Toorak Uniting Church

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On Giving and Receiving

Matthew 25: 31 – 46
Rev. Beth Hancock
23 November 2008

A few words about myself... I’m engaged in ministry within the Synod’s Mission Participation Resource Unit. Our role is to help congregations discern and engage in the particular mission to which God is calling them. We believe that God has a mission. According to the Basis of Union para 3 that mission is to bring about the reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation. That’s what is meant when we talk about the ‘Kingdom of God’. Jesus was sent to reveal they way in which this reconciliation would come about. This is articulated in many places throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel names 6 marks of the Kingdom…

The goal of God’s mission is the wholeness of all creation. The church’s purpose or vocation is to be a partner to God’s mission in the world. That’s what this passage from Matthew is calling us to. If our communal and individual lives are not contributing to the feeding of the hungry, the welcome of the stranger, the healing of the sick or the liberation of the captive, then we are not playing our part in God’s mission.

The very last words of Matthew’s gospel are a charge to the church… a sending out into the world…

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…

And what has Jesus been teaching them… to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, heal the sick and release the captive…

However, if we are to respond to the Spirit’s call to God’s mission in the world, churches and Christians must make the ministry of Jesus Christ central and real today. The way we do that is through pursuing liberating, reconciling and restorative relationships with our neighbours – be they members of our family, friends, our local neighbourhood, community organisations or work mates. This is our Christian calling, our vocation.

The work of the Mission Participation Unit is to resource congregations, presbyteries and the synod so that we may better participate in God’s mission in the world. It’s kingdom work for the King of Kings.

In an article in the Seasons of the Spirit material for this Sunday, Todd Billings recounts an encounter with a homeless person that made him stop and think about how we go about engaging with our neighbour…

"I was just at church, and they were praying for the homeless," Larry said, holding the day’s belongings in a bag beside him. As the subway screeched to a halt, I heard him quip, "I decided that I should pray for the housed." Larry was sick of handouts, sick of condescension. To Larry, as a long-time guest at the homeless shelter at which I worked, Christian compassion seemed little more than a masquerade, a power trip for those fortunate enough to be in the seat of the "giver" rather than the "receiver".

Matthew 25 seems to insist that when one helps the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner – the "least of these" – then "you did it for me", for Christ. But how is this scripture passage to be lived out? How do we minister to Larry, who is tired of being "clothed" and "fed" by Christians who are all too aware of their good deeds?

In answer to this question Todd Billings takes us back to fourth century Cappadocia – a region of Asia Minor, located in what is today Eastern Turkey. In the fourth century, a famine struck Cappadocia bringing with it hunger disease and much suffering. The Church leaders – Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa – wondered how best the Church could respond to the tragedy.

Basil decided to challenge the rich, who he said "would rather burst themselves eating than leave a crumb for the hungry." He challenged them to empty their storehouses and give to the poor. He wrote "Give, therefore; don’t market it or keep the grain in the storehouses. Tell me, what good are heavy purses? You and all your wealth will share one death."

While Basil’s challenge to the wealthy to share with the poor was important and necessary, his brother Gregory had a different approach. Gregory’s idea provides a way of embodying Matthew 25 that comes closer to addressing Larry’s concern. Gregory’s main concern was how to respond to the outcast. In Cappadocia at that time, leprosy was rife. For medical and social reasons people suffering from leprosy were alienated. People believed that touching a leper would result in contamination. So lepers must be separated from the healthy community. Those who give charitably were do so at a distance. They were to give handouts of food and clothing, out of pity for the sufferers… but at a distance.

My experience is that much of what we call ‘mission’ is still like that. For the past three years I’ve been working with the UCAF - a wonderful organisation of mainly older women, who for decades have worked to raise awareness of the needs of the poor and stranger. Together they have raised millions of dollars to give to missionaries and other charitable causes… and that doesn’t take into account thousands of singlets knitted for Aids babies in Africa, or rugs crocheted for victims of floods in Queensland, or back packs filled with school books to go to the South Pacific.

My own congregation holds a fete each year that raises in excess of thirty thousand dollars to be given to worthy causes. A neighbouring congregation has a similar outreach project. These are all worthy accomplishments and go a long way towards feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick and liberating the captive. But does it welcome the stranger? Does it really help people like Larry to feel that they belong? That they are honoured? That they have a place in God’s Kingdom?

So what did Gregory do? He started by trying to break down the distance between the healthy and the diseased. He maintained that rather than just seeing the sick and deformed limbs of lepers, we should recognise the common humanity we share with those who suffer. We all share the same human nature. Thus, to condemn the sick and the starving is to condemn the body, to condemn one’s own self.

