"When you're here you're family" It’s ironic to me that this is what the Olive Garden restaurant advertizes on TV.Amazing food and happy people. Come! They encourage us to come because when you’re here, “you’re family.” But then if you go, you know the drill- give us one name, take a pager and they tell you a number- how long you have to wait to be “family.” If you’re like me you‘re known by a lot of numbers. Customer number, Social Security number, drivers license number, insurance number. Our news is about numbers too - the number of unemployed, uninsured, incarcerated, below the poverty line, over 65. Now some Super Committee is supposed to find the magic numbers that will save us.
Even in our ministry we talk in numbers- how many people who came, how many bags of food, how many tortilla chips to make a serving for one person. It’s disheartening to be seen as a number. Categorized, prioritized and sorted. This is how we read today’s words- it’s about sorting and labels and ultimate fate. How many will we be with Jesus? The saddest thing is that while we long for caring and connection, all our behaviors and numbers reinforce keeping each other strangers. So even when we approach Jesus’ commandments of love, fear of risk leads us to domesticate hospitality and caring to safe numbers. People we identify with we will care for. Blind to everyone else who’s still just a number or a label. We think all these numbers are a part of life, but their rule of over us brings the opposite. Suddenly we’re all strangers to someone. Good thing Jesus doesn’t tell us what we tell kids- “don’t’ talk to strangers.”
Our Ruler and Shepherd has a different vision. And it’s personal. Good news for all feeling swallowed up in the crowd. God took on flesh and challenged all our assumptions, seeking out lost, helpless, scattered and neglected. Through Christ, sheep were sought and restored. God is still seeking us out, bringing us back from scattered places, giving us the food and strength, healing and hope we really need. Drawing us into God’s family and into true life. Christ alone has the power to do this. Christ alone has the heart to shepherd us to this new place beyond numbers and strangers. This is what we celebrate again this day. Our worship and sacraments remind us of God’s power and love. They start with something different. We’re not sinner number 5437. We’re Jane, Michael, Nancy and Zach. The world wants to treat us as statistics, God speaks our name. Others say we’re ineligible or unqualified. God claims us. And makes us new family. Teaching a new way of being that worships Jesus and not our numbers brings salvation. And we’re called to praise and live Christ’s power and love in ways that are personal and continue challenge our assumptions. To go beyond statements about others that start with “I didn’t realize.”
To tell others beyond here, they’re family too.This is what happened to a woman in Seattle. Her church decided to help host a homeless tent city. Seattle lacked enough shelter housing but required the homeless to move every few weeks. Churches took on the project of offering space. They signed up for doing their Christian duty.
But many worried and calculated the cost of water, trash, risk, inconvenience. They felt obligated to help “the least,” but their identity and the cost were uncomfortable. Numbers and labels. This is how the woman felt too, but after awhile, she decided to bake bread and take it out to them. She liked to bake. Her warm bread began conversations. She found she enjoyed talking to some of “them.” They liked her bread. She felt good. Then one day it happened- she recognized a familiar face- and realized this “homeless man” was a long lost cousin. His “issues” had scattered him away from family. Everything changed. He wasn’t some “needy poor soul”- he was family. It re-shaped her whole understanding. Her needs and his were healed. Transformed, she pursued offering worship, then Communion and real hospitality, then advocating for things she saw with new eyes.
Maybe that’s what the disciples mean when they say- when did we do what you asked Jesus? When she went out she knew she was trying to live faithfully, but she didn’t fully realize she was bearing Christ or that she would meet Christ. But it happened. Real love and hospitality happened in an unexpected, untamed way. Bringing restoration and community and life to many. A small gesture grew into an encounter with Christ’s embodiment of true hospitality. Beyond social obligation, needs, labels and numbers, seeing people with names and stories, all needing to hear and see again Christ’s life-changing power and love. When we embody this vision in our living and being, God brings an end to effects of “nameless and faceless.” It starts with feeding and clothing, visiting the sick and imprisoned, but they’re more than a list or a social obligation. They are brothers and sisters.
When we meet them, we can expect that in Christ and by Christ we and they will be shaped and transformed. Becoming more than a babysitting service or a meal plan, or a polite smile. More than just a social service agency handling our share of the numbers. Because while it starts with everyday things, what we proclaim with these things is the power and hope of Christ. We proclaim that through Christ we will all be transformed. Bags of food, Kleenex, note cards, microwave popcorn, Advil, budgets for spending and rooms in this building- reflect the power and hope we seek and find in Christ. Our living and being are the out-flowing of who we become in Christ. Bearers of the love of Christ who are taken to the places of others’ deepest needs where we’re reminded by Christ of our own needs. Then we realize others aren’t so strange after all. They are us. We’re family: Weak and vulnerable, with wants and fears as our common story. YET met by the true source of grace and power-Christ. Christ continues to shepherd us to cross that distance from “stranger” to kin, from death to life, reminding us that through Him we all hear- “Come, God has prepared this for you. You’re not a stranger. You’re family.” AMEN