Monday, November 14, 2011

Clothing Christ

This sermon was preached at Verona United Methodist Church in Verona, NJ, for a celebration of their knitting ministry. We dedicated 92 hand-made scarves, hats, and mittens that were knitted and sewn for the needy in Irvington, NJ. The items will be taken down to the community center on Saturday, November 19, when this church serves a home-cooked Thanksgiving feast. It is not my best sermon, and many of you will have read the story about my experience as a chaplain in the behavioral health unit before, but I wanted to post the sermon because it was just a great experience to be in that church! Hopefully once this semester is over, I will be posting more often and maybe not all sermons! We'll see, though...

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46 1

I am reading from the Cotton Patch Gospel this morning, which is a modern paraphrase of the bible with a “Southern accent,” written by Clarence Jordan, a Greek scholar and organic farmer who helped inspire the creation of Habitat for Humanity. I figured many of us have heard this scripture many times before, so I thought it might be refreshing to read it in a new way.

"When the son of man starts his revolution with all his band around him, then he will assume authority. And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will sort them out, like a farmer separating his cows from his hogs, penning the cows on the right and the hogs on the left. Then the Leader of the Movement will say to those on his right, 'Come you pride of my Father, share in the Movement that was set up for you since creation; for I was hungry and you shared your food with me, I was thirsty and you shared your water with me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, ragged and you clothed me, sick and you nursed me; I was in jail, and you stood by me.' Then the people of justice will answer, 'Sir, when did we see you hungry and share our food, or thirsty and share our water? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or ragged and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in jail, and stand by you?' And the Leader of the Movement will reply, 'When you did it to one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Get away from me, you fallen skunks, and into the flaming hell reserved for the Confuser and his crowd. For I was hungry and you shared nothing with me; I was thirsty and you gave me no water; I was a stranger and you didn't welcome me, ragged and you didn't clothe me, sick and in jail, and you didn't stand by me.' Then these too will ask, 'Sir, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or ragged or sick or in jail, and do nothing about your needs?' Then he'll answer, 'When you failed one of these humblest people you failed me.' These will take an awful beating, while the just ones will have the joy of living."

Sermon: Clothing Christ

I just want to let all of you know that I am honored to be here with you this morning in this absolutely gorgeous sanctuary and on such a special day in the life of your church. I am deeply appreciative of your welcome to me this morning.

So will you pray with me?

Patient Teacher,
you who have knit us together as one Body, grant that this morning we may see that connection between us, that you may speak to us through this scripture, the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, so we might better live out your teachings. Amen.

One of my best friends since high school, Laura, decided to take up knitting probably five years or so ago. Her first project was to knit me a scarf. To this day, it is my favorite scarf--- and I have a ton of scarves, let me tell you. But this one, this one that Laura made, is the warmest scarf I own, it is a beautiful color purple, it is soft--- and there is magic, I think, in something that a friend's hand makes for you. When I put on this scarf, I know that someone loves me enough to keep me warm; and when the sting of winter wind hits me so hard I can't breathe, I duck down my mouth under my scarf, tuck it tighter into my coat, and thank God for that reminder of love. And I'm sure Laura has no idea that that little scarf, the first one she knit for anybody, means that much to me. So when I heard about the work that your church does with its knitting ministry, I was touched. How beautiful, I thought, this is a tangible reminder of the warmth of God's love.

See, we live in a world today where that warmth is not easily accessible to so many of us. Our Gospel lesson this morning puts in stark contrast two world views, the way of justice and the way of injustice. Now I know I may have lost some of you here. We were just talking about warmth and love and then I start talking about justice? Some people might think it strange to talk about justice, when the word often conjures up images of the criminal justice system with scary courtrooms and stern-faced judges, hand in hand with the word love as rather strange. Even though we think about justice as a good thing, we certainly don't think about it as love. But as American philosopher and Civil Rights activist Cornell West points out, "Justice is what love looks like in public." And that is what this morning's gospel lesson is getting at. Jesus names those on his right, the sheep, or as Clarence Jordan paraphrases it, the cows, as people of justice.

See justice dictates that we are to share food with the hungry, drink with the thirsty, we are to welcome the stranger, clothe the ragged, care for the sick; and we are to support those in prison. Injustice obscures our connections to one another and focuses on greed and self-preservation, trying to keep the warmth of our love to ourselves as Rainbow Fish in our children's story this morning tried to keep his scales to himself.

So one important piece in this gospel lesson this morning is that desire to reach out with the warmth of God's love is what separates the sheep from the goats, or, as Clarence Jordan paraphrases it, the cows from the hogs. These specific acts of sharing, standing up with, welcoming, are acts of love towards our neighbor, warmth poured out of us. These public acts of love like knitting scarves and placing them over the necks of those without homes in Irvington is a public act that says, we care about you and God does too, and so we are going to do something to change your situation. There is a power in that similar to but way more powerful then the magic that I see in the scarf my friend knit for me.

I don't know if you noticed this morning, but Clarence Jordan instead of talking about a king as it is usually translated, refers to Jesus as the Leader of a Movement. Aaron, my partner, did not like this paraphrase, and maybe you don't either, but hear me out. The word Movement is Clarence Jordan's translation of the kingdom of heaven. I really like that because I think it reminds us that it is these little things like knitting scarves to clothe the ragged and serving at soup kitchens to feed the hungry are little actions that can build up this Movement that is the kingdom of God, moving us all towards a different way of living that God is calling us to live and that is described in the scripture we read this morning.

