Evening Prayer at St. Luke's Chapel, July 21, 2011 (translated from Japanese)
Joshua challenges us to "choose this day whom you will serve"—either the true, living God or everything else that we take to be gods. Take your pick, he says.
Well, to jump to the end of a long and dynamic sermon, you should choose to serve God. Because God is the One who made you and loves you and can give you abundant life. And all the other gods, in the end, give you absolutely nothing.
But that's not where I want to go this evening. I'd like to simply take as given that choosing to serve God is a good thing, in fact, the most important thing we can do with our lives. More specifically, serving Jesus is the most important thing we can do with our lives, because Jesus is the face of the God who loves us.
But I want to think about the question, How? How do we serve Jesus? Do we sacrifice virgins? Do we go on jihad? Do we put little sake jars in front of our Jesus shrine? Do we throw a big wad of cash in the offertory box?
Well, Jesus tells us how to serve Him:
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt 25:40)
So we serve Jesus by serving those who need our help.
Incidentally, this is one of the things the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche hated about Christianity: Its sentimental attempt to serve the least, the last, and the lost. In a world where the fittest survive, Nietzsche thought, Christians actually go against nature by showing compassion to the "losers," the weak and those who are made weak in society.
Well, few people have the cajones to say it as clearly, or the intellect to say it as forcefully as Nietzsche, but certainly the spirit of Nietzsche is alive and well in, say, the hearts of government bureaucracies.
Last week, I visited a free clinic down in Sanya (an area along the Sumida River near Minami Senju). I spent the morning at the clinic and the afternoon delivering food to the guys who live in blue-sheet tents along the river.
Currently, there are less than two dozen tents out there. There used to be about 300. When I asked why the decline, they told me "it's because Tokyo Sky Tree got built, and you can see the tents from the observation deck."
So I guess if you can't see it, it's not there. Only civil servants and toddlers think that way.
But I don't want to pick on apparatchiks. Nietzsche was simply giving expression to something that actually lies in every human heart: a basic lack of interest in the plight of my neighbor.
From time to time, this lack of interest changes into outright hatred. Usually that happens when the plight of my neighbor starts to impinge on my life.
Just this morning, I was at Asakusa St. John's (a church which runs a Sunday food bank operation). Today, they distributed over 600 hundred rice lunches. They started at 9:30 and ended at 9:50. Just about 20 minutes.
There were heaps of volunteers there to make absolutely sure that there is no littering, no loitering, no wandering around, no urinating, no sleeping. The men (and a few women) are led from a major avenue to the church, and back to a major avenue again.
But even all of that is not enough, of course. Some of the neighbors are outraged at the simple fact that these homeless men so much as enter their airspace. The only thing that will satisfy the neighbors is to go back to their former state of total disinterest as soon as possible.
Well, Nietzsche would be very proud of that neighborhood! Jesus, maybe not so much.
I think, as followers of Jesus, as the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16) grows within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we gradually tend to turn our eyes to the poor and the weak, just as Jesus did.
At first, our compassion might be simple obedience to Jesus' command to "love your neighbor." But then I think, by the outworking of grace, we actually begin to love the people Jesus loves, little by little.
Furthermore, what we find in the act of serving those who need our help, is that in some mysterious way we are encountering Jesus himself:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matt 25:35-36)
When I was in seminary in the States, one of my teachers was a former Benedictine monk and priest. Fr. Dyer served for a short period of time with the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. He used to talk about that experience in class.
One day, Fr. Dyer was sent out with a Sister who was a former doctor, to take care of people who had fallen by the roadside. They met all sorts of people, but that day a man with advanced leprosy saw Fr. Dyer's collar and began to implore him: "Father, lay hands on me and pray for me!"
The man's disease was pretty advanced. His nose and ears were gone, and his head was covered with boils and scales. Fr. Dyer panicked, worrying about contracting leprosy. He asked the Sister for advice. "Sister, what should I do? Is it okay to touch him?"
The Sister responded calmly: "What would Jesus do?"
"No, Sister," Fr. Dyer said, "I'm asking your medical opinion."
"Out here, I'm not a doctor. I'm a sister. And what do you think Jesus would do?"
Knowing what the answer was, Fr. Dyer swallowed his uneasiness and put his trembling hands on the man's blistered head and began praying.
As soon as he touched the man, Fr. Dyer said he felt an overwhelming warmth. And the face of the man in front of him began to shine. And Fr. Dyer had the strong sense that he was actually touching Jesus Christ.
In that moment, Fr. Dyer said he felt the presence of Jesus more powerfully than anything he had ever felt before or since.
I think that's an amazing story. I also think that not many of us will ever have such a clear experience of grace like that. But I do believe that there is something going on when we reach out in service to those who need help.
I felt that in my trip to Sanya last week. I can't really explain the feeling. I felt happy simply to be there, with the homeless guys, breathing the same air.
I think Christ is somehow present when we serve those who need help. It has nothing to do with whether or not the other person is holy or innocent. It's just that Jesus is somehow present with them. Just as during His ministry in Israel, Jesus is most at home with those who have the most need of God.
So if you want to encounter Jesus, we know at least two places He is sure to be. One is among those who are weak and small. And the other is in the Eucharist, where Jesus becomes weak and small for our sakes.
Let us go to meet Jesus in both places as often as we can. To those that do, Jesus promises that they ARE already blessed now and WILL BE blessed forever, in the kingdom of our heavenly Father.