The Little Church with the Big Heart

February 21, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah: 58: 6-8, Mt 25:31-40


After a break for Valentine’s Day, I return to my three-part sermon on church.  And like the first one on creed, and the second on how we worship,  this one on code, the behavioral expectations that we have of ourselves as a worshiping community, based on our beliefs, I reflect back to you what you have identified as important.  These comments can be divided into two categories; how we treat ourselves as fellow members, and our behavior towards the wider community.

You can read the statements from our brainstorming session last summer. They include:

  • “We are a lively, generous family of faith with a loving network, and strong lay leadership.”
  • “I come because of the honest warmth and graciousness, and interest in me by the members.”
  • “Being a member of this church holds me together during challenging times; there is a genuine outpouring of support whenever it is needed ”
  • “Union Church has created strong bonds of community; there is camaraderie and a real feeling of belonging to a ‘tribe’.”
  • “We cherish the act of praying with others in community.”
  • “The pastoral care is strong and loving, supported by active and dynamic lay leadership.”
  • “We treat each person as a sister or a brother.”

Those of you who regularly attend church here will appreciate the accuracy of these comments and likely feel a renewed sense of gratitude to be part of this supportive worshiping community.

The second grouping describes our actions in the community at large, behavior that we want to continue, and in fact are working to expand:

  • “We recognize the place we hold in nature as a reciprocal partnership; we walk together with, and are not in dominion over, all of God’s creation.”
  • “Our faith leads to the conviction that all are equal, and so we respond to all needs of humans and beings alike — from caring for the elderly or the orphan children in Haitian slums, to the merciful treatment of bears, mustangs, cats and dogs.”
  • “We are a very generous congregation — generous with our time, money and emotions.”
  • “Our Mission is to help those less fortunate; we offer hope for people in need in the community.”
  • “There is a willingness to ‘stretch’ ourselves for mission projects that appear to be beyond our reach.”
  • “We believe and live the ripple effect.”
  • “Money is spent on others in need, and not on the church.”
  • “We have mission partners (long-term relationships) not scattershot efforts.”
  • “We have a wonderful reach locally — from making and collecting food, to taking special collections, to finding ways to volunteer.”
  • “We are very contemporary — responding to what’s going on in the world, and raising awareness to help others.”
  • “We are a leader in the greater non-profit community of York County.”
  • “We act as good citizens, supporting a vital business and arts community.”
  • “It’s not just money; we are the hands and feet of Jesus.”
  • “We are known as the little church with the big heart.”

These are all comments that correctly describe us. We can be proud of our actions.  But these comments were not meant as boasting.  They were stated in preparation for a new pastor, affirming who we are and proclaiming that this is how we want to remain – a little church with a big heart; the hands and feet of Jesus.

Last week I mentioned that I believe there is value in self-denial as a spiritual exercise: that giving up things for a little while,  that we enjoy can make it easier for us to put our own desires aside when we’re called to act lovingly towards another.  Today, in Isaiah, we learn that the sort of fast that is most pleasing to God is the self-denial that leads us to treat those in needs with compassion and brings about justice.

I almost didn’t select today’s Gospel reading, because although it has a vital message, the message is set within a parable that is unpleasant to hear and can dredge up fear, guilt and shame.

It is also a story that can lead to a simplistic and inaccurate interpretation that doing good works is the way we earn our ticket into heaven.  That kind of reading leads to stories like the following:

A fellow finds himself in front of the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explains that it’s not so easy to get in heaven. There are some criteria before entry is allowed. For example, was the man religious in life? Attend church? No? St. Peter told him that’s bad.
Was he generous? Did he give money to the poor? Charities? No? St. Peter told him that that too was bad.
Did he do any good deeds? Help his neighbor? Anything? No? St. Peter was becoming concerned.
Exasperated, Peter says, “Look, everybody does something nice sometime. Work with me, I’m trying to help. Now think!”

The man says, “There was this old lady. I came out of a store and found her surrounded by a dozen Hell’s Angels. They had taken her purse and were shoving her around, taunting and abusing her.  I got so mad I threw my bags down, fought through the crowd, and got her purse back. I then helped her to her feet. Then I went up to the biggest, baddest biker and told him how despicable, cowardly and mean he was and then spat in his face”.
“Wow”, said Peter, “That’s impressive. When did this happen”?

