Keeping Jesus Out
Hespeler, 8 July, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Psalm 41:1-13, Matthew 25:31-46, Isaiah 58:6-10
ll my life I have heard Christian people explain the world’s problems. They know, you see, what has gone wrong. They know why it is that the churches are in decline, why gun violence and mass shootings are on the rise. They know the reason why people aren’t as kind and respectful as they used to be and why they do not engage in public service. They know the root cause of all of the woes of the modern world and they will not hesitate to tell you what it is. We struggle with all of these things and more, they’ll say, because we have kicked Jesus out. We have excluded Jesus from our schools, banished him from Main Street and thrown him out of our businesses. That is where our problems all began, they will tell you, and nothing will start to get better until we let Jesus in again.
And you know what, I would say that they are quite right. The problem really is a distinct lack of Jesus. But I’m not sure that I mean exactly the same thing that everyone means when they say that.
Think of it this way: You see a person by the side of the road, someone in some distress. Someone who is lost, confused, whatever it may be but they have troubles. But they are still a stranger – and not just any stranger but someone who clearly moves in a world very different from your own. It is someone, you are quite sure, that you would have nothing in common with. And it doesn’t even matter what it is that sets that person apart from you. It could be race or economic status. It could be gender or maybe even a lack of clarity when it comes to gender. They seem to have needs but there is just something that sets them apart from you. My question is this: how do you react?
One possible response is this: You don’t see them. I mean, yes, your eyes might record their existence there on your path but it is like your brain doesn’t quite make the identification of a human being. You notice little more than just so much empty space.
But sometimes you can’t help but notice that a person is there and so you do feel an entirely human impulse to respond and do something helpful. And then, naturally, you fight it. You begin to find all sorts of excuses for why you can’t do anything to help them. You know the rationalizations because we’ve all made them: “If I gave him some money, it’d probably get wasted on smokes or on booze.” “I’m not qualified to help and I’d probably make things worse.” Or “I’ll just let somebody else take care of the situation.” It is a great way to let yourself off the hook and I will certainly admit that that is how I sometimes react.
But sometimes you cannot talk yourself out of it and you feel you must respond in some way. What happens then? The tendency, is it not, is to minimize your contact with that strange person who is in need as much as possible. The easiest thing, of course, is to throw a bit of money at the problem and be done with it. You can get along with your day and nothing needs to penetrate your life – nothing needs to change.
That, I believe, is how we tend to react and that is what we stumble over: the contact with the person in need. We may say that our problems is that we are worried about the cost – that we cannot possibly afford to help every poor soul that crosses our path and that it would ruin us if we did. But I don’t think that it is about the economic cost. We certainly spend a whole lot of money on other, largely useless things without even thinking about it. No, the cost that bothers us is the emotional cost, the psychological cost of letting someone into the bubble that is our safe and secure feeling lives.
But what if, by doing that, you are missing out on the most important parts of that encounter? What if the thing that matters in your interaction with a person in need is not the specific help you offer, the money that you give, the food that you feed them? What if the point is actually the degree to which you actually get to know that person?
That is the frightening possibility that is raised by Jesus’ parable from the Gospel of Matthew this morning. In it Jesus talks to his followers, those who have called him their Lord throughout their lives, at the end of the age. And he separates them into two groups: sheep and goats. Their division is specifically based on how they deal with people in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, sick and in prison. The good sheep helped and the bad goats failed to help.
But Jesus, in this parable, doesn’t do what we would do. He doesn’t dwell on the help that was given, how much there was and whether or not it was effective. That is often exactly where we get bogged down. We worry about wasting money by using it in the wrong ways, we agonize over setting up effective projects. But Jesus doesn’t evaluate any of that because he focusses on a much more important outcome of the incidents. There was an encounter, he says, and in that encounter, you met me.
The biggest end goal of our response to those in need is not the alleviation of need or suffering. Yes, of course, we hope that the things that we do will make things better for people and we ought to do our best to make sure that our efforts have the best effect possible, but the harsh reality is that if that is the only reason why you do it you will discourage yourself and sooner or later and you will burn yourself out or give up because even your best efforts will fail and fall short at some point. Even worse, the deepest problems that plague this world – poverty, despair, hatred, sickness – they will never entirely go away despite what any of us does. If you enter into a caring ministry motivated only by the idea that you are going to fix everybody, chances are that you are only going to make everything worse.
