This essay was originally preached as a sermon by Autumn Dennis at Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Smyrna, Tennessee on December 30th, 2012. It has been edited for clarity.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:34-36
Now you may be wondering why I just included that passage for an entry at this time of year. It’s not a typical passage read before, during, or after Christmas. It doesn’t usually remind us of little baby Jesus and the manger and the cute animals, and it’s not even a passage read for Epiphany (if you’re that into the church calendar.) It’s not really a passage read with any church holiday, and we don’t really hear much about it in today’s church culture anyway. But I would like to argue that actually this passage is full of the Christmas spirit and even that of Epiphany. On a deeper note, I would like to argue that it is one of the most important parts of scripture for Christians.
Through the season of Advent and Christmas, we are surrounded the concept of “searching” for Christ. Herod sought after Christ so that he could kill him rather than worship him. The shepherds and the magi sought after Christ because of prophecies and signs of the stars and so on. Simeon and Anna sought after Christ, and today we are still searching for Christ. So much in our culture we hear about people trying to “find God”, to “get closer to God”, about people trying to “see God’s face”. Our hymns cry out for “just a closer walk with thee”, our prayers are peppered with statements of “God, come into my life”, and “Lord, I wanna know you better.” Well, Today in this last Sunday of the year and the Sunday before the Epiphany, we will close out our searching for God with the solution on how to find and where to find God.
In the scripture read, we heard Jesus identify with the poor—“whatever you do to them, however you treat them is how you treat me.” He wasn’t being cute or sentimental here—Jesus really was poor. Dirt poor actually. Let’s take another look at the Nativity story with new eyes with an excerpt from an essay wrote by Dan R. Dick.
“Picture Mary. What images come to mind? The “wise” men? The shepherds? The stable and manger? The immaculately clean, well-behaved, reverent animals in western style stalls? The star in the sky? Joseph? The mean old inn-keeper? In its simplicity it is a sweet, gentle, kind, lovely story. Just the kind we love — don’t nobody mess it up! ….
“[What was the Nativity really like?] Modern American society may be incapable of comprehending rural life in ancient times, foreign places. Back then life was hand-to-mouth existence in large extended families that mainly never ventured more than a few miles from home. Tiny stone dwellings with dirt floors crammed together with no spaces in between, housed hundreds of people with virtually no more than a couple of square feet to a person. Clean water was rare, so personal hygiene was scarce and water-born disease rampant. Bathing was not viewed as necessary; in fact, it wasn’t believed to be good for you. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no modern conveniences are given, but lamp oil was at a premium and not used widely by the rural poor — who accounted for upwards of 80% of the population. Life happened between sunrise and sunset, and it was filled with non-stop hours of hard labor and toil, for most children as well as adults. Injury, loss of limbs, digits, eyes, and disfigurations were all a simple part of normal life. Early medicine was crude, and while we would like to visualize a wise homeopathy, the reality is that as many patients were killed as cured by well-intentioned hokum and hoodoo passing as science. Women outnumbered men about two-to-one due to work related death, disease, conscription into military service and ordinary violence. Often girls were promised to multiple men to adjust for the odds of survival. Most men didn’t really know the girls who were promised to them — males and females rarely interacted in any social form. Travel was unsafe, except in large groups. Bandits, rebels, zealots, thieves and the mentally unstable (and demon possessed) roamed freely and left few witnesses to their work. Mortality rates were high, and the average life span was less than four decades. We often think of Jesus dying young at 33, but this placed him well within the mid-section of the bell curve of his day. A fifty-year old was a rarity and a sixty-year old was an ancient miracle. Most of the rural poor were simple, in every sense of the word. They were uneducated and superstitious. They owned few possessions. They subsisted on what they could produce with their own hands. Skulls from the period show that few retained many of their teeth into adulthood. Vermin — insect and mammal — coexisted in every home and on every person. Young women were promised to older men as quickly as possible because of simple supply and demand factors. It was not unusual for families to broker marriages when girls were eight or nine with the promise of marriage at their very first menses. Childbirth began as soon after as possible, and with infant mortality as high as 60% in some regions, women gave birth at least annually in hopes of producing a sizeable enough family that could work for survival.