Moreover, Gregory argued that the ‘healthy’ should realise that they are not so healthy after all. Drawing on Matthew 25, Gregory reversed the idea of leprosy as a disease that will contaminate others. On the contrary, to touch a leper is to take step toward healing. Encountering a leper is not a threat, but a life-giving opportunity. He wrote "If we wish to heal the wounds by which our sins have afflicted us, heal today the ulcers which break down their flesh." In other words, he was arguing that those who assist the lepers may receive healing of their own ‘diseases’ brought on by wealth and greed. In this way the church needs contact with lepers in order to cure spiritual diseases. Yet lepers also need contact with the healthy to relieve their own very physical suffering. So rather than just giving a handout and treating the poor as a mysterious ‘other’, Gregory shows us how Matthew 25 offers a picture of fellowship and mutual interdependence.

You see what’s wrong with the practice of ‘mission at a distance’… raising money for the mission field, knitting for Africa, and filling back packs with books is that it lacks engagement with the people we’re wanting to help. We can sit in our homes or in our fellowship group or in our local congregation and give generously, even sacrificially, to the poor. We are comfortable and it makes us feel good. But is it healing? Is it truly life-giving? For them or for us?

Larry would answer "No". People like Larry are sick and tired of being treated as "poor", "homeless", objects of pity. Larry wants help in taking care of his needs for shelter and food, but he also wants to be treated as a person, one who can befriend and who can give as he receives. Gregory shows us how Matthew 25 need not lead to condescending pity. It can do the opposite. It can waken an apathetic church to realise that it needs to touch the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner if it is to have its own spiritual diseases healed.

Earlier this year two of my colleagues, Adrian Pyle and John Emmett, visited St Gregory of Nyssa… the church. This Episcopal Church is situated in the heart of San Francisco. It’s a typical Anglo-Catholic Church with bells and smells and colourful umbrellas. John tells me that the umbrellas are a quaint tradition stretching back to Byzantine times when they were used to keep the hot Cappadocian sun from beating down on the bishop’s head.

The sanctuary is a large, high ceilinged, octagonal space. Masses of windows make it airey and light. Where there are no windows, the walls are covered with an amazing frescoe… an icon of 100 dancing saints, ancient and modern. Charles Wesley is featured as well as Dieterich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa. The only item of furniture is the large table placed right in the centre of the sanctuary. The Eucharistic meal is the heart of this community’s life.

The church is in a very poor neighbourhood… and sees this as being exactly where God has called them to be. It’s mission statement… "St Gregory’s Church invites people to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance to Jesus’ lead and to become God’s friends."

All kinds of people have found a welcoming home at St Gregory’s… homeless and well-housed, olders and youngers, people of different ethnic backgrounds or sexualities, addicts… all sorts of people.

Each Sunday this diverse congregation gathers around the communion table. Here they share the bread and wine – signs of reconciliation - and are commissioned to be the body of Christ in their neighbourhood. Following the service, the communion elements are cleared away and morning tea is brought in and placed on the communion table. Sharing fellowship and conversation is also part of the Eucharistic feast. Later the morning tea is removed to be replaced by the gifts of food for distribution through the food pantry during the week.

On two days each week the sanctuary is filled with 5-6 tons of donated fresh goods for distribution to some 500 hungry folk. The communion table is at the heart of this community’s mission.

An important aspect to this mission is the engagement of the congregation with those who come needing help. Volunteers include members of the congregation but also many who have come for help, found a welcome and stayed on to help others. Sara Miles, director of the Food Pantry, calls this ‘Church of the One True Sack of Groceries".

Sara Miles was an atheist until she wandered into St Gregory’s one Sunday and found her deep spiritual hunger satisfied when ‘a woman put a piece of fresh bread in my hand and gave me a goblet of some rather nasty, sweet wine." She says, "I think what I discovered in that moment when I put the bread in my mouth and was so blown away by the reality of Jesus, was that the requirement for faith turned out not to be believing in a doctrine, or knowing how to behave in a church, or being the right kind of person, or being raised correctly, or repeating the rituals. The requirement for faith seemed to be hunger. It was the hunger that I had always had and the willingness to be fed by something I didn’t understand."

Like their patron saint, the congregation at St Gregory’s have discovered that the way to break down the polarities between "givers" and "receivers" is to come close to one another – recognising our common humanity – and then realise that God wants us to sit together at the table of the kingdom. We are all hungry, so let’s serve one another at that table. But to do that, we have to have the humility to realise our need and to receive from the hungry, the stranger, and the outcasts among us.

© Rev. Beth Hancock, 2008


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