For I Was Hungry

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on February 14, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Matthew 25:31-45

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

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; 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.’ 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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, you did it to me.’ 

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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.’ 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?’ 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Last week we spoke about paradoxes, the idea that sometimes two seemingly opposing truths can be true together. This week, we shift from paradox to parable, in the story known as the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. It’s outlining a sort of vision of the end of time, an eschatological vision, we’d say in the theology nerd world.

There is a separation being described, between the sheep and the goats. The idea here is that while sheep and goats might look the same or be hard to separate by us, the shepherd will know. It’s kind of like having identical twins, where a stranger may not know the difference, but the parent can easily tell one from the other. In this instance, the right hand is the place of favor, and the left is the one of disfavor. But what does one do to be in that favored position, to be the sheep? 

“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 the comments, I want to invite you to share one way you serve, one thing you can give to a neighbor. Perhaps it’s something from this list, and maybe it’s a spiritual or emotional offering. Share with us “I give…” and then fill in the blank.

What is one thing you give?

“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.”

What this list is outlining often gets used as a way of telling people to be missional, to care for those who are the “least of these”. And it’s certainly a part of the passage. But there is also more to it. 

These six things outlined here are sometimes referred to as the six deeds of mercy. Food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, and visitation. They aren’t the only things that can fall into this category, but rather they serve as categories themselves, for how we are to care for our neighbor. None of these things however, none of the deeds, would be possible without knowing what mercy is needed.

When I was serving a church in Kenai, Alaska, we had a food pantry, where we’d serve our neighbors in the community who were food insecure. Our church was right across the street from the alternative high school, where many of the students were in vulnerable life situations. The principal’s wife ran our food pantry, and so she had a good relationship with the students there. Every so often, a student would walk across the street to us with the principal to talk with his wife. 

I witnessed several of the interactions she had with the students, and each time I was floored, not because they were miraculous or profound, but because of her gift for treating the students like humans. She’d ask them simple questions. 

  • How are you?
  • What is your family up to?
  • Did you get enough sleep last night?
  • Have you eaten lunch yet?
  • Where are you staying at night?

Her questions didn’t assume anything about the student. And that’s because we can’t assume the needs of people until we know them. Just because someone is food insecure does not mean that they don’t work hard enough, or that they somehow did something wrong. Just because a student isn’t paying attention in school doesn’t mean it’s because they’re a bad student or don’t want to learn.

The last question she’d usually ask is “What do you need?”.  She didn’t pretend like she knew what someone needed to be successful or to be healthy or fulfilled. She asked them. Again, simple, but unassuming. 

Sometimes the students did need food. And we’d ask more questions, like if they had a microwave or stove at home, or if they had a refrigerator they could store the dairy items in. We’d ask if they knew how to cook the meat the pantry provided, and our senior ladies would offer advice for how to cook certain kinds of vegetables. The idea of helping people by feeding them is more complex than the food itself. And without the ability and choice of our friends at the food pantry, we wouldn’t know how to feed people well. 

If we meet someone in need, we don’t know what they need until we ask. We cannot provide help for someone without having a relationship with them first. Needs are not always systematic, convenient, or even logical to us. And we need to know that and be okay with that. When we assume something about someone, by simply looking at them or generalizing, we don’t know them, and we can’t know their needs.

In this way, we read our passage in a new light, a light that centers relationality in addition to superficial need.

“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.”

It’s almost as if we can read it as ‘for you asked if I was hungry, I said yes, and you gave me food’, and so on. We cannot provide for the needs of the least of these without first knowing them. 

I read a study a few years ago that was looking at millennials in worship. The number of young people attending Sunday service had gone down in the United States and they were trying to figure out why. There’s a Rachel Held Evans quote that I love which speaks to that question.

“You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.”

Rachel speaks to the idea that relationships are at the heart of fulfilling needs, and in order to provide well for the needs of the people, we need to start knowing them. Missional theology, when it’s done well, includes interaction in addition to reaction.

If we really are to provide food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, closing the the naked, welcome to the stranger, health to the sick, and hope to the prisoner, we need to know them.

My challenge to you all is to take note of who you might categorize as ‘least of these’ and to connect with them. Take time out of your day to know them, not just ‘them’ as a category, but them as a human being, a beloved child of God. Simply listen, not for the purpose of helping, but for the purpose of getting to know one of your neighbors better. Because the humanizing part of this is that all of us have needs. We all are in need of those same mercies Jesus is talking about: Food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, and visitation.

God gives us overwhelming amounts of opportunity to be in relationship with and connect with those who are different from us. Are we paying enough attention to those opportunities? Are we listening when people tell us what they need, or are we placing our assumption into their situation? Are we truly listening and then responding?

As we close today, we’re going to practice this. In the comments, you’ve already shared one thing that you give, a way you can be a helper, that you can help to provide food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, or visitation. Now, I want to invite you to respond with one thing you need. 

Go ahead and say in the comments “I need…” and then fill in the blank with whatever fits for you. This might be a physical need, and it might also be an emotional or spiritual need. As other people answer, focus on listening, not fixing. Focus on taking in the needs of our neighbors and not jumping to the quick solution. Because in addition to providing those mercies, we are called most importantly to understand our neighbor, to truly listen and to know them.

What is one thing you need?

Friends, as we go from this place today, may we see the other as a neighbor, a fellow sibling in Christ. May we be quick to listen and prayerful to respond with a solution. And may we be like the sheep, remembering that whatever is done to the least of these is done also to Christ, offering mercy wherever we go. 

Let us pray: God of love and mercy, we thank you for the ways you provide for our needs. We thank you for the relationship you have with us, and for the ways you encourage us to be in relationship with those around us. Help us to not only hear, but to listen to the needs of those around us. In your name we pray, Amen.

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