“What might all of this suggest about Mary, a poor girl from Nazareth? I imagine most of us do not picture a timid, dirty teenager with ratty hair, rotting teeth, a ruddy complexion, thick muscled arms, calloused hands, unable to clearly articulate all the things happening to her. Chances are Mary had known Joseph since her early childhood, but that they had very little interaction until she hit puberty. We miss the fact that the greatest miracle in the story may have been that Mary was not put to death when it was discovered she was pregnant. The killing of a young woman for infidelity and/or adultery was a common, emotionless, practical necessity. Paternal lineage was everything in some rural cultures, and women were merely vessels of transmission of property. Spoiled property was disposed of. Such an act caused no emotional upheaval; it was just a part of normal life. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth would not have been anything short of a necessity — if Joseph didn’t address Mary’s situation, any of the elders of the community could force the issue. Mary’s life, if she were a member of her culture, would be pregnancy after pregnancy while toiling in home and field from sun-up to sun-down. If Mark’s report that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters is true, it is not unreasonable to assume that Mary gave birth at least twelve to fifteen times in order to have seven surviving offspring. None of the subsequent births would rival the first however, but not because the first was Jesus, but because mother and child beat all odds of survival in the septic and toxic environment of a public stable. An “inn” in early Palestine was a fairly large room with shelves hewn into rock walls. Travellers supplied their own bedding or paid exorbitant prices for straw, generally not clean. Pots and barrels were provided for excrement and urine, but inn keepers rarely emptied them — “guests” took care of them when they became intolerable. Rats, mice, bats, fleas, and lice were constant companions to travellers. Most inns provided no food. When beds were filled, surrounding fields were offered, usually at a reduced rate. As a last resort, or in the case of foul weather, the “stable” was available. Many animals stayed outside, but valued animals like oxen and donkeys were crammed into a small, windowless room attached to the inn. The lack of windows was a discouragement to thieves and poachers, and the access to the inn was so that the heat from the animals would warm the guests. Can you imagine the smells? Mangers — feed boxes of extremely crude and coarse design — were scattered throughout and were used only when the “guests” at the inn paid for the feed. The poorest of the poor squeezed in amongst the animals, seeking patches not covered in filth and where they might not be trampled. Dozens of people would huddle in these abysmally dark, hot, dirty rooms until sunrise. And who would end up as “the poorest of the poor?” Simple tradespeople (like carpenters) would qualify, as would shepherds, as would sorcerers (or magi, if you will). Prostitutes and tax-collectors would be welcome in the inn — they could pay. It would not be unusual on any given night to find poor rural travellers elbow to elbow with shepherds and those who dabbled in magic — outcasts all.
“I shared all of this with a friend of mine from a Catholic background and watched him turn purple with indignation and rage. He told me what a load of crap this was and it crossed the line into blasphemy. He recommended I look at some “catholic scholarship” on Mary for a more accurate and acceptable description of the Nativity. For him, this was a critical issue of belief and the sanctity of all he holds dear. According to Catholic doctrine, Mary, the product of immaculate conception herself, came from a wealthy and genteel family. Clean, educated, pious, and good, Mary from birth lived an other-worldly existence that prepared her to be the perfect vessel for divinity. Fair-skinned, bright-eyed, with luxuriant hair, Mary shone with the light of heaven. Joseph was selected to serve and protect Mary, and all of her births were miraculous, allowing her to remain a virgin. She never died, but ascended, carrying with her the knowledge of God, the wisdom of the ages, and the treasures of her heart. In my readings, all the Catholic scholars reference earlier Catholic scholars, and very few use the scriptures at all in their descriptions. Most sources are extra-canonical and the documentation is of Catholic doctrine, conceived from mystic experience and divine revelation. There is an amazing reverence and respect in the Catholic Mariology, but little true scholarship.”
Jeannie Alexander offers another perspective in this past Amos House blog. She tells the story:
“The expectant homeless mother had pondered the birth of her child for weeks. Where would he be born? Would he be safe? Where would she take him? Who would help her? Where on earth would they go? Her partner, equally anxious, had taken the woman as his wife months earlier, knowing that the child growing inside of her was not his own. He had promised to care for them, but they were sojourners, strangers in a strange land. The time of census approached, and so they set off across the country, mostly on foot, toward the town of his birth. Unsure of the future, but hoping for the best, they prayed for guidance and safe passage.
“Throughout their journey the lonely couple strove to avoid the authorities and bandits alike. The woman’s increasingly fragile state made them vulnerable to attack, and their very existence made them a target for the authorities, for they were marginalized people not of the dominant ruling class. Apart from their own people they were considered dirty and suspect, their customs strange.
“Finally the beleaguered pair arrived in the bustling town, a town that looked to hold so much promise and prospects for the future. Weary and burdened by the pronounced heaviness of her belly, the woman longed for refuge and a safe warm place to birth her child. They began to search patiently at first for a home or temporary housing, but as time wore on fear and anxiety set in and they became frantic in their search for sanctuary.
“Alone and afraid in the cold of 3:00 a.m., during the dark time of the year, the couple had to face the fact that there was no room at any inn. A sharp cry cracked open the night, and beneath a star, out-of-doors, a child was born.
“Are you familiar with this story? Have you heard it your whole life long? You know it better than you think; it is closer than you know. For you see, this is early in the morning during the first week of November 2009, where a child was born on the streets of Nashville; directly onto the rat infested, stinking, filthy, street of Second Avenue in downtown. The couple and the journey described above are not the beloved Joseph and Mary of 2,000 years ago, it is the story of a homeless couple in our time, at this moment, in Nashville, the city too busy to care.