But the good news is that that is not the only reason why we do anything that is directed towards those who are in need. We do it because, according to this parable, it is the only way that we will discover and know for sure that Jesus is alive and among us. If we respond to people in need in a way that allows us to get to know them, their fears, their hopes and their dreams, we will discover the living presence of Jesus, working with power, among us.
I certainly believe that this is true, not just because Jesus said it but also because I have experienced it and I’m pretty sure that I am not alone. I know that many people who have been involved in our ministries towards those in need here at St. Andrew’s have experienced it. I’m not saying that if you come out and volunteer for one night at the Thursday Night Supper and Social or do a shift at Hope Clothing that you will come away with the assurance that you just saw Jesus. It doesn’t happen like that. It is usually something that happens only in small glimpses and insights and not in some big dramatic event. It also usually happens after you have put in enough time to get to know people and they get to the place where they can trust you a little bit. But I have certainly come away with an encounter with Jesus and I know that others have as well. I can’t argue you into accepting that it is true, though; it is something that you have to experience for yourself.
The clear promise is that you can encounter Jesus when you get involved with people who are in need. I believe that that is the truth, or at least a part of the truth, that Jesus was trying to get across with this parable. And that creates a problem for the church and for society. If the greatest need that we have right now, as I said at the top, is for more Jesus, then, to the degree that we limit our interaction with people who are in need, we are cutting ourselves off from Jesus. We are cutting ourselves off from what we need most.
And it is not just that particular scenario that I have painted for you when you happen to walk by a person in need at the side of the road. The bigger problem is that we intentionally design our lives and our societies in such a way as to make sure that we do not encounter those who are in need. For example, one of the biggest domestic crises of our time is the opioid epidemic. People are dying and being permanently injured because of their addictions to opioids in unprecedented numbers. And I know that the causes of this epidemic are complicated and that there is blame to go around to a lot of people including some doctors, drug companies and, in some cases, the victims themselves, but I am not talking about blame. I’m talking about the enormous need and suffering and it is all around us. Do you realize that the fire department and paramedics have responded to opiate overdose calls in every neighbourhood in every part of Cambridge, Waterloo and Kitchener in the last year – every neighbourhood. There are no exceptions! It has happened within a few blocks of your house!
And people acknowledge the need and realize that, if we don’t do something to respond, the slaughter will only grow. And one of the few things that can actually help in the short term is supervised injections sites. There really isn’t much debate about that anymore among people who are informed. But I’ll tell you what there is debate about. There is debate about where you set that up. And where do people want you to set up safe injection sites? “Not near me.” That is where people want them. “Anywhere but near me.”
This is not really because of safety concerns although, of course, certain safety precautions need to be taken. There is no place that is really safe in the present opioid crises. As I said, it is all around us wherever we might live. This is about where the victims of the opioid crisis – the people in need – become visible. This is about people not wanting to encounter the people who are in need. But what if, by cutting ourselves off from them, we are cutting ourselves off from Jesus. And the world needs more Jesus.
Nowhere is this problem more evident than when you come to the question of immigration and asylum. For the past five years or so, the world has been passing through the largest refugee crisis that it has seen perhaps ever in terms of sheer numbers. There are more displaced people in the world today than there have ever been. This crisis has not been caused by the refugees themselves but by a variety of international crises like the Syrian Civil war and the Central American drug wars. If you want to talk about overwhelming need, the world’s refugees today are the poster children for need.
But, at a moment when the need is at an all-time peak what do we see – a huge, almost unprecedented global reaction against migration and the refugees themselves. The victims of this disaster are being turned into enemies and dangerous purveyors of violence despite all the evidence that is out there that migrants are actually less likely to commit crimes and, over the long-term, contribute more to the economy of a country than do native-born citizens.
All of this causes untold misery and crushes hope for so many, but the worst part of it is that, if what Jesus said was true, by doing this what we are really doing is cutting ourselves off from Jesus who has promised that he is present in the strangers. And what the world needs – what we need – is more Jesus.
So those Christians are right. What we need more than anything in the church today is to reconnect with Jesus. Many here, I know, are seeking to do exactly that in their work at the church and in the community. I appreciate and honour that. I fear that far too many Christians, however, set themselves up to do the very opposite and cut themselves off from the very people through whom Jesus is manifesting himself to the world today.
All I’m saying is this: we need more Jesus. And at a time when Jesus is more available than ever (in the form of strangers in need), we need to think carefully about how we can get to know them.