Signs of Christ's Coming

From Matthew 25:31-46

Earlier this year, Timothy P. Schmalz’s sculpture "Homeless Jesus" finally found a home, but even now, not all people are welcoming it with open arms.  It was first rejected by cathedrals in New York and Canada before being installed at an Episcopal Church in North Carolina.  The rector of the church describes the sculpture as an evocative combination of beauty, art, and religion:  “It's Jesus representing the most marginalized of society. . . .  We're reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness. Part of a faith commitment is to care or the needy.”

However, others think the sculpture and its placement in the community are in poor taste. One person even called the police the first time she drove by the realistic bronze statue.  She said, “I was concerned for the safety of the neighborhood. . . .  Jesus is not a vagrant.  Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.”

Hmmm.  But regardless of what we might think, this woman is not alone. . . .
We have all seen them.  Sleeping on park benches or under overpasses.  Holding signs and asking for money at intersections.  People who are clearly hungry and malnourished.  People whose clothing is shoddy and doesn’t fit right.  People who can’t seem to hold down a job or have troubles with the law.

What questions come to mind when you see them?  What feelings arise in you? 
Are you able to look those people in the eyes?  Do you know their names?

And what do we do when we are approached by people in need on the street. . . . 
For many of us, this is not an easy topic.

•   What do you do?  Do you give money to people who ask for it?  Or not?
•    Do you trust that your contributions to people will be used for what people say it will be used for— food, shelter, travel?  Or do you imagine it will be used for liquor and drugs? 
•    Do you think it is better to give money to people directly, or do you think it is better to channel contributions to social service agencies that address people’s needs?
•    And where does your faith come into these questions? What does your faith call you to do?

Our scripture reading this morning—again from Matthew 25—challenges us on this point.  Jesus is still sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives telling them stories about the signs of Christ’s coming. . . .  This is Jesus’ final public sermon in the book of Matthew, and it instructs us about the Parousia—the return or the presence of God.  We’ve heard the parables of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Talents—both startling and troubling.  And perhaps, this story is too.  But it is a little different than the first two. . . .   

Here, we’re not given signs of Christ’s coming; we get Matthew’s apocalyptic vision of the Parousia in the form of the last judgment:  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him . . .” Some of you may envision Michelangelo’s interpretation of Matthew’s vision, which he used to create his Sistine Chapel masterpiece, "The Last Judgment"—in vivid detail—complete with images of the saved and the damned, many of whom bore the likeness of Michelangelo’s most liked and disliked contemporaries. . . . 

And similarly but in a very different way, Schmalz’s sculpture "Homeless Jesus" was also inspired by this scripture:  “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.”  It is a representation that suggests that Christ exists with, within, and among the most marginalized in our society.  The Christ figure is shrouded in a blanket, and the only indication that it is Jesus are the visible wounds on the feet. This life-size sculpture has enough room for someone to sit next to it on the bench.  Shmalz says that the sculpture was inspired by a homeless man that he saw lying on the ground before Christmas in 2011. In that poignant moment, he says, “My instinctive thought was, that is Jesus Christ.  I just saw Jesus.”

So, more than casting the presence of God as a great divider, this scripture offers us a profound vision of God’s presence that not only prioritizes the needs of the least among us but that is also located precisely in the least among us:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  God is present, here and now, in places and ways we might not ever expect.  This is the primary message of Matthew 25.  We hear it again and again.

And this message inspired the Social Gospel Movement that worked to bring God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace alive in the world—here and now.  The Social Gospel argued that the selfishness of capitalism had to be challenged and that cooperative economics had to be championed—that Christian ethics had to meet the depths of human suffering and had to offer liberating compassion to all those who had fallen victim to the brokenness of economic systems—including those faced with poverty, alcoholism, crime, child labor, poor schools, racial tensions, inadequate labor unions, and war. 

The Social Gospel considers work to improve the social conditions of others a primary responsibility of faith.  And the message of the Social Gospel continues to inspire people today.  It inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders.  It inspired Gustavo Gutierrez and other liberation theologians.  It inspired religious involvement in the Occupy Movements that took place in this country and around the world.  And I would argue that—stated or not—it inspires our investment in Common Ground and other community organizing efforts.  By advocating a present and abiding “kingdom of God,” the Social Gospel promotes a prophetic, future-focused ideology and a revolutionary, social and political force that judges all creation to be sacred and actively works to transform problematic aspects of the social order.

Liberation theologies take aspects of the Social Gospel and argue that God has a preferential option for the poor.  And the questions that, then, present themselves are

 •    What does that preferential option for the poor look like?
 •    Where do we human beings fit into that preferential option? What are our responsibilities?
 •    And in this scenario, how much agency do the poor have?
 •    Are the poor merely acted upon?  Or do they also have the power to act? 
 •    Do the poor just need?  Or do the poor also give?

And the fact of the matter is that each and every human being has the ability to give and the need to receive.  We are, each one, called to feed others, and we are in need of someone to feed us.  We are charged to give someone something to drink and in need of someone to quench our own thirst.  We are challenged to welcome the stranger in our midst and yearning for someone to see and love those parts of us that we hide or are ashamed of.  We are capable of offering clothing and shelter to those without and wondering if someone cares enough to protect our own vulnerabilities.  We are charged to care for the weak, burdened, and disenfranchised and desperately wanting someone to care for us in our own weakness and helplessness.

We all need, and we all can give.  We are all rich, and we are all poor.  God has a preferential option for all of us.  God recognizes us and is—always—located among us…  The need—those who have the need—and those who supply the need are all part of who God is.

These are all intricately interrelated, and this something important to realize about this scripture passage:  it is not necessarily encouraging or suggesting that we engage in altruistic projects.  It is not telling us whether or not we should hand out money on the street.  It is saying that acknowledging this interrelationship—between the need, those who have the need, and those capable of supplying the need—is the essential, faithful response to the world around us—which ultimately requires that we all get our hands dirty.  Which ultimately requires that we take a long hard look at how our faith and worldview inform our behaviors, social action, and understanding of ethics.  Which ultimately requires that we willingly accept that we are all implicated in the predicaments of hunger, loneliness, sickness, and crime.  

This scripture invites us to see all of these needs, responsibilities, and relationships as signs of Christ’s presence among us.  We are not to be intimidated by the aura of exclusion, powerlessness, and marginalization that surrounds the needy; we are to welcome the opportunities to share.  We are called to celebrate abundance.

Isn’t that what this thanksgiving season is really all about, anyway?  Hasn’t Matthew 25—and the signs offered for Christ’s coming—been telling us that money and resources are ultimately sources of energy capable of powering compassion and openness and possibility in this community and around the world?  And this is certainly something to be thankful about.  We have endless opportunities to make a difference in the world. 

Let it be so!  Amen.


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