Sermon: You Are Here
June 11th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 70
It has been 12 years now since the Asian Tsunami was triggered by an earthquake in Indonesia on December 26th, 2004. David and I were living in India at the time and had the opportunity to be involved in relief efforts along the eastern coast of India that was affected by the tsunami, including efforts supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing. Several of the pictures shown in the DVD with the song, “Share the Well” during the offering were taken at those relief projects. The 2004 Asian Tsunami is considered the single worst tsunami in recorded history; the earthquake was the second strongest to date. About 250,000 people lost their lives, and 1.74 million were displaced (that is like having to relocate 1/3 of the population of the state of Wisconsin). But the relief response was also unprecedented with an outpouring of donations and service for the victims that saved and restored lives. One of the most common expressions we heard from victims of that disaster was, “Thank you for coming; thank God you are here with us!”
“Where are you, God?” – Psalm 70
How many of you have had the experience of being caught up in a crisis or disaster? A fire? A tornado? A devastating storm? A flood? A serious accident?
The psalmist who wrote the prayer we call Psalm 70, surely did not write it with the intention of having the prayer included in a book of songs and prayers. The words would have first been offered up to God in a moment of need, a moment of desperation. You can hear that cry more clearly when I read it in the Message paraphrase. This is what that prayer might sound like in the contemporary language of today: “God! Please hurry to my rescue! God, come quickly to my side! … Let all who long for your saving help say over and over, ‘God is mighty!’ But right now I’ve lost it, I’m devastated. God – quickly, quickly! Quick to my side, quick to my rescue! God don’t lose a minute.”
Over time this prayer resonated with many who found themselves in a similar place, which was how it was included in Israel’s prayer book along with others like it – some of those psalms imply or even say explicitly, “Where are you, God?!” That is the question that springs to the lips of many, many people when they find themselves in a crisis – even to the lips of those with a deep faith in God and with a steadfast trust in God. We should not be afraid of that question or chastise ourselves if it comes to our minds. Just know you are in good company and that God accepts, even welcomes, that expression of reaching out, that seeking for God’s presence, and that search for meaning in the midst of pain.
You are here! (places of need)
The scripture passage which has been chosen as the theme for this year’s One Great Hour of Sharing Offering is the story from the Gospel of Matthew that was read earlier. Jesus is sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, just east of the city of Jerusalem. They have asked Jesus about what the future holds, what will happen at the end of the age and the start of the new age. In response, Jesus has shared with them some of the signs, he tells several parables about the coming kingdom, and then Jesus illustrates the criterion for the final judgment, the measure for our standing before God and for our relationship with Him. But this story is not just about the final Judgment Day. It is also about the final judgment coming forward to meet us and teach us about where we can find Jesus each and every day.
Jesus begins by offering an illustration – the illustration of a shepherd – and not just any shepherd, but a shepherd king – separating the sheep and the goats. This week I learned that the separating of sheep and goats is a task that shepherd do on a regular basis, every day during some times of the year. In many parts of the world even today, sheep and goats graze together during the day. But sheep are hardier; they have thicker coats and withstand colder temperatures at night, so they can be left out. Goats, on the other hand, are not as hardy and need to be kept warm at night. So a good shepherd separates his flock based on their individual needs. Jesus, our Shepherd King, also knows how we are made, knows our unique needs – the needs of each one of his followers.
(I also learned that while it can be hard to tell sheep and goats apart sometimes, one of the clues is that a sheep’s tail hangs down while a goat’s tail sticks up. I couldn’t think of what that might be a metaphor for… if you think of something let me know later)
The needs that Jesus lifts up are not metaphorical needs, but those basic human needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, care when sick, for welcome and companionship. What we learn is that God is not just aware of human need, but that God in Jesus is actually present in human need. When someone is hungry, Christ is there. When someone is hurting, Christ is there. When someone is helpless, Christ is there. So when we ask the question, “Where are you, God?” The answer is: God is wherever there is a member of His family experiencing the lack of a basic human need. Do you want to find God? Go to a place where there is need.
You are here! (where needs are met)
But that is not the only answer to the question or the only ones in which to find God. As Jesus’ illustration continues, we hear that the Shepherd King not only distinguishes people based on their needs, but based on their response to the needs of others. When we account for our lives before God, we will be asked about our response to the needs around us.
Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun in Spain in who lived in the 1500s. She is known for her spiritual writings that include this poem: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
This points us to a second answer, to the question of “Where are you, God?”: God is in places where His people are meeting needs. Jesus taught his disciples again and again that they were to be compassionate to those in need, to be generous in sharing with others, to show God’s love to their brothers and sisters not just with words, but also with action. Peter wrote that in one of his letters to young churches. Peter himself had a very powerful experience of being commissioned by Jesus to exactly that kind of work. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus met with Peter and a few others disciples for the ‘Last Breakfast’. A few of the disciples had been fishing, and at dawn a man called out to them from the shore with instructions on where to find the fish. They toss the nets out as he says, and they come back loaded! Peter jumps into the water, swimming to shore when he realizes that man is Jesus. Together, they throw a couple more fish on the campfire for breakfast. As they talk, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times, and following each affirmation of love by Peter, Jesus instructs him, “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
Whenever followers of Jesus unite to meet needs, to feed hungry and care for the hurting, Christ is there. I have seen Jesus there when I worked with students to build shelters for people whose homes were washed away by a tsunami wave. I have seen Jesus there when I washed a homeless woman in the city of Kalkata. I have seen Jesus there when I comforted a man at Rainbow Acres after his mother died.
I have seen Jesus right here in our midst. In the place where a child’s hunger was met by a bag of food placed into a school locker. In the place where homeless men sat around a table in our fellowship hall, being fed and being provided a warm place to rest. In the place where arms have encircled those who are hurting, where a ride was provided to get someone where they needed to go. Christ is present right here when we make God’s love visible in action through acts of love, generosity, prayer. Even when we cannot be the physical hands and feet that meet a need, we can participate in God showing up by supporting others who are serving on our behalf – like Jeni Pedzinski, the missionary in Thailand. Or like when we sent our loose coin offering to help meet the needs of people who were in crisis after Hurricane Matthew last year – working through the One Great Hour of Sharing network to do that.
Giving to One Great Hour of Sharing allows us as a church, as one relatively small Body of Christ, to be present in places and in ways that might otherwise be impossible. We can extend the reach of Christ farther and get there sooner. So I want to encourage you to pray about what you can contribute to the special offering for One Great Hour of Sharing that we are collecting this month. I also want to encourage you to stay alert to places of need, right here in our midst. Listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and obey that if YOU are to be the presence of Christ in that need.
Jesus Christ is found in the need; Jesus Christ is found in the response to need.
We ask, “Where are you, God?” I’d like us to respond to that question with a litany that was written for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering:
O God of promises, you remind us again and again that you are present with your people.
When our hearts are broken, You are here.
When we wait in worry to hear a diagnosis, You are here.
When we lose the ones we love, You are here.
Where anyone is hungry, or thirsty, You are here.
When we feel like strangers, and wonder if anyone will welcome us, You are here.
When anyone is sick, in need of care and company, You are here.
When people are in prision, You are here.
When anyone needs clothing, You are here.
You, O God, are here with us when we suffer. Empower us to be with others as they suffer, our neighbors both near and far. You are here, God, in the midst of suffering – and we want to be where you are.
Closing Song: “Let Your Heart Be Broken” # 429, vs.1, 3, 5
Go forth to find Christ in the world. Go forth to be Christ in the world.