“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And 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.’” Matthew 25:31-40
In 2009 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted several resolutions that called for us, in one way or another to “recognize the pressing challenges to those living in poverty and the working poor throughout this nation and call for new and innovative strategies to address issues related to nutrition, employment, childcare, education, healthcare, environment and housing…”
In other words, “Get serious about domestic poverty, people.” I’m not sure we needed a General Convention resolution to tell us that. As Christians we already have our marching orders directly from Jesus as outlined – a good deal more elegantly – in the Gospel lesson above. In the Diocese of Maine that fall a small group comprised of few deacons, a priest, and a seminarian gathered to ask one another, “How do we do this?” After a spirited conversation, they discovered they were talking about two different approaches to addressing the needs of the poor: justice and mercy.
Mercy is the ministry we undertake to directly serve the immediate needs of those living in poverty: soup kitchens, food and essentials pantries, pastoral presence with people in deep need who might not ever attend a worship service. Mercy is the urgent now. It is a joy to watch people who are gifted at offering gentle care and mercy to those around them.
Justice, on the other hand, is the ministry of advocacy and collaboration with government, ecumenical, and nonprofit partners to get at the roots of poverty and inequality. To change public policy and statutes to ensure opportunity for everyone. It is inspiring to watch people who are gifted with ability to advocate for justice.
Most people are good at one or the other. Both are needed. Both are crucial to the work of serving “the least of these among us.” The group in Maine recognized that naming the two roles was a start to understanding how to tackle the work and how to acknowledge the importance of all gifts. The Rev. Heather Blais, who was the seminarian at the table and who now serves as priest at St. James’, Greenfield, Massachusetts, took on, as her senior project at Bangor Theological Seminary, the development of a blog called Justice and Mercy ME to share resources for both sorts of ministry as well as stories of those ministering in the field.
As always, Jesus asks us to read between the lines as we listen to his words and walk (humbly) along the road with him. Do justice. Love mercy. Figure out what you’re good at. Then do it.
What am I good at?
What is my ministry passion?
How can I practice that ministry more regularly into my daily life?
What kind of support do I need to sustain that ministry? (childcare? asking for a more flexible work schedule?)
What kind of ministry gives joy to me?
What would I like to try that I’ve never been brave enough to do?
Please share your answers in the comments. They may surprise you.
-Heidi Shott is Canon for Communication and Social Justice in the Diocese of Maine.