“Oh, about 10 minutes ago”, replied the man.

Doing good works is not how we earn our way into heaven, as illustrated by this story, entitled “How many points to get into Heaven?”
A man dies and goes to heaven.
St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says, “Here’s how it works.  You need 100 points to make it into heaven.
You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was.  When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, and loved her deep in my heart.”

“That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth two points!”

“Only two points?” the man says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithes and service.”

“Terrific!” says St. Peter. “That’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point!?!! I started a soup kitchen in my city and also worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”

“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” St. Peter says.

“Two points!?!!” Exasperated, the man cries, “At this rate, the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God.”

“Bingo! 100 points!” says St. Peter. “Come on in!’

This Gospel about the last judgement is not meant to be an instructional manual on how to get to heaven. Despite the graphic presentation of the judgmental King, we need to avoid focusing on ourselves and whether we will be categorized as a sheep or a goat.

For Christians, this story is the foundation for authentic social justice. If the quest for social justice is detached from its Christological roots it runs the risk of becoming simply a human endeavor motivated by a merely human end.  There is nothing wrong in performing acts of kindness because they’re the right thing to do.  But that motivation alone can be like the seed that is planted in shallow ground. Doing good works for these humane reasons alone are at risk of dying out when the tasks become difficult or unpleasant.

Reflecting on the life of Jesus that begins with his earthly ministry, as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, what we call the Synoptic Gospels, tells the story of Jesus’ compassionate ministry and of his impact on the women and men who followed him. The focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to announce that the “Reign of God” was at hand; indeed, the reign of God was present in the Person and actions of Jesus Christ. To understand how the reign of God was present in the Person of Jesus, in other words, how the actions of Jesus brought about the reign of God, one needs only to look at the Gospel stories.  Jesus’ words and actions paint a vivid picture of what God intended for creation, and the part that we are called to play as co-creators.  In this reality, the reign of God, as Jesus saw it, and as described in Matthew 5: 3-10, the longings of the ‘little ones’ of the world are especially fulfilled: the poor are included; mourners are comforted, those who hunger and thirst for justice are satisfied; the merciful, the pure of heart, those who have been persecuted are blessed of God; the peacemakers are called children of God.

By looking at how Jesus understood His own ministry, we can discover our call. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” It is clear that Jesus felt a special tenderness for those who were considered the outcasts of society; those who were thought to have little worth. What’s more, Jesus not only expected His followers to imitate Him, He demanded it! That’s the imperative that leads to the dramatic scene of the Last Judgement in this morning’s Gospel: “In so far as you did this to one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”  The scripture scholar Elizabeth Johnson says, “In his own behavior (Jesus) powerfully enacted the values of the reign of God.  Christ not only willed that we imitate His actions to reach out to the outcasts of society; He also taught us that when we reject those who are “thirsting for justice” we are rejecting Him.”

There have been numerous people throughout history who have spent their lives being compassionate and working for social justice.  One such person is Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, for whom I worked in the eight years before taking on this position as interim pastor.

Catherine McAuley was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1778, to a family in comfortable circumstances.  Her father was a generous man and he and Catherine regularly distributed food for the poor from their home. As a young woman Catherine became the household manager and companion of distant relatives of her mother, an elderly, childless, and wealthy Quaker couple. She spent the twenty years that she lived with them giving religious instruction to the household servants and the poor village children, and distributed food and clothing to those in need.  When the couple died Catherine inherited their estate, a considerable fortune, and used it all to build a house where she and other women could take in homeless women and children to provide care and an education for them.  Catherine chose to locate the house in a posh section of Dublin, where those of means could see the plight and needs of the residents. Catherine went to France and studied what was considered to be the best current educational methods of the time in preparation for her new endeavor. Many of the women who came to live with Catherine and her companions on Bagot Street had been maids in prominent homes, and there had been sexually abused by their employers.  By providing the residents with an education and as well as teaching them how to sew they could find safer means of employment.