Christ in our gospel lesson today does not talk about love and warmth. He does not even talk about how when we act with love towards our neighbors we are in fact channeling God's love, being agents of God's love. I have read that into the scripture using my own experience to understand how the physicality of making scarves to clothe the ragged is such a powerful act of love. What Christ focuses on in the telling of this story is not the love, though; he focuses, rather on how when you clothe the ragged, you are clothing Christ. You may be acting with God's love, but what Christ wants to highlight in his story is not whose love you are acting with but that the person who you are loving is Christ. "When you did it to one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me."

I work with Pastor Sharon in the student chaplaincy program at Overlook hospital in Summit, which is how I come to you now this morning, and it is there that I have learned a lot about seeing Christ in others. One of the floors where I serve as chaplain is the psyche ward, the behavioral health unit. This is an important ministry to me because even though all of our families are touched in some way by mental health issues, too often we look upon those people who are sick as weak, as scary, as worthless. To love them then becomes an important public statement that we see all people as beloved of God.

My first day in the behavioral health unit, though, I struggled with realizing this love because I was so nervous. I had stopped in, one of the nurses asked who wanted to speak with me, and everyone responded with resounding no's. So, instead of sitting with folks and being for a few moments, I escaped easily, promising half-heartedly to return later. When I did, I did not announce myself, I just said hi to folks watching the TV, wandered down the hallway, and just when I was about to leave again, decided to first go through the dining room/game room area. A young man was in there, and we greeted each other. He was collecting board game pieces, monopoly money, Life cards, and so I assumed he was manic, unable to sit still, and probably not capable of holding a conversation. I wrote him off.

But I smiled at him, said hello, and started to walk away, and then he asked me where I was from. I turned back and sat down next to him. He proceeded to tell me about himself, where he was from, what he studied, a little of what brought him to the behavioral health unit. He was, in fact, bipolar, and a recovering alcoholic, and he spoke plainly to me about the program and how much of its merit to him was that he saw examples of what he did not want to become. I was shamed for walking by him without seeing him as a valuable person--- even though this is my job, right?---, but apparently I was not shamed enough. When I was leaving I asked him if he would mind if I kept him in prayer. He said of course he wouldn't mind, and as I got up to leave and started to turn my back he said that he would be keeping me in prayer as well.

Here I was on the behavioral health unit surrounded by what Clarence Jordan calls one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of Christ, and what many of you may know as “the least of these,” people struggling with mental health issues, often abandoned by family and friends and seen as bad people or even lepers in a way. I was trying so hard to bring the warmth of God's love to these people, but as is apparent from this story I missed the mark completely. Instead this young man in the behavioral health unit was Christ to me. He was witness to Christ's of healing, forgiveness, renewal, all wrapped into one stark sentence, "I'll be praying for you too."

This is why the justice work of sharing food and drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the ragged, caring for the sick, and standing with those in prison is so important. It is more than just that we should show others the love of God through out justice work, it is that we are showing God our love and leaving ourselves vulnerable to learning from God through people society sees as worthless. I connected with that young man, gave him the opportunity to reflect aloud about how he was healing over his time in the behavioral health unit, reminded him of his own worth just by talking with him after I got over my initial culturally enforced response to ignore him, and I still pray for him. But all of that work I did did not come close to the gift he gave me of his prayers. I knew Christ in him.

When you give your scarves to people in Irvington, do you know Christ in them? When I told my roommate, also a seminarian, about your ministry of clothing the ragged with beautiful, hand-knit scarves, she immediately began to think about what else cloths are used for in the bible and thought of the swaddling cloths that baby Jesus was wrapped in. I thought that was a beautiful image to think about as we come into Advent in a few weeks. Have you ever thought about how these scarves are dressing Christ as those swaddling cloths did in the manger on that first Christmas? It is a question that maybe we should consider as we dedicate these scarves later this morning.

Seeing ourselves as serving the Christ in all people may be a daunting prospect though. As a young person, I have often been taught to understand what the church values to be the boring, the chaste, the goody-two-shoes thing to do. That is unfortunately the way my generation characterizes Christian work. Many of you from other generations may more easily see the joy inherent in this work, but that is sadly not common among people my age. For me, though, I don't think you can read this mandate to share food and drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the ragged, care for the sick, and stand with those in prison and think of it as boring work. Instead, and many of you may agree with this even if we aren't from the same generation, this is scary work. Seeing Christ in everyone means getting dirty, it means owning up to your own prejudices as I had to after I tried to walk past the young man in the behavioral health unit. But ultimately, and Clarence Jordan catches this in his paraphrase of the last verse of our Gospel reading this morning: the just ones will have the joy of living. The work of seeing the Christ in everyone may be scary, but it will move us towards a better way of living, a more abundant way of living.

The kingdom of God, the Movement with a capital M that Clarence Jordan writes of, is not about giving us this checklist: yes, my church has a soup kitchen so we feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty; yes, my church is very friendly, we welcome new people; yes, we knit scarves so we clothe the ragged; yes, our own minister serves as a chaplain at the hospital so we care for the sick; and sure, there are some folks in prison we love and support. We can't just check those things off, say we followed the rules, and call it a day. No, this passage points to a way of living that is so abundant that we can't not knit scarves and think with love of those people who will receive them as Christ in our lives. It is about loving big and opening ourselves even bigger to the mystery that is God's love in our lives.

Let us pray,

Holy One,
We ask that you help us keep our eyes ever open for your presence among us. Especially today, we ask that we remember as we dedicate these scarves that we are a people who are clothing Christ among us. And help us to live into this Movement of abundant love to which you have called us. In the name of the Leader of that Movement, Amen.

1Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, (Koinonia Publication 1970), 84-85.