I Was Hungry and a Stranger

Jesus’ account of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-45 challenges us on several levels. I love the message about seeing him in the faces of those who are suffering and in need. He makes it personal and up close, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison.

The apocalyptic scene and the language about dividing the sheep from the goats is especially hard to grasp. Who are all these nations gathered around the throne of the Human One when he returns with his angels? The Greek phrase is pantes ethnê (translated “all the nations”). It’s a term indicating non-Jews or Gentiles.  Jesus certainly pushes the buttons of those who think they alone are God’s chosen people. He claims that there are many who are welcoming and caring for him even though they don’t realize it. This is mind boggling.

All the needy and powerless people in the world are representatives of Jesus. Today, we see Jesus in the faces of the many refugee children from Syria. We see Jesus when we believe the women who say they were sexually groped and molested by powerful men. Jesus’ solidarity with vulnerable people means that the nations or peoples who recognize and care for them have a relationship with Jesus.

That relationship has nothing to do with technique: believe these things about Jesus and repeat this prayer and you will be saved. Instead, it’s about encountering Jesus in real, caring relationships with those who are insignificant, vulnerable, and hurting. Could it be that many people from other faiths or no faith actually know Jesus better than those of us who easily name his name and claim to be his followers? That’s what he’s telling us.

Jesus’ pronouncement about eternal life and eternal punishment indicates far-reaching consequences, but we should not kick the can down the road to some far-off eternity. How we treat the least of these, our sisters and brothers has pivotal consequences for us and our country right now. For instance, consider the bitter legacy of slavery and how native Americans have been treated in our country. It created a hell that keeps following us. It’s judgment day in America based on how we treat the hungry, recent immigrants, people without adequate healthcare, and those in our overfilled prisons.

What does inheriting the kingdom—God’s new world coming—look like for us. Bringing these vivid images down to where we are, we can say that it looks an awful lot like, “living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone.” And the opposite is—well just that—the opposite.

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We Care

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A slogan on our church sign by the road proclaims that we are, “A Caring Christian Community.” It expresses our desire and hope for the kind of community we want to be. Yet the word “caring” begs to be filled out. I did some research and found three different quotes about caring:

  • This one especially grabbed my attention. “Some people care too much; I think it’s called love”—Winnie the Pooh.
  • Another reminds me of something my former spiritual director would say. “A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there’s a caring, sharing person inside”—Denis Waitley.
  • Yet another is especially appropriate for smaller churches. “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for, indeed, that’s all who ever have”—Margaret Mead.

In what ways are we caring and how is that put into action? Pastor and small church advocate David Ray says there are good reasons why smaller churches are the right size to be caring communities. People come to small churches because they want to be with others rather than to worship in isolation (The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 154).

Smaller churches can take time to care because we don’t need to be fully occupied with keeping the institution running, as is true in larger organizations. If the way we think about our ministry and the way we structure our church life are more relational, we as a people will be more relational. We then have a greater capacity to care for others and to meet the needs of people.

 

 

The Joy of Serving

Cory

Faith in God as our creator and sustainer enables us to live generously and inspires us to serve others with joy. Through serving others, we serve ourselves because we’re all connected in the same web of life. That’s why Jesus told his disciple to stop being so preoccupied about the basic necessities of life. The same God who feeds the sparrow also sustains us.

This raises a fundamental question. Why do we Americans, as citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth, feel so insecure? This sense of insecurity drives both our domestic and our foreign policy. Part of the reason is that most of the wealth in our country is concentrated in the top 1% and the fact that the top 20% are gaining wealth much faster than middle-class, working class, and poor people. Inequality is greater than at any time since the 1920s. But this can’t be the whole reason because even poor people in our country have more resources than many people in other parts of the world.

Structural injustice diminishes all of us—even those who benefit most from it. We need to recognize that such injustice is rooted in a narrative where we tell ourselves that the world is a hostile place and we therefore need to take care of ourselves through all possible means. This story contains lots of fear and insecurity. It’s the opposite of the biblical narrative of gratitude to God as our provider, which flows over into generosity and service.

This is what was going on when James and John approached Jesus with their special request to have positions of power and honor in the new world order they assumed he would inaugurate (Mark 12: 35-45). Talk about crass opportunism. We look out for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder the other disciples were so upset went they caught wind of it. But they were angry for the wrong reason.

They all thought leadership was a matter of domination and control. They had been with Jesus all this time and they still didn’t grasp the truth that true leadership is instead about service. We easily identify with Jesus’ self-absorbed disciples. Like them, we seek places of honor and privilege. Like them we want greatness without pain or hard work. And like them, we can talk a good talk about serving but we don’t want to clean the toilets. We miss the joy of serving.

