Matthew 25:31-46 (Reign of Christ) / National Housing Day / FaithWorks Sunday

When you hear the Gospel read each Sunday, do you always hear it as good news? Today’s Gospel from Matthew imagines a scenario at the end of time, when the Son of Man appears in an apocalyptic triumph with a host of angels to judge the world. People are judged on whether they have attended to “the least of these”—whether they have fed the hungry, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the incarcerated. In other words, people are judged on the basis of whether they’ve followed the Way of Jesus. This message is certainly good news for the sheep—those gathered on the right hand of Jesus. But for the goats on the left, their prospects aren’t so good.

Will it play out exactly like the way Matthew depicts it? Well, we’re not yet at the end of history. We live in the now. And the present moment is characterized by pain and suffering. More and more people are getting very sick with COVID, even dying from it. Many don’t have enough food in their kitchens. Did you see the footage this past week of massive lineups of vehicles at a drive-through food bank in Texas? Staggering. Here in Toronto, food banks are also being stretched to the limit. Just a block away from where I am right now, people are living in tents. Perhaps it’s like that near where you live. So many people in Toronto have extraordinary needs that aren’t being adequately met. We have a housing crisis that isn’t being taken seriously. And the pandemic is making things worse.

Those of us who strive to follow the Way of Jesus have our work cut out for us. Let me suggest a few examples of how we can be more involved and deepen our care for our neighbors—and by “neighbor” I mean anyone in need whom we encounter, whether familiar or a stranger. First, we can participate in hands-on front-line work. Several weeks ago one of my neighbors, Nicole, set up a “giving tree” along a fence by a sidewalk where we live. It’s a wooden structure shaped like a tree that her dad helped build. Hanging from the tree, on hooks, are zip-lock bags of basic unused clothing items, such as winter hats, mitts, socks, shirts—in both adult and kids sizes. A sign on the tree invites anyone who passes by, who is in need of anything, to take what they need. When the tree starts looking a bit sparse, our neighbors fill it up with more clothes. Let me tell you: that tree has attracted a lot of attention. It’s a small attempt to demonstrate care, to respond to needs very close to home.

Another simpler way to do front-line work is to take the time to have conversations with people we see living in tents or asking for spare change. Not long ago, I was in a drive-through when a guy came up to my window asking for food. I bought him something, but I didn’t want to leave it there. I introduced myself; he said his name was Rick. I then summoned up the courage to ask him how he ended up where he’s at. He opened up right there, telling me about a work injury he sustained, how he lost his job, how he had complications with receiving disability payments. He told me he longs for a day when things will be better for himself. It was a sobering moment. He went on his way, and I haven’t seen him since. But that day Rick and I managed to connect, man to man. I may have gifted him with a bit of food, but he gifted me with his time, sharing his story. Encounters like that give us a glimpse of what people really struggle with, what their needs are, and what they dream of. And that should inform how we might respond.

A second way we can be engaged in care for our neighbors is to recognize that we’re dealing with structural issues. It’s one thing to respond directly to particular individuals. But there are deeply rooted structures that reinforce various crises of food, housing, law enforcement and incarceration. Let me emphasize housing because today is National Housing Day. November 22 was first designated, some 20 years ago, as the annual date for all of us to speak out and organize for affordable housing. Right now that imperative is more urgent than ever. Let me be clear: it not just a social disaster that we have people living in tents; it’s an abomination and an indictment of the priorities of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. We must demand change. It starts with a moratorium on the clearing of encampments. All levels of government should cooperate to provide survival resources like blankets, sleeping bags, new tents and on-site COVID tests. Churches must coordinate their efforts and do the same. But that’s just a surface response. We need a housing strategy. This has been decades overdue. Today is a time to speak out and write letters to our elected officials. They need to hear our voices because not enough of them are sensing the severity of the crisis.

A third way to be engaged is to support the efforts of FaithWorks (today happens to be FaithWorks Sunday). FaithWorks is a ministry and a campaign of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto that funds important work of compassion and justice among vulnerable and marginalized people. FaithWorks supports the programs of All Saints Church Community Centre and Flemingdon Park Ministry. But I’d like to highlight one other: Toronto Urban Native Ministry (TUNM), where I serve on the board of directors. TUNM is an ecumenical partnership of the United Church and the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. The work is very much on the ground, and in recent months even more so. The Church of the Holy Trinity (behind the Eaton Centre), where the TUNM offices are located, is surrounded by a an encampment of tents. My friend, the Rev. Leigh Kern who is on staff full-time with TUNM, is actively involved in attending to the needs of those taking shelter in the tents. But it’s not just happening at Holy Trinity. Near Queen and Sherbourne is Moss Park, where there’s another growing encampment. Leigh works among the people there, listening to them and caring for them. She also helps coordinate the Neechee Sharing Circle in Allan Gardens, a weekly gathering that offers community and ceremony to Indigenous people, many of whom are without housing and battling demons of various kinds. No one is excluded from the Neechee Circle, no matter who they are and what their life circumstances might be.

This crucial work is possible because of the generosity of people who believe in it and contribute financially to it. That’s why giving to FaithWorks is so vital. If you value the work being done at All Saints and Flemingdon Park, and at TUNM, why not demonstrate that by making a generous donation?

Let me conclude by saying that all of this work we’re called to do is a spiritual exercise. When you hear today’s Gospel, you might think that caring for those in need is obligatory in order to avoid divine judgment. Yes, when the sun finally sets on our lives, we all want to be on the right side of history. We want to be among the sheep, not the goats on the other side who failed to do the right thing. But what I take from today’s Gospel is less a threat and more an invitation. Jesus is inviting us, now, to care for those in need because that is precisely where we find him and encounter him. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.” If we desire to follow the Way of Jesus—not casually or occasionally but with total commitment—then we must be about the work of caring for the least of these. That is where Jesus’ path leads us, and that is where Jesus himself is. He is present in all the faces of those living in tents, those craving a good meal, those battling various demons, those struggling to stay well. There’s a disturbing paradox in the comfortable lives that many of us enjoy. We may relish our comforts, even feel blessed because of them, but do they shield us from the raw, gritty encounter of Jesus?

The challenge of today’s Gospel is to embrace that grit and that rawness—to get our hands dirty on the front lines, or at least to support generously those who are doing that very work. That’s what it means to follow the Way of Jesus. That’s what it means to be a Christian.