Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sheep and Goats

How often have I walked past that homeless man panhandling? How often have I driven by the person sitting on the curb at the busy intersection? How often have I automatically dismissed the person calling the church asking for help with rent or overnight lodging? Too often I must confess.

And the times when I have tried to help, it seems, I feel like I have been conned - taken advantage of.

So I read passages like Matthew 25 where Jesus speaks about judgment when he returns in glory and I am reminded that the response I make to the poor, the hungry, the weak, the lonely and homeless, the sick and the imprisioned are more important to the Son of Man than the number of times I have attended church. The Lord is more aware of the help I give in his name to those who really need it than he is of how much I give to the church.

I don't like passages like this. They slap me in the face like icy, cold water; they shake me from my complacency and self-righteousness...especially when I have to preach them to others. One thing I have learned in my years of ministry is that the Lord never lets me preach a lesson he has not given me clear opportunity to learn for myself.

Once again this week, as I prepared a message about serving others in Jesus' name, I re-luctantly answered a phone call from someone calling, asking for help with housing, and mainly, to express frustration with all the avenues of help they had tried and been denied or passed on to another agency. All the regular excuses went through my mind: "I'm too busy. After all I am preparing a sermon exhorting my congregation to serve sacrificially" or the ever popular, "I am being conned. This couple just wants help to support a bad habit or to bail them out from the bad choices they have made."

But I listened anyway. And the longer I listened, the more my heart was softened to the frustrating plight of those - especially in our difficult economy and crumbling mortgage/foreclosure atmosphere - who are struggling to keep their families just one step ahead of homelessness or hunger.

As it turned out, this couple mainly wanted someone to listen; someone to care. I am not sure our conversation helped. I know my attitude was less than Christ-like as the conversation began. Hopefully, as we talked, my skepticism loosened and the strategies we discussed will be helpful to their getting real, systemic help - the help that they need.

Last night at church, I was humbled as I listened to the stories that cascaded forth from congregation members who wanted to share stories of how they had reached out to others in need. Two common threads were clear. 1)There is more blessing received when we help than that which we give, and 2) one of the most important things we can give is ourselves. A listening ear, a personal contact, a relationship - no matter how cursory - are the ways God uses his people to bless others.

Another thing became clear. Not only are we Christians the hands and feet of Christ in the world, the Lord shows himself to us through the faces, names and needs of "the least of these his brothers and sisters. When we feed the hungry, or welcome the stranger, or look after the sick and imprisoned, it as though we are really doing these things for Christ. The "least" become Christ to us, to stretch, challenge, and soften us.

Am I a sheep, one of Christ's flock who follow him unconditionally? I'm working on it. How about you?

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