“Whatever You Do for the Least of These”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, November 26, 2017
This morning’s Gospel reading is one of the best known passages in the Bible and one that is deeply appreciated by our church. I know of few congregations that take this lesson more seriously and to heart than St. Thomas’. But I also imagine that there isn’t a person here who upon listening this lesson does not feel guilty that he or she should be doing more.
This lesson is read on Christ the King Sunday, when we look to Christ as king of our lives, head of our Church and Lord of lords. It is a day of pomp and circumstance and also the last day of the Church Year. Next Sunday, we enter Advent and begin a new Church Year. And yet, for all the focus today on Christ the King, we read a lesson that reminds us that what matters most is what we do for the least among us as a gift to the King of kings.
As long as I have been rector, there has been a debate in our church about what we do for ourselves and what we do for others. Some would have us to give everything away to those in need. Some pledge smaller amounts or even nothing at all and strive to give generously to those in need. The building, the grounds, the music, the teaching – well, others can pay for that. They struggle to see that without the church, its worship and music, spiritual formation and community, no one would ever be guided and led to serve the least among us.
Then there are others who struggle to understand the poor and the needy, because after all, haven’t these people brought this on themselves by being lazy or by not taking advantage of opportunities? These persons cannot fathom that the obstacles of race, poverty, broken families, lack of education, mental illness, mass incarceration and being surrounded by people without hope can choke the most promising of lives from blossoming and reaching fulfilment. We need to focus, they say, on taking care of our buildings, growing our endowment, paying our staff, providing wonderful worship and music, education and pastoral care for our members.
These differing ways of viewing the church have co-existed for many years. And truth be told, both sides have points to make and all of us should be concerned about caring for our faith community as well as reaching out from this hillside and doing all that we can for those in need.
St. Thomas’ Church does a great deal to care for others. We host a wonderful inner-city summer camp and send mission teams to Honduras twice a year. Our youth have gone on a Mission Possible trip for 30 years in a row. Each year, we host a Harvest Festival and the Be an Angel Christmas Party. Some of you cook meals and serve them at the Church of the Advocate in a very blighted Philadelphia neighborhood. Others are mentors working with an innovative new partnership between ECS and our church. Over 70 of you volunteer great amounts of your time to operate the Second Saturday Sales, which generated $113,000 to provide outreach grants. Every dollar helps someone in need. There are lots of good hearts in this congregation.
Jesus tells us today, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” We actually do not have an active prison ministry now, and I suspect that there isn’t an area of ministry that we could not improve upon or offer more.
I suspect that as a congregation we do not understand the Anglican Communion and the 85 million members living in 165 countries around the world and how most of them live in great poverty. For years we have prayed every Sunday for the Anglican Communion, but we have never connected our budget to those we pray for each week. I suspect that we see ourselves as a congregation serving God, but struggle to see ourselves as a vital part of the Communion – one of the most dynamic worldwide institutions with more opportunity to serve the poor and the needy than almost any other global organization. We can grow in our service to the poor.
Jesus reminds us today that what matters is not our churchmanship or how we worship, although worshipping is vital and without it our efforts to care for the poor and needy fail to embody the love of God. The true test of faith is not what we believe or how we worship, but rather what happens when we encounter the poor, the needy, the sick and those who suffer. “Whatever you have done for the least of these,” says Jesus, “you have done for me.”
You may or may not know the name Stephanie Fast, but Lee Strobel tells her story in a book called The Case for Grace. Stephanie never knew her father. She suspects that he was a soldier, possibly an officer who fought in the Korean War. Born of a Korean mother, her beginning life seemed normal, even safe. Stephanie did not know that there was no place for biracial children born out of wedlock in the lives of good Korean families in 1950.
The night her mother was given the option of marriage, it was clear that Stephanie was not to be part of that option. Her family members gathered around her. She cannot remember whether she was three or four, but they told her that they had found a family member who would take her in. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be her or her mother’s decision to make. Her mother held Stephanie and cried throughout the entire night.
A few days later, Stephanie’s mother put her on board a train, placed a satchel full of her things on the shelf above her seat, got on her knees, looked her daughter in the eyes and said, “Don’t be afraid. When the train stops, your uncle will meet you.” Then the train left. The train traveled and it eventually stopped. Stephanie got off the train and in her words, “No one came for me.”
As she stood waiting on the platform for hours on end waiting for that uncle who never came, she heard for the first time a word that she would hear many times more in the months that followed, “Tugee.” A passerby noted her lighter hair and skin color, eyes formed slightly differently than most Koreans’ and wild and curly hair, and out came that horrible word to a child not more than a toddler that meant not one but many things – all of them bad – half breed, child of two bloods, garbage, dust, alien, devil.
And as countless children in far too many places in our world today, she did what she could to survive on the streets. Stephanie stole food to eat and found places to sleep, sometimes alone, sometimes with other abandoned children. This went on for years until she was about seven years old. She lived in a camp of homeless children, who looked out for each other. They lived under a bridge in one of the largest cities in South Korea. The child that had been called “garbage” up until that day merely accepted the name. She remembers that day that she fell into a deep sickness and was merely lying on a heap of trash near the makeshift homeless camp.
That day, Iris Erikson, a Swedish nurse working for World Vision, stumbled upon her. Iris’ job was to rescue babies from the street. Iris felt tremendous pity for this street urchin, but because there were more babies on the streets than children, Iris had been clearly instructed only to bring babies back to the clinic where she was serving. Stephanie was too old. So, Iris started to leave Stephanie, but two things happened that changed her mind.
First, as she began to walk away her legs just felt really heavy, and she had no idea why. Iris tried to walk away, but she couldn’t. She was trying to figure out why when the second thing occurred. She heard an audible voice, only two words spoken in her native Swedish, which she knew came out the mouth of God. “Hon armin.” She’s mine!
And in that moment, just a split second of listening for the voice of God, she forgot herself. She forgot what she was supposed to do, and she stepped aside, stooped down and scooped up little Stephanie in her arms and took her to the clinic. As Stephanie began that journey from garbage heap to hope, a new life began. Now, an adult, nearly 70 years later, Stephanie is a Christian, and she says of Iris Erikson, “She was my savior before Jesus was.”
You and I live in a world where bad stories are told. Stories that tell us that life is meaningless, and humanity has no greater purpose. We read daily about people who feel hopeless and like they are living in a garbage heap, their lives do not matter and nothing good will ever come from their existence. Some might even say that there is an infinitely dark hole of despair outside the doors of our church and there is no point in trying to stem the tide of all those who despair.
But Jesus says, “No. Go to Honduras on our next mission trip. Be a mentor with ECS. Become a Stephen Minister. Serve at the Be an Angel Christmas Party. Help us to rebuild the third oldest Episcopal church in Cuba in an incredibly poor community. Or maybe just recall that person you spent time with this week who said that their life seemed meaningless and invite him or her to worship with you next week. Or visit that neighbor down the street whom you know is very lonely and going through a hard time in life. Or stop being a stranger to your wife or to your husband or to your son or daughter or to your parents and you begin to find some healing.
Go. Serve. Reach out. “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Whatever you have done for the least of these,” says Jesus, “you have done for me.” Amen.