A Secular Age
The Desert Fathers

Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy

Matthew 25:34-40; Micah 6:6-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 April 2022

            In sixth grade I played soccer.  We practiced on a field about a mile from my house that was part of the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, close to the football stadium.  When soccer practice was finished, our legs would be covered with a sticky, orange dust.  When you showered at home, the orange would run off of your body in waves.  Also your soccer shoes and socks took on an orange stain regardless of how many times you washed and bleached them.

            We knew that the orange dust was the result of the field often being flooded by nearby Tar Creek.  Because the water in Tar Creek was a bright orange ribbon running through the landscape.  We knew it was stained orange because it flowed through an area of closed mines.  For in the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our county had provided much of the heavy metals that the US used in manufacturing and fighting two World Wars. 

            To me it was ironic that this polluted creek flowed through the richest neighborhood in town, for a long stretch bordering the estate of the Coleman family who had owned the mines. 

            We knew it was polluted.  But somehow, we never really thought about how toxic it was.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and read an article in Time Magazine that I had the epiphany that I had routinely been poisoned as a child by heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and magnesium.  I’ve long pondered how we didn’t know that, didn’t realize it, weren’t up-in-arms as a community about that?  Willful ignorance?  Corrupt and venal political leaders?  The effects of that lead on our brains?

            It wasn’t just the orange residue in the soccer fields.  The mine tailings, called chat, which is something like gravel, were/are piled in giant mounds that rise in northern Ottawa County near the Kansas border like small mountains, creating a weird and fascinating moonscape.  People went there to play, to climb the chatpiles, to ride dune buggies.  People also used the freely available chat for all sorts of things, in particular as gravel for roads and driveways.

            My grandparents driveway was gravel.  As a young kid I’d play in it much like a sand box, using tools to shape roads and hills and cityscapes to drive my cars and toys.  I don’t know that my grandparents gravel came from a chat pile, but it very likely did.  As did that along the county’s gravel roads.  Which means I played in the residue of heavy metals.  And every time a car drove down the county road and kicked up dust that blew in across the farm, dust so bad that my grandmother would clean her living room twice a day, we all were likely breathing toxins.

            The person who did finally take the lead on addressing this problem and both informing and mobilizing the community was Rebecca Jim, who was one of my high school counselors.  It was in her role as sponsor of the Indian Club at high school that she and a group of students began to raise awareness.  Eventually Rebecca retired as a school counselor in order to full-time lead the agency working on cleaning up this environmental disaster and restoring the waters.  Some people believe the problem is too big and that the creek will never be clean again, but Rebecca refuses to believe that.  She says, “We want swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I’m still working for the day when we can say, ‘yes, meet me at the creek.’”

            This very familiar biblical passage in Matthew 25 includes a list of ministries that have collectively come to be called the “Works of Mercy.”  Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison.  And most churches, regardless of their theology or politics, usually have ministries that try to address some or all of these needs.

            Ragan Sutterfield, whose article has guided our Lenten worship series, writes that “A world in the midst of ecological crisis is a world in need of mercy and compassion.”  And so as we contemplate what spiritual practices are required of us in order to living faithfully, sustainably, and resiliently at this time in the world’s history, Sutterfield believes that the Works of Mercy in Matthew 25 are a great place to begin. 

            And so he invites us to renew our imaginations and look again at this familiar list of ministries and see how we might embody them in the midst of an ecological crisis.  So, for example, if one of the teachings of Jesus is that we must give water to the thirsty, surely that means we must have fresh, clean, healthy water.  Which means that if Christians are to faithfully live into this work of mercy, we must also be concerned with the state of our waters.  Our work of mercy then means being concerned about a place like Tar Creek and the heavy metal pollution from discarded mines and its many impacts upon the landscape, the waters, and the health and well-being of humans, plants, and animals.  Our faithfulness to God expands our vision, our concern, and ultimately our work far beyond what we might have initially thought.

            As Ragan Sutterfield writes, any work we might do on a particular environmental issue actually must be seen within its wider connections to a host of other moral concerns, so we should seek to do our works of mercy “within a frame of healing the whole.”

            He was one of seven contributors to a booklet entitled Embodying Care: The Works of Mercy and Care of Creation that engages in this act of reimagining the teachings of Matthew 25 through this wider lens of creation care.

            If Love is the “center of creation,” which follows from our Christian teaching about the nature of God, God’s work in the world, and God’s expectations for human beings, then love will be at the center of our focus in spirituality and service.  The booklet reads:

Our work is to cultivate our affections for the gifts of creation, which includes our own lives.  When we begin to love the creation, giving our care and attention to it, we will begin to move into the life of the Creator, the community of God called Love.  Love binds together all.

            This being a communion Sunday, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of feeding the hungry by Episcopal priest Nadia Stefko.  She ties this work of mercy to communion.  She describes the communion table as “our fullest expression of covenant eating,” and points out that this “sacramental encounter must infuse and inform all of our eating throughout the weeks of our lives.”  So the lessons we embody at communion should be shared throughout our normal interactions.  How so?

            She asks us to consider what it means when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry. Who exactly is hungry?  Honestly, we all are.  She writes, “So when we talk about how best to feed the hungry, we are talking about how best to feed all of us—about how we humans take our life from the life of the world around us.”  And so our concern and our work of mercy should broaden to include how food is raised and prepared, the many issues related to the agricultural economy.  All of this enters into our covenant with God and with the world.

            Nadia Stefko provides six suggestions for how to reimagine this work of mercy, feeding the hungry.  First, we need to learn what we can about food and its production.  Second, we can’t just be passive consumers, but should be engaged in our food preparation through gardening, cooking, hunger relief efforts, and more.

            Third, we should do our best to eat locally.  Her fourth suggestion builds on this idea—we should also build local community around our food by getting to know people through food—eating together, cooking together, raising it together.

            Her fifth suggestion is very important—“acknowledge your limits.”  Our individual actions will not fix everything that’s wrong with our current food economy.  We cannot achieve a “morally pure diet.”

            And her final suggestion is to “remember always to say grace.”  She expands on this idea:

Giving thanks for food is a countercultural act in two ways: It speaks against the commodification of food by naming it as gift . . . and it articulates gratitude for what is present before us, over against the fear about what is absent—the fear that fuels the myth of scarcity that is embedded in our dominant food systems.

            So, these are just a few ideas connected to one of the works of mercy.  We could perform the same reimagining with each of the others.  I encourage you as part of our Lenten reflection and preparation to engage in this reimagining.  How might your spiritual practices, your acts of service and ministry, be conceived of through the lens of creation care and healing the whole?  What then are some specific new things you might do to continue to live, in this season of sustainability and resilience, as a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus?

            I want to close with another statement from Ragan Sutterfield.  He writes “Our call is to love and care for our neighbors within our limits.  This is work enough for those who engage it fully—and for some corners of creation, it can make all the difference.”

            I loved that statement.  Sometimes we get overwhelmed by all the issues of justice, peace, and morality that call for our attention and time.  But we each individually have limits.  We need to remind ourselves that the church universal and all people of goodwill are working together and collectively on these issues.  All we must do is our part.  Rebecca Jim was just a school counselor who got concerned and motivated about the polluted creek that flowed where she and her students live.

            So go and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  This is work enough for all of us.

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