"I was hungry and you gave me food"

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on First Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017

It’s report card time for our children.  This can be a happy time or a hard time, depending on the grades.  A time for rewards or punishments, depending on the grades. It all depends on the grades.

Since our children have been attending Quaker Valley High School, we have learned that the grades are calculated in a different way than we are accustomed.  The “formative work”—the homework, projects, and class participation—are given some credit, but the “summative” tests are worth 80% of the grade in regular classes and 90% in Advanced Placement classes.  Even if the child does every homework assignment, all projects, and actively participates in class, if he does not do well on the tests, his grade is negatively impacted. It all depends on the tests.  My husband Brian, who is a teacher, does not completely agree with this, because he likes to give his students a variety of ways to show they learned—a little extra grace, you might say.  He asked the QV teachers about it, but their final answer is: the test is what really matters.

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear the last lesson Jesus gave to his disciples before the passion story begins his suffering and death.  He describes the final judgment, when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, he will say to some of the people: “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, 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.  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.”

In this final test, the criterion of judgment-of whether one will enter the kingdom of heaven-is if one has acted with loving care for needy people. Jesus’ grading is similar to QV teachers: the test is what matters:  Did you feed the hungry?  did you give drink to the thirsty?  Did you welcome a stranger or give clothing to someone in need? Did you take care of the sick person and visit the prisoner?  Did you or didn’t you? Jesus doesn’t say anything about grace, justification of faith, or forgiveness of sins.  Good intentions don’t matter.  Prayers don’t even matter. Only actions matter. But, I want to say, what if you do your homework and study the Bible and pray for the poor, or if you do projects like host a fellowship hour after church, or attend meetings of church committees?  Surely that should count for something. 

Jesus teaches—and warns us—that what will count in the final judgment are only deeds of love and mercy performed for the needy.  In fact, at the end of his discourse, he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not to it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Our salvation, in this passage, is a matter of how we treat the least of these.  Period.  Jesus has made it clear that what matters most is taking care of people in need.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is:  how do we do that?

This Lent, we will study this gospel lesson in depth. Each week, we will focus on a different part of Jesus’ test.  For today, we will explore the first part:  feeding the hungry.

*In our world, over 800 million people do not have enough food to lead an active, healthy life. 

*1 out of every 9 people in the world go to bed hungry every night. 

*70 percent of the meals served to public school students in the U.S., were free or reduced price. 

*In the summers, those same children survive on only 1 or 2 meals per day. 

*Hunger is real even in our rich country. People are hungry for food. 

For Lent, many people give up some food from their abundance—meat on Fridays, desserts, or chips and snacks.  There is value in fasting, to help us appreciate the how many people feel hungry.  However, I challenge you that instead of giving up something—maybe to lose weight for yourself—try giving away something to feed someone who is hungry—maybe bring in canned goods for the North Hills community outreach or the Backpack program to feed children over the weekend or make a dish or volunteer time to serve the dinner to the hungry at the Center in Bellevue.  People are hungry for food.

At our Wednesday Lenten Suppers, we are discussing the book Meeting Jesus on the Margins

In the book, Lee Anne Reat writes this, “Churches are very good at feeding people.  Church folk are known for sumptuous potlucks and parties (fellowship hours).  We respond readily to calls for food at pantries that serve the poor, and many congregations serve dinners at shelters or in their own dining rooms to neighbors in need.  We give generously to organizations” that feed the hungry. That is all good.  “But is that enough?  If we look closely at a bread line, we see more than hunger for food. Each person in the line is turned inward, alone and vulnerable.  What we see goes beyond hunger for food.  People hunger for connection, hunger for relationship.”  Hunger for healing, hunger for love.

Feeding others food is important, yes, but recognizing the hunger for more and helping to fill it is the next step.  One woman I know volunteers at the North Hills Comm. Outreach food pantry weekly.  Yes, she gives out food to hungry people, but she goes beyond.  When she sees someone come in with their head down, she talks with them. She makes a connection.  She lets them know that she cares.  So that when they leave, their head is up and sometimes, they even have a smile on their face. 

Jesus does not just want us to feed people and check it off our list—did that, passed the test.  Jesus wants us to go deeper.  To be in relationship with people who are hungry—not out of pity, but out of love.  This Lent, I challenge you to make a connection with someone who is hungry for relationship.  

Who are the hungry?  At first we might think of people who are not like us:  people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets.  But the hungry can be very close.  They can be in our own neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, or families. Even closer, the hungry can be ourselves, who feel rejected, ignored, abused, or unloved.

Hunger for connection, hunger for relationship, hunger for love…Isn’t that a hunger we all share regardless of our economic circumstances?  Truth is, We are all hungry for something.

In Jesus on the Margins, Becca Stevens writes, “All people who attend church are beggars, holding out hands for a bit of bread, as we are reminded of our hunger. 

When we can see ourselves as hungry, too, then our judgment is replaced by concern; our sense of duty is replaced by compassion; our giving is replaced by generosity; our tolerance is replaced by love.

By feeding the hungry, we discover our own hunger and our own connection to others.  And we find Christ there.  When people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding or failing to respond, to Christ.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Mike Kinman writes, “This book Meeting Jesus on the Margins sets our Lenten journey in the context of meeting Christ…meeting Christ right where he tells us he will be…in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  It is a journey of seeing all of those people as Jesus.  Of realizing that those whom the world of power and privilege label as “them” are really the deepest and most sacred portion of “us.”

For Jesus, the final judgment is a simple test: Did you or did you not feed the hungry?  Simple but hard!  As your teacher, like Brian, I want to give you a variety of ways to pass the test.  I want to say to you, “Do your best.  Trust that God will make up the difference with grace. Jesus will grade on a curve.”

But, this reminds me of when I was teaching a preaching class at Vanderbilt.  I had a hard time grading my students’ sermons.  I wanted to give them all A’s for effort and faith.  One day, I told Rebecca about my struggle; she thought for a moment, and then said, “But Mom, you are teaching them how to preach the word of God.  Don’t you want them to preach so well that it makes a difference?” 

Jesus, the master teacher, wants to be sure we learn what is at the heart of discipleship—caring for the least of these—and that we do it so well that it makes a difference. 

Good news is: Jesus’ test is not tomorrow; you have your whole life to get ready and you are not alone.  Come to church, be a part of a community that practices our faith in here and then goes out and lives it.