“Christ in Distressing Disguise”

Acts 2: 14 – 18; Matthew 25: 31 – 40, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – The movie I have chosen this morning for our movie sermon series is a documentary entitled, “Mother Teresa – Legacy Film.” You won’t find it in the movie theater, but you can find it on YouTube. According to a Harvard Medical School experiment, just watching this film increases one’s immune function and promotes healing. I was introduced to this unique film in a continuing ed class I am taking at the University of Redlands entitled, “Paradigms for Healing and Wholeness.”  Fran Grace, who came to preach a couple months ago, teaches the course. I was so moved by this documentary and by a chapter in Fran’s book on the life of Mother Theresa (The Power of Love), I decided to use this film as part of our movie sermon series.

Today, Pentecost Sunday, is a most fitting Sunday to lift up Mother Teresa. Pentecost Sunday is the birthday of the church – and as the church we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. God loves the world through you and me – that is our call as the church to love one another as Christ loved us.

I am aware that preaching experts say, “Do not use Mother Teresa as a sermon illustration – why because Mother Theresa is a saint – and most people cannot live up to her example. She is hard to relate to.” But what I learned in Fran Grace’s class is this, “Why study saints? (Since) they will always be a minority. (Because) the nobility that is pronounced in them is potentiality within us. One of the best ways to discern our own potentiality and meaning in life is to read about those who have fully known and owned their own.” This is why we study saints.

I am also aware that there is much criticism of Mother Teresa. She was a controversial figure during her life and after for several reasons. One reason is that she simply took care of the poor and dying without addressing the underlying issues of poverty and hunger. What is needed, believe some, is a radical reshaping of the social and economic order – a rooting out of injustice. Otherwise, her ministry amounted to nothing more than treating cancer with a band-aid. To which she said, “Love is for today; programs are for the future…Somebody is thirsty for water for today; hungry for food for today. Tomorrow we will not have them if we don’t feed them today.” To the activists and academics that criticized her, she said, “You can do what I can’t. I can do what you can’t. Together we can do something beautiful for God” (The Power of Love, p. 55).

Others criticized her rigid doctrine regarding abortion, contraception, and divorce. Points of contention, no doubt – especially these days. But I don’t need to agree fully with Mother Teresa in order to learn from her about how better to love and serve my neighbor. Of course, there are other criticisms of her – the way she treated the nuns, her misuse of funds – no doubt her name has been dragged through the mud. Mother Teresa, however, would have been the last person bothered by these criticisms because she had far more important things to take care of. It is hard to hear these criticisms in our cocoon-world while she abandoned everything to spend her life caring for the forgotten of this world. She served the poorest of the poor, entering places of disease, starvation, even civil war and bombings. She always did the most unpleasant tasks herself – “cleaning toilets and latrines, wiping the maggots from sick bodies in the streets, stroking the lepers” (The Power of Love, p. 62). Who can possibly judge a life like that? Besides, as Mother Theresa says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Who is Mother Teresa? Her birthname was Agnes. Agnes was born in Macedonia in 1910. She grew up to some degree of privilege as part of a political family. At age two, she and her family survived a violent massacre that claimed the lives of many around her. Later in life, her father would be poisoned by his political opponent. During her teen years, Agnes decided to become a nun and at age 18 she was accepted as a novitiate in the order of the Sisters of Loreto. She chose Saint Teresa as her patron saint and was sent to India to serve as a school teacher for the next 18 years of her life. In 1946, on a train ride in India, she had a mystical experience in which she heard Jesus speaking to her, telling her to form a new order working directly with the poor and the sick of Calcutta. And so she did.

The new organization she formed was called the Missionaries of Charity. They lived among the poor and the sick street people of Calcutta. Their ministry was to the sick, hungry, and dying believe that all people are children of God and God loved even and especially the lowliest. “Her first act of charity was to pick up a man, starved and covered with worms, abandoned and dying alone in the streets. She cared for him as if he were Jesus. When he asked her why she was taking care of him, she said, ‘Because I love you.’ …This was her method – to care for the poorest of the poor, one at a time. ‘I believe in person-to-person contact. Every person is Christ for me…One patient said that he felt like he’d lived as an animal on the street but would die like an angel, totally loved and cared for” (pp. 67-68).

In this video clip (5:32 – 7:16), we witness Mother Teresa’s tender care to the poor and dying. “God’s love is infinite – full of tenderness, full of compassion. God loves the world through you and me.”

Mother Teresa’s movement spread. By the time of her death, there were Missionaries of Charity in seven continents: 4,000 members, 610 foundations in 123 countries; and over a million lay workers. Her one-to-one method reached millions!

She was honored with over 700 awards in her life including the Nobel Peace Prize. She accepted the Nobel Prize only to draw attention to the poor and destitute. In fact, she canceled the banquet that generally accompanied the event and the directed the funds to the poor. “The $7,000 budget which would feed 135 at the Nobel banquet could feed 400 people for a year” (p. 63)

Mother Teresa taught the Gospel on five fingers: “You-Did-It-To-Me.” This, of course, is based on the scripture passage we heard earlier this morning. “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless, and you took me in.” She added this, “Hungry not only for bread – but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing – but naked of human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a home of bricks – but homeless because of rejection.” For Mother Teresa, the greatest disease was not leprosy or TB, but loneliness – feeling unloved, unwanted, uncared for, deserted by everybody.  We see that in the next video clip of her documentary (1:06:45 – 1:08:25).

Mother Teresa and the sisters began each morning with the Eucharist / communion. They believed that the bread and cup would nourish them, fuel them for the day’s challenging work ahead. But one volunteer who witnessed Mother Theresa’s ministry compared her ministry to the way that priests lovingly hold the consecrated host on the altar. For the Catholic, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ Jesus (transubstantiation) and likewise, Mother Theresa tenderly cared for the poor and destitute as if they themselves were actually the body of Christ Jesus. “You-Did-It-To-Me.”

While Mother Teresa said, “A smile is the beginning of love….” and she did smile often, she did, also, struggle with the dark night of the soul. Discovered in confidential letters after her death, she suffered an existential “darkness” for nearly fifty years. She wrote about this painful longing in a confidential letter, “Within me everything is icy cold…He does not want me. The torture and pain I cannot explain.” What do we do with a Saint who loses her faith? For me, it makes her work that much more appealing and inspiring. In the midst of such doubt about the Divine, she was still able to live out her faith in a passionate way. Through her own darkness, she was able to connect to the hurt, loneliness, loss of the ones to whom she ministered.   

Mother Teresa was recognized as a living saint until her death in 1996. Engraved on her tombstone are the words, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Mother Teresa was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta when the Vatican confirmed that she cured a woman who was suffering from a tumor in her abdomen. But honestly, her true miracle, in my eyes is when she treated the least of these as Christ in distressing disguise. We witness it most noticeably in this picture. She looked beyond the outer appearance and connected with the goodness, the inner light of their being.

Perhaps, that is the call of Pentecost. A Pentecost is an inclusive day. It is the day that the Spirit poured out on all people. May we be a Pentecost Church as the United Church of Christ – a church of radical inclusivity — seeing Christ within all people. Inspired by the life of Mother Teresa, may we see Christ before us, behind us, to our right, to our lift, and even within us for that is the call of Pentecost. Amen.

*Thank you to Fran Grace whose book, The Power of Love, provided much inspiration for today’s sermon.