"When Did We See you?"
Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:34-46
The Presbytery of Detroit has a new theme this year: “The promotion of social righteousness.” This is not a new thing. In the past, Presbyterians and other Christians have promoted social righteousness in a variety of ways: through involvement in the underground railroad and working for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. Christians have fought for basic rights for workers, to eradicate poverty, and for civil rights. They did so because they believed that those who follow Jesus should act to advance the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. This belief was grounded in their faith.
In the early centuries of this nation’s history, slavery was a part of the American way of life, seen as a necessary part of agriculture and of the economy in the southern and northern parts of the country. Legally, slaves were considered property and a major part of slave owners’ wealth.
The United States Constitution explicitly required that fugitives “from service or labor” must be delivered back to their owner. By 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act empowered slave owners or hired slave catchers to hunt down fugitive slaves and return them to their owners. This was the social and legal context.
In his book, Bound for Canaan, Fergus Bordewich tells how ordinary people, black and white, slave and free, joined together to do what they believed was right in a movement of civil disobedience that challenged prevailing social mores and local and federal law. This network of clandestine operators eventually became known as the Underground Railroad.
As Bordewich writes, “Most members of the underground uncompromisingly regarded their work as answering only to a law higher and more sacred than those enacted by mere men….”
Most of us know about Harriet Tubman. But there were many others who were part of the underground movement that carried as many as 100,000 fugitives to the far northern states and Canada. Bordewich estimates that the network of men and women who harbored or conducted fugitive slaves, plus those who assisted with food, clothing, and legal assistance, numbered more than 10,000.
One of the most celebrated stops in Underground Railroad history was Ripley, Ohio. Hundreds of local people were involved in the resistance work, before the Rev. John Rankin and his family moved to Ripley in 1822.
As it evolved, the Underground network in the Ripley area had three components. There were Presbyterian ministers, and there was the Chillicothe Presbytery that helped to connect the web of relationships that linked Ripley to other towns in southern Ohio.
The second component included hundreds of activist abolitionists.
The third component was a sizable population of free blacks.
Rev. Rankin and his family built a house on top of Liberty Hill. They kept a lantern burning through the night as a beacon that could be seen from across the river, signaling slaves when it was safe to cross the river and guiding them as they made their crossing to the north side.
The Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves, even if they were in a free state like Ohio. When abolitionists sheltered runaway slaves, there was always the possibility that Federal marshals, hired slave-catchers, or local law enforcement officers could demand to search your property, and you could be arrested if they found that you were hiding fugitives. In spite of this, the people of the Ripley area kept many hundreds of fugitives safe until they could safely be moved on to the next station.
Could it be any more clear that social righteousness is an essential part of our faith and how we show our love for God and neighbor? The prophets proclaim very clearly how people of faith are to live, with justice and mercy and humility.”
The Torah teaches that we are to love those who are foreigners and sojourners.
As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus, who taught that the most important commandment is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. How we treat “the stranger” or “the other” is how we treat Jesus.
So how are we called to live? Is it right or moral or Christian to look the other way, to avoid seeing those who are hungry or oppressed or in danger?
Friends, we need to be praying about this. We need to be studying the scriptures and our history. We need to remember how our nation operated out of fear when we turned away many Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust-- many of whom later perished in concentration camps. We need to be having holy conversations with one another about who we’re called to be… and what it means to have our ultimate citizenship in heaven.
For each new time and context, we who follow Jesus need to discern prayerfully how we are called to live. Our faith challenges us to see the face of Christ in those who are “the least”… those who need mercy and hospitality… those we might be tempted to fear because they are “strangers” to us.
We are tempted to live in fear. If we choose the way of fear, there are those who will try to convince us that we need a bigger and stronger military, that we need to wage war to make peace, that we need more walls and prisons and guns to keep ourselves safe, that we need to keep people who are different out of our country.
But our faith teaches us that “there is no fear in love... that perfect love drives out fear.”
Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus teaching that the nations will be judged by how we treat those who are in need and those who are strangers. Those on the king’s right asked, “Lord, when was it that we saw you in need or a stranger and took care of you?” Those on the king’s left asked, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me….Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me….’”
The good news is that we are changed through our relationship with Jesus Christ, as he teaches us to see through eyes of love. We look around and see the face of Christ in those who are oppressed or strangers or in need, and that changes how we live.
May we be found faithful as we live further into this blessed way of love and justice and mercy! So be it!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Preached for the meeting of Presbytery of Detroit
March 25, 2017
 This is one of “The Great Ends of the Church,” in our Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order.
 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan:The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
 Micah 6:8
 Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 10:19
 Philippians 3:20
 1 John 4:18
 Matthew 25:32-45