“The poor couple waited for months for subsidized housing. They jumped through every hoop, made every appointment, obtained every document, and still they waited. The woman was assured that she would be housed rapidly because she was great with child. (How could she know that the waiting list is over 3,000 broken souls long?). But the weeks turned into months, and during that time they stayed in cheap, bed bug infested motels when they could, and slept under bridges when they could not.
“Of course, they tried other avenues, other organizations, but instead of open doors and warm beds, they found themselves at the end of even more waiting lists, or were told that they ‘did not meet criteria.’ Ah ‘criteria’, the word that allows us to shed our responsibilities toward other human beings.”
Jesus identified with the poor because he was one of them, and he never left them either in his ministry. Born a carpenter’s son, he would have remained a carpenter, which was the lowliest of the low, not even considered a skilled artisan or tradesman. And even when he began his ministry, from then on until his death he was a homeless vagrant traveling around in circles and never settling in one place. He wouldn’t even find a home or settling place inside of the borrowed tomb they laid him in, for as Jesus said in Luke chapter nine verse 58, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
So far, we have looked at searching for God and finding the poor in Christ. Now, we will discuss finding Christ in the poor.
For some of us, the most we see or interact with the poorest of the poor is at intersections. When I grew up, my family would spend a lot of time downtown or in Antioch a minute or so from my house, and often we would end up at a red light intersection turning left. There would almost always be a homeless person standing at the edge of the grass, holding a makeshift sign explaining their needs, begging for loose change and thank you, God bless. As if with no thought, my parents, or really anybody I was driving with, would always roll up the windows, lock the doors, and stare straight ahead as if a human being, a child of God were not standing outside of the window. As if they weren’t even there. As if they were invisible. My mother always taught me never to judge homeless people or assume anything about their life, but this mannerism seemed to paint a different belief about the poor than the one she was telling me. Even today I am still shaking off this reflex to be afraid of the poor, shaking off this reflex of fear of the person at the intersection quietly begging for loose change. And over time, it becomes easier and easier to roll down my window, look them in the eye, ask them their name, shake their hand, and treat them like the human being, the child of God they are. With each small interaction of the 30 seconds I have at the red light, a little bit of reconciliation happens and a little bit of fear dissipates. Even small interactions like this signify how we view Christ- if Christ came back today, would we recognize him or would we be afraid and shun him like we shun the homeless every day? Hebrews 13:2 says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Recently, I was in Atlanta visiting an organization called the Open Door Community that, for over 30 years, has done life and ministry with the poor, the oppressed, and the prisoner of Atlanta. In one of their hallways, they have large black and white photographs of their friends from the streets and prisons over the years. Even if most of them lived and died on the streets, all of them found love and hospitality at the Open Door. In each photograph, in the eyes of every person, you see warmth. You see laughter. You see personalities, stories, histories. You see compassion and you see tender souls. But more than anything, you see and hear a Spirit’s voice. You cannot tell if this Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of the Person. It is completely indistinguishable (and ultimately an unimportant distinction). And the voice says pleading, urging, begging, “What are you doing? What are you doing for me? Have mercy on me. Have mercy. What are you doing for me?”
In our culture, this question has almost a clearly negative connotation. We hear all the time the news pundits reducing this question of mercy into a question of politics, of social strata, of trivializing the poor. You hear arguments of people saying “Oh, they’re so entitled! They don’t want to work! They got themselves in that situation. It’s their own fault. They’re just addicts or alcoholics or schizophrenics or welfare abusers. They don’t deserve anything from me and they certainly are not getting anything from me!” You hear labels and name calling. You hear assumptions, and judgment. You hear hate, utter hate. There is no compassion or even remote understanding in these words. And I will admit I was raised with this suspicion, with this skeptical and reducing attitude. But then I began to wonder, what if we said those same words to Christ? What if we have been saying them to Christ’s face all along? What if we have been shaming and shunning angels without realizing it? How we treat the least of these, or in other words, the “scum of the earth” as society labels them, is exactly how we are treating Christ.
Not to mention the phrase “God helps those who helps themselves” is found nowhere in the Bible. Because that is not God’s model. Instead, the Bible paints a picture all over that humans are meant to rely on each other, care for each other, and to let others care for them too. When Jesus saw that someone was sick, he didn’t ask questions. He healed them. When he saw someone hungry, he didn’t make any judgments. He just fed them. Not only that, but he made it a feast for everyone, for him, the disciples, and 5000 or more hungry folk. The feeding was not an arbitrary, distant act of charity, it became a communal round table where everyone’s needs were met without judgment or suspicion, or dehumanizing people with documents and numbers. Furthermore, Jesus didn’t fail to ask for food from his friends when he was hungry after the resurrection and a long walk on Emmaus Road.
