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Top line, bottom line

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Back in my previous church in California, during an adult confirmation class, we set up an instructed Eucharist service -- which if you've never heard of it is basically a normal Sunday morning service of communion but it was casual, informal, and we talked about what we were doing the whole way through. We talked about each part of the service, we talked about the shape of the whole service and why we do it in the order we do it, and what it means.

And at the end of the time together, somebody reflected that in all their decades of church-going, no one had ever stopped and just explain all this in normal people language. Clergypeople spend three years in seminary learning all this stuff and thinking and writing and reading about this stuff and it can be hard to bring ourselves down out of the ivory tower and back into the shoes of people who do not have masters degrees in fancy words and in theological idiom.

I am acutely aware of this reality in my work with college students and with young adults, not simply because of their age -- although they are at the beginning of their adult journeys with Jesus -- but because many of them have come to us from traditions that are wildly different than ours, or they have been hurt by churches and denominations with drastically different understandings of what church is and what church is for, and what Jesus and the bible teach. Many of them, too, have never had any of this stuff just explained to them in normal words, and others have simply never really been part of a church at all. At the most basic level its stuff like -- wait what is communion? I don't know how to read the bible, can you tell me how to read the bible. I feel like I am bad at praying, how do you pray? Or,, wow, the way that we do communion here is so different from my last church, the way we read the bible is so different from my last church, the way we pray here is so different,,,?? why?? And they are all fair questions.

So I've had to spend a lot of time in this job thinking big picture about how to talk about what we are doing here at Church, what Christianity is and is for, and what the goal of all of this is. For me, the top line is the words of the greatest commandment. We are here to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. What we are doing here is taking care of each other, and learning how to do that in bigger and braver and more open ways. We are building a community here where everybody who walks through our doors gets to get cared for too, and where the care and the friendship that we have among each other gets to get given away freely. We are here to care for each other, that is what we're doing here.

That's the top line. The bottom line for me for what we are doing here as Christians, as the Church, as this church is found is Matthew 25.

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I find it helpful to see these as two sides of the same coin -- we are here to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that means that we are to love the least of these as ourselves. Love your neighbor as yourself can be a bit too vague of a statement to meanfully employ because then we find ourselves asking: What is love? Who are our neighbors? And we find that we can mold a statement like that to mean whatever we want it to mean.

Matthew 25 helps us clarify that

if loving your neighbor means "feeling affection towards our friends and family",

we tend to already do that

if loving your neighbor means "giving care to people with whom we are already in relationship", we tend to already do that

if loving your neighbor means "showing basic kindness to strangers,"

we tend to already do that, and frankly it's kind of easy.

This Matthew 25 gets right to the heart of it and says loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means giving care and attention and material support to the least and the last, to the most vulnerable, to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, to the stranger, loving your neighbor means seeing the least of us as members of our own family and treating them that way.

And I simply think-- what a way to frame up Christianity for folks who've come to us from traditions only ever seen or experienced the church as a place of exclusion, or of gatekeeping or hypocrisy, what a way to frame up Christianity for people who've been hurt by the church or who've been told that they're going to hell simply for being who they are or loving who they love. What we are doing here is learning to love and care for one another, including people that other churches have rejected, scorned, iced out, and condemned.

I'm scared for the ways that Christians and churches and church leaders all across the country from a variety of denominations have locked arms in opposition to the LGBTQ community specifically trans people, not just to name "we disagree with this theologically" but in effort to legislate them out of existence, to make their very identities illegal, to goad violence towards them, to brand them as sinister. We know that this kind of villifying works the best when it's done to a group of people that is not present in our communities, people who are not in the room with us, people that we have not had the chance to know personally. We know that when we do not know somebody personally, it is easy to believe stories that are reported about them.

And I especially feel for the LGBTQ Christians who are being told by their peers and pastors that because of their very selves they are not just irredeemable but evil. It is a hurtful narrative that is being projected onto people who just want to live and who just want to determine and fulfill the call to serve, and love, and care that God has put in all of us. I can tell you that the queer and transgender and non-binary Christians and non-Christians that I have known are some of the most gentle, caring, self-sacrificing people I've ever met and it is a disservice to them and to the Church that Christians would try to snuff out that light.

It kind of stuns me that so many Christians have correctly identified this particular pillar of The Least Of These in our modern society and have decided simply to marginalize them even further, to take The Least and to try to make them even less. Transgender adults are twice as likely as the rest of us to be homeless, and three times as likely to face unemployment. Almost 50% of trans youth seriously considered suicide in the last year and 20% attempted it. They are facing legislation that would prevent them access to healthcare, prevent them access to bathrooms, and prevent teachers from even acknowledging them. From where I stand, a group whose very identities are slowly being made illegal seems like a pretty solid candidate for The Least Of These.

All too often it has been the Church has lead and is leading the charge against them, but I simply wonder what it would mean to believe Jesus when he says that the least of these are members of his very own family, to see that these gay and lesbian and non-binary and transgender members of our Christian family have been estranged by the Church's theologies for too long, and that they are deserving of the love, the care, and the attention that we give to the folks who it is easy to give it to.

This is hard and weird work to do, it's not always obvious or apparent the way forward but in all my work with college students and young adults, among the people who are the most earnest and excited to join us here, this is what I'm hearing -- it's something I've had to grow in skill and knowledge and language in and it's something I'm always happy to talk about with anyone.

Transgender and non-binary people are certainly not the only group of The Least of These Jesus commands us to care for but they sure seem to be a part of it -- and perhaps our work with them, if not obvious is at least evident, should we choose to pick it up.


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