If you ever happen to find yourself at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s a tale you might hear about two young women and their first preaching course. They were given an assignment – to read the story about the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed. They weren’t to read this story in their rooms, or on campus, or anywhere they knew well. They were told to get out of their comfort zones, to go somewhere that would open up this story and make them see it in a new light.
The two women came up with a plan. They decided they would dress in the schlubbiest of clothing, sweats, ratty t-shirts, and go to the Ritz Carleton in downtown Atlanta for high tea. There they would sit amid the luxury, the elite, and read their story of the outcast woman who dared so much because of her faith. So they went, they sat, and they read. What happened next has been embellished on over the years. At first people said they were just asked to leave. Then people started saying they were escorted out of the building by large bellhops. In the last version I heard the two women were arrested – on what charges I don’t know – and their preaching professor had to come bail them out.
Given the way stories grow, it shouldn’t surprise any of you to learn that none of what is said around the seminary campus is true. What really happened was a lot less exciting. My friend Teri and I sat in the Ritz for an hour, felt uncomfortable, and while we got the occasional odd look, no one called the cops. Along with a story that has been retold and embellished upon many times over, we came away from that experience with a firm belief that to truly understand scripture, you have to live with it and let it take you to unknown and uncomfortable places.
Funny things happen when you live with a text. In my own home I can read this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and nod my head, think “yes, yes,” thankful for so much – I have food on my table, warm clothes to wear, great doctors to help keep my body health, a favorite coffee shop that keeps me in good drink. With so much to be thankful for, I can get on board the “don’t worry, be happy” train so many who read this text endorse. Surely the Father does indeed know what I need and gives them to me. In our comfortable homes, surrounded by those who love us and bounty we can be thankful for, this scripture can be pleasant, even easy.
But if you take this scripture outside of your home, outside of the places you are comfortable, let it take YOU places, it may not be so pleasant or easy. Try reading this scripture amid the homeless and the hungry. Think of “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” when you’re watching someone in a threadbare coat diving through trash to find something to eat.
Lilies of the field may be beautifully clothed, may not toil or spin, but they don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, lonely, cold. They don’t know what it’s like to be made to feel ashamed because your family Thanksgiving dinner is at a local soup kitchen because you can’t provide a meal at home.
Truly, it is one thing to read about the birds in the sky when your Thanksgiving table is covered with more mashed potatoes than would be humanly possible to eat, cranberry sauce that comes alive in your mouth, turkey and stuffing so rich and moist you can’t help but give thanks. I would imagine your glorias might sound a little different if what you’re giving thanks for is that you found enough food to keep you going, for at least another day.
When Jesus’ words are brought to a place where people have nothing, the “don’t worry, be happy” reading doesn’t hold. Too many times in our church’s – that is with a capital C – history, people of faith have been told and have told others not to worry about their state in life, but to strive for God’s righteousness. The here and now isn’t important – it is your salvation, or the kingdom, or heaven you need to focus on. Don’t worry that you have nothing in your belly, nothing to feed your children with – focus on this far-off kingdom.
Too often this way of thinking, of reading such scripture, has been used to promote complacency toward injustice. Too often scripture has been used to excuse turning a blind eye to the poor. We’re on a mission to save souls, not bodies! Let these poor strive for righteousness and they’ll get everything they need. They’ll find their eternal salvation. No need to worry about what they will eat, or drink, or wear.
I cannot imagine that the God who calls us to look out for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the Lord who promises that “you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God,” has no concern for whether or not God’s children have food and drink. That the Christ who tells us that those who offer food, drink, clothing, compassion will sit at his right hand would be a Christ who is telling us not to give a care to those needs.
Indeed, I understand that the Lord who tells the soil, the animals of the field, not to fear, the Lord who has promised God’s people abundant rains and grain DOES care about our existence in this world. Our Lord is one who longs for us all to be in plenty and be satisfied, to not be put to the shame of want or need. Indeed, our God is one who points to this world and says, if I can care so much for that which has no mouth to praise me, no hearts to serve me, for that which is here to today but gone tomorrow, don’t you know how much more I care for you?
At various times in our Church’s history, we have been taught and have taught “try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest.” That’s not the kingdom Christ spoke of, not the only salvation he brought. The kingdom of God Christ commands us to put first, to strive for is a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of equality, a kingdom of righteousness. A kingdom where all people have food on their plate, where they have drink, clothing, joy aplenty. Where none fear, none worry, none feel shame.
We have been giving the astounding gift of being the body of Christ. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, once said that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, ours are the only hands with which he can do his work, ours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, ours are the only eyes with which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. We gather here tonight from various churches, traditions, to affirm that even with our differences, we ARE one, WE are the body of Christ. As this body, we are called to work for God in the world.
If God loves the birds of the air enough to feed them, then surely God loves each human being enough to keep in food, clothing, shelter. If Christ’s hands are our hands, Christ’s feet our feet, eyes our eyes, then surely we are called to feed, cloth, shelter. Surely we will strive for the kingdom on earth where all live in God’s righteousness, all will know justice and freedom.
I know that each church family represented here tonight works towards caring for the poor among us. We work in soup kitchens, we give money or cans to the food pantry, we build houses. Together as the body of Christ, we do even more. SACRA – the organization our offering is going to – finds many different churches joining together resources and time to help those in need in our area. In our own churches and together, we try to ease the burden of poverty for those in our midst. We may give thanks for that work, for servant hearts filled with love for those in need.
We may also give thanks that God has called us to even more. It is good to care for people, to make sure they have food and clothing, to meet their needs. But that is not all we have been called to. God has given us the opportunity to strive for the kingdom – this kingdom of God where none would go hungry, none would be naked, none thirst. We have been given a greater calling and vision than “what will we eat or drink or wear.” In striving for the kingdom of God, we have been given both the opportunity and the responsibility to strive for a world where such questions do not exist. To strive for a world where none would live in poverty, none go without. We must use our voices to speak for those in need, must work in our churches, our cities, our nation to fight for justice. We have been given an awesome opportunity and we must take it.
As we celebrate all the wonderful things we may be thankful for, let us remember this calling. For though it may seem an awesome task, and it is, how great is our God that we could have such a task. How thankful we may be that our God is a God who promises we will eat in plenty and be satisfied, that God’s people will never again be put to shame. How thankful we may be that not only are those promises for us, but as the body of Christ God may use us to fulfill those promises. Glory be to God. Amen.