacred Meal in remembrance of the love that Jesus calls us to, and in Thanksgiving for that which feeds us to be present in the world.
Because bodies matter. Minds matter. Spirits matter. Relationships matter. Being in communion with one another, with the Divine Love, with our human family, matters. We come around the table every time we meet because we are reminded of the abundance of the love of God and the call to compassionate living between us.
As we follow Jesus call to feed, and nurture, welcome, and accompany each other and our human family in this interconnected web of life. Whatever you did for the least or these, who are members of my family, you do for me. Amen.
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