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A Caring Heart (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 25:31-46

 Sermon:

I had no sooner read this gospel text that we just heard than I saw a story passed on to me by my friend Byron. It was about a high school student named Natalie Hampton. Natalie is a pretty girl with long auburn hair. But a few years back, when she was in the 7th and 8th grades, I imagine she didn’t think of herself as very pretty, or really very appealing at all.

She began the 7th grade in a new school, a private school for girls and a prestigious one at that. Being new to the school, Natalie had no friends there. But she didn’t really see that as a problem. She would just have to reach out, get to know people, and make new friends. No problem for her. She was a fairly outgoing and confident kid. At least at first she was.

But all her efforts at reaching out were rebuffed. It was especially tough in the cafeteria where, when she would try to sit down at a table, she was told, “You can’t sit here.” Those of us in school now or who can remember the days when we were in school, know that it can be a pretty lonely and even humiliating experience to sit by yourself at lunch time. But that is the way it was for Natalie.

As time went on, she soon became the focus of bullying by her fellow students. She was excluded, taunted, threatened, and even the subject of physical abuse. It was horrible. Going to school every day became a very stressful experience for her. Even when going into a classroom, she would start thinking about what her escape route would be. Things got so bad that she wanted to die. She couldn’t even see herself living to graduate from high school.

Finally things got so bad that her parents saw to it that she began high school in a different school. But once again she was the newbie. She didn’t know anyone. Wasn’t friends with anyone. But something happened in that new school on the first day. Recognizing that she looked confused, a boy stopped Natalie in the hallway and asked her if she needed help finding her classes. And, as she said, “it saved my life.” She found welcome in that new school. And friends. But Natalie did not forget the experience she had in her previous school. It made her more sensitive. More aware. In the lunchroom she would look around for people who might be left out, who might not have a table where they could sit with other people. And so she began the practice of inviting such people to sit with her and her friends. Some of these people she invited to her table for lunch have become among her best friends, Natalie says.

Natalie is maybe a senior in high school now. But she is the CEO of quite an important venture. She has started an app for kids in school called “Sit By Me.” It’s an app where people sign up to provide welcoming places for their fellow students at lunch time and where interested students, looking for friends, can find a place where they are welcomed. The app now has over 100,000 users in 7 countries.

If you were to ask me what our goals as a church are for our children and youth, as well as for our adults, it would be that they/we become like Natalie, that they/we learn what it means to care for others who are hurting and to act on what they/we are learning. I know churches, including our own, spend a lot of time teaching people what to believe. I know we spend a lot of time debating what scripture teaches about who is in and who is out. But unless the hearts of our children and youth, as well as those of us who are adults, are made more tender; unless our hearts are made more receptive to the ones in the cafeteria who don’t have friends with whom to sit; unless our hearts are made more receptive to the ones in our community who do not have a regular or safe place to lay their heads or enough food to sustain a healthy life; unless our hearts can be touched by those in our own neighborhoods and perhaps in our own church who feel rejected and lonely; unless our hearts can be moved to compassionate action by those in our nation who are strangers from strange lands; then I think that we are somehow not understanding what is at the heart of our faith. We are not getting what it means to be a follower of the way of Jesus.

But there have been reminders that I have received that we are getting it. When I read the note to our church from one of our college students a couple of days ago, thanking our church for giving her ways to serve others when she was in the youth group here, I realized we are getting it. “Because of the leadership in the church,” she wrote, “our youth groups have had the opportunity to send materials used to make shoes for Ugandan children through the Sole Hope ministry, tie together blankets to be sent to the guests of Manna House, and serve dinner at Room in the Inn. These service projects teach us that our faith requires us to be a light where there is darkness. We thank you for providing young people these opportunities because they show us what the Church is supposed to be: a body of love that reaches out beyond the sanctuary walls and into communities in need.”

When I was over at the home of one our members one afternoon a few years ago, I asked her where her daughters were. They should have been home from school by then. “Oh, they are downtown right now with the Burrito Ministry” (a ministry that provides food for the homeless). It’s what they do every week at this time,” their mother said. And I was reminded that those two daughters of hers were getting it.

Last Tuesday night some of us were down at Colonial CP Church cooking, cleaning, serving, fellowshipping, helping with the clothes closet, doing our part to help people who don’t have a place to live or food to eat. At the same time, some of us were over at Second Baptist at a community thanksgiving worship which began with a Muslim man singing/chanting the call to prayer. After the service, I talked with that Muslim man for a while down in the fellowship hall. He told me that he is from Morocco. And how welcomed he felt at that church that night, and how good he felt about it. And I thought about Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Thinking about those of you over at Colonial on that night I thought of his words as well: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And I was reminded that we may just be getting it as a community of faith. That we may just be getting what is at the heart of our faith.

Last week someone whose life has been touched by this church remarked to me over lunch, “You’ve got a good church, William.” And he said that because he is experiencing and seeing the care of people in this church through a difficult time. It called to mind the many times you have visited people in the hospital, taken food to people who were going through difficult times, visited and cared for sick or lonely neighbors, responded to emergencies with your care, and done so much more that I don’t know about. And I was reminded that we may just be getting it as a community of faith. That we may just be getting what is at the heart of our faith.

John Buchanan writes that “God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us… That is God’s favorite project,” Buchanan continues, “to teach you and me the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth—that to love is to live.”

So you may be the smartest and most athletic and popular kid in school, but if you don’t have a heart for those kids who are bullied and left out, if you are not willing to stand up for them and invite them to sit at your table, you don’t know what it is to live. And you may have all the things that you were taught a successful adult should have, but if you don’t have a heart that can be touched by the ones who are often excluded, by the strangers who are here because where they were from was a nightmare, by the ones who can’t afford what people like us often take for granted, by those who have been treated unfairly by the realities of life in this world, then you don’t know what it is to live.

I think the church on this last Sunday of the liturgical year sort of plays a fast one on us. This is Christ the King Sunday. This is the last Sunday of the year in which we celebrate Christ in all his kingly glory. And then on this Sunday we get a gospel that is before us today that reminds us where the king is to be found. And where we find him is a surprise to everyone—to the righteous and unrighteous, to the sheep and the goats. We find him among the hungry. We find him among the thirsty, maybe even in Puerto Rico where there is still not enough clean drinking water for many of the people. We find him among the strangers—those DACA kids who may lose their homes here and those Haitian refugees settled here who are having their immigration status taken away and people like that Muslim man who called us to prayer on Tuesday night whose presence seems a threat to some. We find Jesus in those homeless people shopping for something to wear at Colonial’s upstairs clothes closet. We find him in a hospital room or living her last ailing days at home. We find him even in a prison, passing time, feeling afraid and alone, hoping someone remembers and cares.

And, as Natalie Hampton reminds us, we may even find Jesus roaming around a cafeteria, looking for somewhere to sit, looking for someone who will say, “Come sit with us. We’d be glad for you to join us.”

It’s a funny King Jesus we worship. But that is who he is, the scripture tells us. He comes to us as the one needing our love. Which means that Jesus may come to us even in our own brokenness, even in our own darkness, saying, “Embrace me. Love me. Care for me. Even through your pain. And know what it means to live.” “For,” as he also says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, November 26, 2017

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