Beyond Welfare

Listen here.

This is the week when I am supposed to preach a hard-hitting sermon, telling you to get off your butts and roll up your sleeves. Start a soup kitchen! House the homeless! Run a drop-in centre! Start a free medical clinic! And if you don’t … judgement awaits. But I won’t go there. Because many of you have been down that road, and you have burned out. It’s not that those things aren’t important—they are!—but that I don’t think that this work is the point of tonight’s passage. For welfare and overseas development agencies can only do so much. They can fill a stomach, or tackle addiction, or provide accommodation; but if we truly want to see people made whole, then we need something more. 

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus tells his disciples to feed the hungry and visit the prisoner, he’s not talking about building bureaucracies. Instead, he is talking about providing hospitality. Sitting at the same table, and sharing what we have. Visiting the bedside of a sick friend, and praying with them, and sticking around no matter how long they are ill. Never abandoning people, even when they go to prison. Welfare agencies outsource care; they are necessary when communal life has broken down. But Jesus Christ shows us the way to life together, a way of community, a way which provides the loving acceptance and strong, stable relationships that people need to heal their deepest wounds.

But if it’s not about welfare and our failure to perform it, what’s the judgement of the nations about? Let’s go back to the scene. It opens with a vision of Jesus Christ, the Human One, sitting on the throne of glory, with “all the nations … gathered before him…” In other words, the judgement, or discernment, is not directed at individuals. Instead, it’s about groups of people. The Greek word, ‘ethnos’, is usually translated as ‘nation’, but it isn’t limited to what we think of as a politically-defined nation. Ethnos can refer to any group of people who share a common culture and common traditions.

Every classroom, every sports club, every street, every church, every town, has a distinct personality: so each of them forms an ethnos. A people-group. And it is the people-groups which will be judged. Does the people-group value wealth, power, and insider status? Does it tolerate, even encourage, violence? Does it ignore, oppress, or exploit its most vulnerable members? Does it enforce strong group boundaries? If the answer is ‘yes’ to questions like these, then that people-group will face the fire. Perhaps it will be the blazing fire of riots, revolution, or regular mass shootings; or perhaps it will be the ice-cold fire of narcissism, isolation, and loneliness. Whichever it is, the consequences of its culture and tradition will be devastating.

Another people-group, another ethnos, might develop a different culture: a culture with Christ at its head. Such an ethnos might value non-violence and compassion. It might seek to serve its most vulnerable members. It might reach out beyond porous and ever-expanding boundaries to others in need of what it can offer. It might welcome the stranger, and learn to love them as one of its own. Such an ethnos will also face natural consequences: quite possibly, persecution by the wider culture: but certainly the inheritance of the kingdom: an abundant creation, a generous community, in which there is enough for all.

We’ve been forming the ethnos we call Sanctuary for a bit over a year now. So far, we have focussed on healing old wounds; tending to spiritual hunger and thirst; and seeking freedom from toxic prisons of hyper-individualism, guilt, and fear. Sooner or later, however, we will be welcoming people who are physically hungry and thirsty, completely broke, chronically ill, and facing jail. For those of us who have experienced burnout before, this is deeply challenging. When the time comes, what are we going to do?

Well, we’re already rehearsing. We already eat and drink together, and listen to the Scriptures and pray; we already care for one another, cooking for each other when we’re sick, and praying for each other when we’re in court; we’re already trying to love one another, forgive each other’s faults, and build one another up; and we’re already doing these things in the company of Christ. And if we keep practicing being a loving, connected, hospitable people-group, grounded in Christ, focussed on sustaining, healing, and liberating, and committed to peace and justice, a few things can happen.

We might be given the grace and the wherewithal to welcome each stranger with open arms, and to form the long-term relationships in which they, and we, are transformed. For when we relate to the stranger not as caregiver-client, but as brother, sister, their suffering becomes our suffering; and their healing, our own. We will be pushed beyond charity, and into relationship.

We might also be pushed to agitate for systemic institutional change. We will support each other in that work also; but we will do so knowing that the forces of the wider ethnos are ranged against us—and within us. And so our most powerful cultural critique will always be in how we model a new ethnos. If we let ourselves become a lovingly connected people-group which welcomes others, and is continually shaped and renewed by the Spirit, and if we do that not only here, but as much as possible live that culture in our homes and our classrooms and our work places, then we can be a conduit for change. Despite our flaws and frailty, by our very existence we will gently challenge other people-groups, other cultures; and we will do so standing humbly beside our friend and brother, Christ the King.

So let us allow Christ to form us into his ethnos. Let us become a sign of the kingdom, and God’s new age. And, wherever we go, and in whatever we do, let us be bearers of God’s renewed creation, in which there is enough food, and freedom, and love, for everyone. Not just us. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 26 November 2017 (AP29). Image shows Schmalz, Timothy P.. Homeless Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56183 [retrieved November 25, 2017]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/orangegreenblue/8687493418.

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