A lesson I take from this is that our social activism needs to be rooted in service, otherwise it rings hollow. I’m often astounded by all the opportunities for service that surround us. As followers of Jesus, serving others with joy is one of the songs of our heart. The second stanza of the hymn, Will You Let Me be Your Servant, especially speaks to this: “We are pilgrims on a journey; we are travelers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.”

Our Nature Trail by Daniels Run

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An Eagle Scout troop recently built a picnic area by our church garden that overlooks Daniels Run. Then they created a trail through the woods going down along the stream. They worked hard all day to clear invasive plants and brush, build steps out of dead logs, and haul out trash that had been dumped along the stream bank years ago. Finally, they laid down landscape cloth and covered it with mulch to create the picnic area and the walking trail.

People from our church prepared a lunch and helped with the project. The City of Fairfax donated the mulch and hauled away the brush and trash. We all willingly contributed to the project because of our public spirit and our love for our community. We want our city to be walkable and to have plenty of green space that enhances our environment. In the process we learned to know each other and built stronger community relations.

This is part of an ongoing project. During work breaks we discussed the possibility of creating a rain garden to capture rainwater from the street and our church parking lot. We want to extend the nature trail across the stream to connect with an existing trail in our two-acre woods on the other side of the stream. An even bigger dream is to someday create affordable housing (perhaps for people with disabilities) in the area where our church building now stands.

This is related to the song of our heart as a congregation. One stanza of our song is to “embody a faith-based, compassion and social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment.” This vision is still unfolding but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s integrally tied to our location by Daniels Run, that little stream flowing through our church property, which eventually finds its way to the Chesapeake Bay and finally the wide Atlantic Ocean beyond.

There’s spiritual wisdom in our natural environment that we can learn from in our fast-paced Metro DC area. I think of a verse in Wendell Berry’s poem, The Want of Peace:

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire.
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

My hope is that our garden, picnic area, and nature trail by Daniels Run can help us reconnect with the spiritual wisdom found in nature. Another verse in one of Wendell Berry’s poems indicates how our nature trail by Daniels Run can help us find that peace and grace:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
Around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Serving the Homeless in Fairfax

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photo from publiclibrariesonline.org

Our church participates in a hypothermia program in Fairfax that provides shelter for homeless people during the winter months. We’re located several blocks from the public library in the City of Fairfax where many homeless people use library services and facilities. We’re also close to the Lamb Center that provides services to homeless people during daytime hours and a city bus stop is in front of our church.

All this makes our church parking lot a convenient place for vans and busses to pick up and take homeless people to area places of worship that provide shelter and a hot meal each night. Anywhere from 10-30 homeless people gather outside our church or in our lunchroom on a given evening. This is part of an effort organized by a social worker from FACETS, a local nonprofit that serves homeless people. Members of our church take turns being there during evenings when we’re serving homeless people.

This program is an example of the unselfish service provided by faith communities. Four nonprofit agencies, 35 churches, synagogues, and mosques, and about 2,300 volunteers served a little more than 1,000 homeless people in Fairfax County last year. Others of us are part of a coalition advocating for affordable housing with the mayor and city council. Such compassionate service and advocacy tends to go unnoticed yet provides a vital link in the health and welfare of our communities.

I have learned to know various homeless guests as I sit in our lunchroom talking with them while waiting for a van to take them to the church, synagogue, or mosque that will provide shelter on that night. Many suffer from physical handicaps, mental illness, or drug addictions. The loss of a job or a health crisis left them without the financial means to pay for a place to live. Many more people than we realize are only one job or one health crisis away from homelessness.

Hypothermia programs are only Band-Aids, not a long-term solution to homelessness. The goal has to be moving people into affordable permanent housing. “Housing first” initiatives have grown out of the realization that stabilizing other problems becomes much easier when people are able to find a place to live. It also costs municipalities less than having people bounce between jails, emergency rooms, and detoxification facilities.

Our homeless guests tell me what they need most is a job that pays a living wage and an affordable place to live. Some actually juggle several part-time minimum wage jobs. Affordable housing is a huge unmet social need in our community. A big part of the problem is finding places to build such housing in a high-cost metropolitan area like Fairfax. With that in mind, our congregation has begun exploring different alternatives to eventually build affordable housing on part of our church property. We won’t be able to do it ourselves. It will take the combined effort of various private and government resources.