Catherine McAuley never intended to found a community of religious women. Her initial intention was to assemble a lay corps of social workers However, the clergy and people of the time were not supportive of groups of lay women working independently of church structures. The main concern was for the stability and continuity of the works of mercy which the women had taken on. The fear was that if they got married or lost interest, the poor and the orphans whom they were caring for would then be at a loss. So Catherine and two other women entered the formation program of an established religious congregation, professed their vows and returned to Bagot Street, to what they then called the House of Mercy, to continue their good work.

A year later a cholera epidemic hit Dublin, and Catherine and the other women who had joined her agreed to staff a cholera hospital. The sisters nursed in shifts from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. for the next seven months, and some died as a result.

After only ten years Catherine herself died of tuberculosis.  At the time of her death there were 150 Sisters of Mercy and she had established fourteen independent houses of Mercy in Ireland and England. Shortly thereafter, small groups of sisters left Ireland to establish new foundations on the east and west coasts of the United States, in Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. Today there is a world-wide vowed membership of about 10,000 working with thousands of lay people ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick and the uneducated.

Catherine McAuley has been described as a socialite turned social worker, lady of fashion who lived among the poor, woman of wealth who had no money, activist who early learned the discipline of sanctity.  She is recognized as one of the greatest social activists in Ireland. A postage stamp and a five pound note feature her portrait.

I tell you her story because in many ways it reminds me of our church community.  Catherine, like us recognized the unmet needs around her and did her best to meet them.  Her circle of care expanded over time, as has ours as we continue to broaden our understanding of community.

Studying the behavior of Jesus and reflecting on his words, gives us guidance on how to care directly for those in need and to continuously expand our efforts.  But how wide?

Catherine McAuley not only responded generously and compassionately to the unmet needs around her, she believed that we need to challenge the unjust structures that keep people down.

For this, studying Jesus as seen in John’s gospel can be helpful. John’s Christology is what we celebrate at Christmas. It begins in heaven with the Word of God preexisting from all eternity. From this view of Jesus, we focus on the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It’s “Incarnational focused”; Christ entered the human condition as a human person and united Himself with each of us. And because of the reality of the Incarnation, each and every human person that has lived and ever will live has an inestimable dignity.   It is precisely because of the dignity of the human person, a dignity that has been created anew through the Incarnation of Christ that we must strive for social justice. If we truly believe in the unmeasurable dignity of every person how can we not work for social justice for everyone?

Most of us have no problem volunteering at a soup kitchen, or visiting the sick, or giving a helping hand to people in need. We simply do it because people are hurting and we help because we can.  No problem.  When it comes to challenging the structures that maintain the status quo, I for one, need more motivation.  Keeping aware of upcoming local, state and national legislation on social issues and making an effort to influence that the outcome be in line with Gospel values is for me hard work and no way as satisfying as direct care. But if we let ourselves recognize the immeasurable worth of each person and at the same time know the state of our prisons, and who gets in them; if we let ourselves recognize the immeasurable worth of each person and see the living situations of the poorest people here in our community, how can we avoid the moral imperative to act?

The Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo painted a fresco of The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. In it, the souls of humans rise or descend to their fates, as judged by Christ.  Again, my intent is not to focus on this harsh, simplistic, and I believe, wrong interpretation of God as judge.  The significant point that I find interesting in this painting is that while traditional medieval artistic representations of the last judgment showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard. His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank. The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right. But all looked alike, because we are. Those in need are like us, could have been us.

Philosopher John Rawls devised a theory, in which persons develop a contract that defines the basic rights and duties of citizens in a civil society from behind a veil of ignorance. In other words we imagine that we have the power to develop laws, tax codes, a health care system, a justice system, etc. without knowing if we, as individuals living in this society will be rich or poor, white or black, male or female, live in downtown Detroit, or in Palm Beach. With this veil of ignorance how would we design society? Social action in the form of influencing legislation may be the next arena that calls to us.

Notice that in the parable of the last judgement there is no mention of abuse; only beneficial activity or neglect. The goats have not done anything wrong.  They have just not done anything.

When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did I see you living in pitiful conditions and work for social change?

I end with a prayer for us from words in today’s Prelude:

Breathe on Me of Breath of God

Create in me a new heart

Help me to see your face