“What are you doing for me?” “What are you doing for me?” The photographs asked. “What are you doing to ease my plight? What are you doing to change the system that damns me to live and die on the streets? What are you doing to quiet the voices in my head, quiet the rumble in my children’s bellies, to quiet the rasp in my dry throat, to bring peace into my life?” This is not to say that the poor of the world need to be saved or rescued by rich people. That paternalistic and savior mentality has brought about much evil by well-intentioned people in forms such as colonialism, imperialism, the White Man’s Burden, and other various forms of proselytizing. Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist sister, once said, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” No, this is not about “helping people”. We need relationships, not distant charity. We need community, not subject-object interactions. We need love. Real love. Not shallow niceties. When the Vagrant Christ Spirit cries out to us, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO LESSEN THE HELL IN MY LIFE?!” We respond with humility and powerful love that breaks down barriers, divisions, and opens up pathways for healing of physical and spiritual needs for both parties as well as a healing of broken mindsets and systems that makes us suspicious instead of compassionate. In doing so, we bring about the Kingdom of God.
It is Christ who meets us here.
Instead of distance, let’s have proximity. Instead of distancing ourselves from the poor, seeing only the differences, seeing the starkness of a life of striving to SURVIVE instead of thrive…we enter into proximity with the poor of the world, drawing so close the clear distinction of the margins disappears. We enter into proximity and share our lives together. In doing so, we become brothers and sisters.
It is Christ who meets us here.
Instead of trivialization, let’s have validation. Instead of trivializing them into a political problem, a social issue, a statistic, or an object to use for our egos to feel good so we can feel like we’re good people…we give validation as we begin to understand the stories and struggles of our brothers and sisters. We ourselves experience validation as we realize that humans were made for more than a fabricated system defining our worth by possessions and successes, and trade in this illusion for validating love and community. Through this we begin to be reconciled to one another and to God, for love covers a multitude of sins.
It is Christ who I met on my Christmas Eve. Working a warming shelter downtown *seemed* to be a somewhat non-traditional way to await the birth of Christ. I mostly just watched friends from the streets beat the cold and sleep. The night wore on with choruses of hacking coughs instead of carols of “O Holy Night”, and even then, we had to turn people away at the door because there was no more floor space. (Even 2000 years later, there is still no room in the inn.) But while I was in that room, I was transported back to the manger. Staring at the lights from a Christmas tree next to a couple squished together on a twin air mattress so that neither of them would have to sleep on the lukewarm concrete, I couldn’t have been closer to Christ.
It is here where Christ comes to say, “Hello, have you got any more room?” It is here where we see Christ’s face, that may need a little shave or a wash. It is here where we shake Christ’s hand, which was just scrounging in a trashcan for the leftovers of your last meal. It is here where we learn Christ’s name- Cecil, Woodstock, Ken, Pete, Danny, Eric, Betty, Nate, Robert, Terrell, Teardrop, Country, Wendell. It is here where a mattress, a tarp, a bed sheet, and a throw pillow become our tithe, become our frankincense, and become our myrrh.
My challenge for you this new year is to stop searching for Christ. Seriously. Stop it. Christ is not lost, and he’s not far from you. He’s down on the Bell Road interstate exit, he’s down on Dickerson Pike, he’s down on Nolensville Road, he’s living in your nearest flea-bitten motel, he’s living under your bridge. Your challenge is to instead SEE Christ, for he is right in front of you.
See Christ the vagrant, for just as he traveled around Judea and Samaria for decades without a place to lay his head, he is in the person walking the streets making their bed out of cardboard and out of eyesight.
See Christ the homeless child to the unwed teenage mother, born in the manger or in the public housing projects.
See Christ the undocumented immigrant running away from Herod into Egypt to escape death and genocide, or maybe he’s running away from the drug cartels of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico into America to have a safe childhood.
See Christ awaiting his execution date as he explains to his disciples that he will soon be put to death, just as the 87 men and one woman await their executions on Tennessee’s death row forty minutes from this very spot.
See Christ on the cross awaiting the puncture of the spear into his side, or Christ on the gurney awaiting the lethal injection into his arm, crying out “OH GOD, FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO, OH GOD WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?!”
It is Christ who meets us here. In the projects, in the public hospital, on the streets, it is Christ who meets us here. In the pine box, in the unmarked grave, the execution chamber, it is Christ who meets us here. In the prison cell, the warming shelter, under the bridge, in the crack house, in the rehab center, it is Christ who meets us here.
He is not hiding. He is not lost. He is not missing.
He is born. Christ is come, and he is waiting for you at the margins.
Howard Thurman wrote,
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.”
Amen and may it be so.
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