We’ve probably all heard a million times that Christ said that in serving others we serve God, and that in order to be prepared to meet God we need to take care of the poor and marginalized. I don’t think any of us would argue these points. However, I do think we often miss something in our retelling of this sermon. We frequently use it to talk about how in serving others we can become like God, (which is true), but that is not exactly what Christ says. What Christ says is that serving others will help you to be ready to meet God, not because you did acts of service for others, but because God was in the others you served. There is a crucial distinction here. We do not become like God just because we perform service, we become like God because of what we learn of God in others when we serve them.
A few years ago this realization hit me like a blunt force to the head. I’ve quoted and heard these scriptures quoted more than almost any others. How had I missed their meaning so spectacularly?! My focus had always been on needing to serve. I wanted to love others, certainly, but that always felt a little vague. Service, however, I could grasp. It was tangible. It was measurable.
But here’s what we’ve done: we’ve done an acrobatics act in which we have changed the meaning of Jesus’ words so that the person doing the reaching out is the one acting for God. Don’t get me wrong, service and sacrifice are innate to the nature of God, and teach us of and connect us to God. But not in and of themselves. What God says is that it is actually the person who is being served who is acting for God. They are the ones in whom God is found.
Let’s be honest, sometimes in the way we talk the person being served is almost irrelevant—they exist to perfect us so that we can be saved. We don’t often see them as having rich, inner lives that exist beyond us. We donate money to feed people we won’t touch or even look at. We sing Christmas Carols once a year to the elderly in rest homes whom we neither speak to or think about again. Prisons have become multi-billion dollar industries to whom communities have relinquished all responsibility to rehabilitate its members. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that we shouldn’t have prisons or charities or Christmas service projects. But is it sometimes possible that the act of service itself may create in us a sense of self-assurance in having done something good that can actually inhibit us from realizing we are unconnected to those we serve? Are we missing out on revelation, illiterate to one of God’s most profound spiritual languages, because we are so busy checking off our salvation to-do list that we have become blind to what is actually salvific? Can it be that by serving without connection to those we serve we may be cutting ourselves off from the voice of God?
Again, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we shouldn’t donate money or service to those in need. We can’t let people starve to death until we are certain our motivation is right and pure. And of course we should be willing to help people we will never meet, or else victims of war or disaster will be left hopeless. But I do think it is important that we ask ourselves, as we go about doing good, why are we doing it? Is it to get stickers on our salvation chart? Or is it because we believe, or even just want to be able to believe, or suspect maybe we should believe, that God is in the person being served? That they, in and of themselves, might matter? May even be a revelation?
This is not an easy teaching. What does it mean that GOD, the creator of the universe, the Alpha and Omega, is to be found and connected with in the most vulnerable members of society? When I prayed to understand this better God said this was not something that could be explained through telling; it has to be seen and experienced. That is the point. It can only be known in the sacred Other. It requires proximity.
Think about this. And don’t stop with the first answer that makes sense to you. We are so bad at that. Really push. But not in your room. Not on a social media post. Not in a church lesson. Go out into the streets. A homeless shelter. A refugee facility. A juvenile detention center. An LGBTQ+ gathering. A BLM protest. A vigil for Native American girls who have gone missing and no one cares. Even <please prepare yourselves> do something kind for someone with whom you politically disagree. And in all your service, listen. Because God is not in the service, but in the person being served.
This is not to say that everything that another person says or does is from God and that we must accept it—but there is something important here, something absolutely vital. The people who we feel the least inclined to include in our fellowship, who we see as being unworthy or burdensome, are the very people in whom we are to find God. They are the ones who will stretch us; who will make us aware of our blind spots. They force us to see things about our world and ourselves we don’t want to see. They make us realize that what we have accounted for virtue in ourselves may just be the easy good nature that comes from fitting in. They are the reminder that it is not enough to proclaim the kingdom of God, we must actively build it and fight for it. And they are the witnesses as to why the kingdom of God can only work if it is built on love. Defensiveness, insecurity, fear, boundary maintenance, arrogance, by their nature create marginalized people. Sometimes in our enthusiasm to tear down the kingdom of the devil we neglect to build up the kingdom of God, but the former can only be accomplished by the latter. And the latter can only work if we love and care for and find worth in all God’s children. This is the great danger of tribalism. In cutting off the other we cut off God. We don’t get to choose who deserves mercy. We don’t get to choose whose sins deserve sympathy. We don’t get to choose who merits our fellowship. When we find people who don’t fit in, our job is not to remake them in our image. Our job is to create space. It is to expand the tent.  If we want to hear the voice of God, if we want to connect with our Heavenly Parents, we must look to the Other. It is probably the most difficult, certainly disquieting, of all the spiritual languages to learn, but it is also one of the only ones that God says we are all required to learn. And that means something important.
 Matthew 25
 THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT IF THERE IS SOMEONE IN YOUR LIFE WHO IS TOXIC OR ABUSIVE YOU HAVE TO STAY IN THAT RELATIONSHIP. I am talking about people who may be difficult and challenging to us, not who are abusive. Anyone, whether an abuser or someone who has been told about the abuse, who tries to convince you that you are responsible for your abusers behavior, or who justifies or ignores the abuse is mocking God.
 Isaiah 54:2
This is beautiful and compelling. Thank you for crafting and sharing it.
I loved this post Mary. I think you’re absolutely right that we typically invert the meaning of where God is found in these verses. I’m also wondering about our hymn A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief. There Christ is hiding as the man, much like the tradition of angels hiding as strangers. But this seems importantly different. Or perhaps once again, I’m misinterpreting what happens. Perhaps the song is trying to say in a way the same thing—with the literal words sort of getting in the way.
Wonder post, thanks! You have articulated what I have been trying to verbalizr myself. I also think it is important that we serve all psrts of our communities not tust in the church.
@James Olsen be careful! As you say, it *is* related to that old idea of Jesus masquerading as a regular person, but you are absolutely right that it’s importantly different. The point is that it is *not* Jesus, but the regular person’s identity has some of the divine in it anyway and we connect with that divine by connecting with that person as they are, not by thinking of them as a hidden or substitute Jesus.