Monday, November 24, 2008

Stranger Stewardship

Matthew 25: 31-46
***** ******** Congregational Church
November 23, 2008

Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of one year in the church and the close of one cycle of lectionary readings from the Bible. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the new year begins next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent.

The gospel lesson for today, from Matthew, comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is in Jerusalem for the last time; soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder. This is quite a juxtaposition: Jesus is near the end of his days this Sunday, speaking of when he will come in glory; next Sunday we will begin the wait for his birth in a lowly, ordinary place. Yet today we celebrate Christ as ruler of God’s kingdom.

But if Christ is king, where is his kingdom? If Christ is Lord, where is Christ being followed in ways that are saving the planet and its peoples? (1) In this morning’s gospel lesson we read that those who minister to ‘the least of these’, those who welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned, who feed the hungry and give the thirsty water to drink, those who give as Jesus would give are the inhabitants of God’s kingdom, no matter what nation they come from. These are the ones who are following Jesus in ways that will save the planet and its peoples.

I’d like to tell you a story about where Christ is being followed in such a way. The story takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico; certainly a lowly, ordinary place if ever there was one. It begins in the summer of 2003 when Bryan Nurnberger, a young school teacher from Naugatuck, CT and a member of the Naugatuck Congregational Church, was rock-climbing his way around the mountains of central Mexico. After about a month of vacation, in his endlessly energetic way, he grew tired of what he was doing, needing a fresh challenge. A friend and fellow teacher told him about a woman who ran an orphanage outside of Oaxaca City in southern Mexico, called Casa Hogar. Bryan took a bus there, called the number he was given, and a pickup truck came to get him. It was late at night when he arrived and all the children were asleep. The next morning Bryan woke up and he was surrounded—by 80+ children.

These children were living in deplorable conditions. Many of them had special needs, most of them were malnourished; none of them had ever used a toothbrush. The majority of them were economic orphans whose family, single parent or grandparent could no longer afford to care for them. Some children had a parent who was incarcerated. Others suffered abuse from their families.

One such child was Ricardo, a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. He would wear not only the same clothes for three days but also the same diaper. He and Bryan became friends, forming a connection that would change both their lives.

Once Bryan met these children, shared their lives, and got to know Carol and her husband Francisco who took care of children no one else would, he knew he had to do something to help. Upon returning to Connecticut, Bryan founded Simply Smiles, an organization dedicated to providing for the needs of impoverished people. He thought he could provide some food and necessities for the kids, maybe some support and awareness to put a band-aid on the problem. He didn’t intend that it would become his life’s work.

Now five years later, Ricardo has a new wheelchair. He eats three solid meals a day. He goes to a special needs private school. He had an operation so he could move his legs and his upper body more easily. All of the children of Casa Hogar go to school; all are well-nourished and much loved. There is also a second orphanage in the northern region of Oaxaca in Cuicatlan. Bryan and now a staff of co-workers and a board of directors for Simply Smiles organize church mission trips to Casa Hogar and raise funds and awareness. I, along with other adults and college students from Monroe Congregational Church went on our third mission trip to Casa Hogar this past summer. There is even a Silver Lake youth mission trip to Casa Hogar, now in its second year.

But what is truly remarkable is that the orphanage has its own mission: helping the resident worker families of the Oaxaca city dump. They are a close-knit community of 120 men, women, and children: families who live and work there, culling recyclable plastic bottles, tin cans, and cardboard from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the collected materials, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80 degree heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes, dead animals, smells so bad they can be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.

Mitzi Garcia, whose family now has a new house.

It began by the children of Casa Hogar delivering lunches twice a week. Now that a trusting relationship has been built by Bryan, the children, and Simply Smiles, homes of dignity and comfort are being built for these families by church volunteers. And now that Casa Hogar is running so well, having its needs well-provided for, Bryan is searching for another orphanage that needs help.

Clearly, in the context of the gospel lesson, Bryan is a sheep: without thought to himself, he is one who has ministered to the least of these, members of Christ’s family. Usually when we read this story we wonder to ourselves: am I a sheep or a goat? But as is typical with the gospel, the lesson is not about us; it is about who we are in relationship to the gospel, the good news of the presence of Christ. The question before us is: Who are we in relationship to the Christ? Who are we in relationship to the stranger? Who is this church in relationship to the kingdom?

If the members of Christ’s family are the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, then the Reign of Christ is also the Reign of the Stranger. If Christ is Lord, then so too are the needs of the least of these. If we say that Christ has a claim upon our lives, then indeed we are declaring that the stranger has a claim upon our lives.

The timing of this reading from Matthew truly is remarkable. We are approaching Advent and Christmas, coming near to an obscure manger and a tiny baby. This baby reminds us that we were all babies once, every stranger we meet, every prisoner, every hungry, thirsty, needy person. Seeing the Christ in others requires a hefty exercise of our imaginations and our hearts. Like any parent who can still see the infant in their children’s eyes, no matter how much they change, Jesus compels us to know him so well, to love him so much, that we will know him in the breaking of bread with the hungry; in the pouring out of ourselves with those who thirst; in covering another’s shame with the dignity of authentic friendship; in the sacrifice of ease and time to visit with someone else’s child in prison; in welcoming the stranger not only with a handshake but with a willingness to be transformed.

The glorious throne of judgment and its attendant angels do not reside on high but are embedded in mean and humble places. This Christ who is Lord and King is an unprivileged servant-shepherd. When we look at our resources, where our money and our time goes, where they are spent and to whom they are given, do we see the Christ reflected there or do we see ourselves, our wants and desires?

In order that Christ be made visible in this world, we must become invisible. While the world beckons that we make a name for ourselves, Christ calls us to make known the needs of the stranger amongst us.

Nations, corporations, and those in power will be and are being judged for how resources are used: for the benefit of some or for the benefit of all, especially for the least of those among us? The changes that are being called for seem harder for some because for many years we have not been called upon to sacrifice our ease and prosperity for the sake of others.

This is where it begins, in communities of faith, where we can begin to make changes that can make a difference in the lives of others, by organizing our life together around the needs of the stranger, the outcast, the most needful.

I strongly recommend you, ***** ******** Congregational Church, to find a mission about which you can feel passionate, that captures your collective imagination. Form a connection and be willing to be transformed. Have carry-in dinners about the mission. Try to be hands-on with mission trips, if you can. Raise awareness and funds for the mission, endeavoring to include neighboring churches and community groups. Invite your Sunday School students to support a child of that mission and to learn of that child’s circumstances, exchanging news with one another. Include the mission in your prayers each week and in your own daily prayers.

We make a commitment of our time, our gifts and our money to the church that we might have pastoral staff to teach and to lead us, to challenge and to care for us, to have a church building in which to worship and to meet, and to educate our young people and to be educated Christians ourselves—all so that we can be the Body of Christ and then give it away to a world in need of healing.

The next time you meet, and whenever you meet, to discuss stewardship and your church budget, ask yourselves this question: “When was it that we saw you, Lord?” May your response lead you ever closer to being the Church, ever closer to Christ and his kingdom.




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