Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Focusing Quote: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” Matthew 25:35
When I was in my junior and senior years in high school, like many people, I went to youth group. During that time I experienced all the things that youth groupers typically do. I participated in the church’s housing ministries. I attended pizza parties and Social Justice projects. I watched movies and packed up textbooks to be sent to relieve cash strapped schools. I prayed and I talked with and listened to the youth minister. However, I never really attended worship.
You see, I was not raised in the church. My church-life was something I made myself. For my family, the highest ideal was service and the way we manifested that ideal was to work and volunteer in the rough and tumble arena of partisan politics. Perhaps this part of my background is why, when I did have religious and spiritual questions, I gravitated less to God in the sanctuary than to God in the outside world. The fact is I liked being on what people call “the margins”. After all, if this quote from Jesus is to be taken seriously, then that isn’t where the margins are at all! In fact, service, social justice, and advocacy are at the center. They are where it’s at.
It is easy to agree with Jesus when we read these lines. It is harder to follow his lead. Our own fear needs to be conquered when visiting the stranger. We must confront our own wealth when giving away clothes and food. We need to be able to forgive when we minister to those who are in literal prisons and find ways to connect to those whose prisons are metaphorical. Service is hard. Jesus’ call is hard. “Perhaps”, I thought, “that is why even when we are well-meaning, it sometimes just seems easier to only go to church on Sunday morning.”
At that time, I saw “regular” church as a place where people went merely to feel good about themselves. Certainly this was the impression of many of the people I knew who did attend regularly. Worship services—they would tell me—are to comfort us. They are to provide a time of calm in a busy week. They are mountains where we go to think or gas stations where we refuel before hitting the highway once again. Worship isn’t the place for action. Action exists on the margin. Reflection rules our Sunday mornings...or so it seemed.
As I have gotten older, however, and have worshipped with a great many congregations (only some of them my own), I think that Jesus is telling us about “formal” Sunday morningworship as well as worshipful service. When I look around the sanctuary, it always seems that the “least of these” are there.
It seems to me that the needs that exist outside the church exist inside it, too. After all, what do we ask a congregation’s members and staff to do for each other? “I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (v. 36). The life of the church differs in this respect to most secular service groups. Yes, we are there to care, to serve, and to help those in need. However, we are also there to do those same things for each other.
Our faith tells us that God is in the world and in the sanctuary. It seems, then, that what we do on Sunday is (or should be) the same as what we do the rest of the week. My friend Liz, for example, pastors a congregation that meets in a public park every week of the year. Many of her church’s members don’t have homes. Others are constantly at risk. It is hot in the summer and brutally cold in winter. Still, they come together because their faith sustains them. Worship for them is an integrated part of their lives.
Does it surprise you that they have provided both service and money to other groups who are in need? They do. The purpose, even for them, is greater than retreat and escape. It is a way to reach out to each other and to the stranger in need of welcoming.
God, I am looking for your face in the faces of those I meet. I am remaining open to your presence in the help I receive. Thankful for their help and for yours, I will press on helping others. I am a traveler in faith and understand that sometimes I get lost without realizing it. I promise, even when I cannot find you, to keep on looking. Amen
“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.” (Matt. 25:45)