Surprised by Grace

On the last two Sundays the gospel readings were two of my favorites. There was Last Judgment Sunday with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats. We should all be familiar with the passage. If you are not, dust off your Bible and look it up. Then it was Forgiveness Sunday with Matthew 6:14-21 about laying up treasure in heaven.

What strikes me every time I read or ponder Matthew 25 is that everyone is surprised. The sheep are surprised, because they do not remember doing anything for Christ. The goats are surprised because they don’t remember ignoring Christ.

If I feed the hungry in order to feed the least of Christ’s brethren and thus assure myself of being a sheep; the only way I could be surprised at the Last Judgment would be to discover myself to be a goat. And that is what I would be; for I would have “presumed against the grace of God” thinking I could cover my sins by my own works and somehow buy salvation.

Now it is clear that God wants us to serve the poor, the infirm, the disenfranchised and those in prison. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) It is equally clear that if we do these things in order to receive something in return we are missing the point.

Luke 17:10: “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
Why does God want us to care for the poor?

God could directly distribute to everyone exactly what they needed each day. He did that with the manna in the wilderness for a nation of about two million people for 40 years. If anyone gathered more than they needed it wouldn’t keep. If anyone gathered less than they needed, God multiplied it. But how did that work out for the growth and maturity of the Israelites? You would think they would have great faith after seeing a miracle every day for 40 years.

No. They grumbled and complained that it was always the same miracle. They wanted meat. God sent so much quail their way that they had so much meat they were sick of it and complained about that. Quail for 2,000,000 for two weeks in the Sinai Desert. That’s some miracle! The point of my recounting this is that they apparently did not grow very much from this experience.
God still provides enough every day for everyone’s needs. He has entrusted us with the work of distributing it. This is where faith, hope and love come in. We need to have faith that God has actually provided enough for everyone today. We need to have hope (which is a confidence of future events) that God will do the same tomorrow and for all of our tomorrows. Then we need to act in love to share God’s provision according to the mercy that we have received.

This calls for growth in godliness. God has arranged things so that we have opportunity to become more like Him. Caring for the poor and disadvantaged changes us for the better, if we learn to do it in love.

When I started to serve on the street, I did so out of a sense of social justice, wanting to help the poor, urban churches who had been strapped with overwhelming tasks with dwindling resources, thanks to white flight. That sort of motivation does not sustain a person. I have witnessed many an angry young man burn out or even become spiritually shipwrecked.
Thankfully there were older folks and prison inmates praying for me daily. Gradually, I was surprised by grace.

Sometimes I would just want to stay home. I would make myself go out of shame for not having a real good reason to stay home. Every time I would end the night feeling so blessed, because I had made a new friend or had seen God provide in a special way. Occasionally I am still tempted not to go on a Thursday night, but I have more than 18 years of memories of how my life would be so much poorer were it not for the encounters I had on the nights I almost skipped.

So my motivation has grown from that of an angry young man feeling guilty about growing up in the upper middle class; to shame at not continuing something I started; to knowing my week and my life would be less interesting if I didn’t go; and occasionally I feel like I may actually love some of these people. I think this is what growth feels like.

How do we send treasure to heaven? Money doesn’t go to heaven, but people do. Jesus is telling us to use our treasure to serve people by praying, fasting, forgiving and giving alms. Again we are called to growth. Whether our treasure be time or possessions, whatever we spend it on, our hearts follow it.

Jesus is telling us to stop using people to acquire possessions and to start using our possessions to serve people.

Anyone is welcome to join us in serving the poor on the streets of Philadelphia. Perhaps it is a place for you to grow. We don’t care why you try it. We just hope that along the way, you will make some new friends and maybe even be surprised by grace.