Years ago when I lived in northern Illinois, I took groups from my church to serve meals at a soup kitchen in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. The shelter’s cook was a woman named Mary, who had at one time been homeless herself, but now was working on the staff of the shelter as the food coordinator.
In addition to being a good cook, Mary was also good at praying in public. Just before the waiting guests, most of whom were homeless, were welcomed in to have their meal, Mary would gather us together. We would form a circle and she would pray: “O Lord, we know you will soon be coming through those doors to receive your daily bread. Help us to treat you with respect and kindness as you stand before us. Amen.”
It was a succinct affirmation of the scriptural truth that Christ himself is present in the lowly, the forgotten and those who are often excluded by the world. It’s sometimes overlooked in the gospel readings, but according to Jesus, the last judgment itself turns, not on the nuances of our beliefs, or whether we are conservative or liberal.
According to Jesus, our ultimate judgment turns on whether we demonstrated compassion for those who are hungry, or thirsty, naked or in prison and in need of care (Matthew 25:31-46).
At a time when the church tends to divide over so many things, it seems to me that Jesus’ call to put compassionate action at the center of our spiritual lives is one point at which Christians of all stripes can feel both challenged and humbled.
No matter how beautiful our church buildings, no matter how fabulous our worship services, we will miss the mark if we fail to see the face of Christ in the faces of those in need and those left behind in an increasingly crass and competitive world. For the church, it’s not consumerism or competition, but compassion that counts.