Feb 6th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Matthew 25:31-46
One of the questions that I find myself being asked with greater frequency is “what kind of church are you?” Now, please excuse the way the question comes at me. The poor person who is asking the question is usually trying to figure out what kind of church would have me as a pastor, once they discover my occupation. The question often intended is, “what kind – meaning denomination – of church do you pastor?” Sometimes, the intended question is “what is your church like?” – and I take that to mean friendly or un-, welcoming or not, big or small, or any of the other distinctions we tend to use in order to create a mental image of something we know nothing about.
Truth be told, I kind of like the question, “what kind of church are you?” But, let’s ask it this way, “what kind of church is yours?”
Now, let me tell you about two churches. These aren’t real churches and any resemblance between the two churches I am about to describe is purely coincidental.
Church #1 is a thriving church. It has lots of members and holds multiple worship services every weekend. They have powerful worship services. They have an extraordinary teaching ministry. They have an enormous youth program. In fact, they’ve got a program for nearly everything you can imagine and a couple of things you can’t. They don’t call them “programs” though – everything is called a “ministry.” They are perceived as being a close-knit congregation and there seems to be a lot of time and energy and money spent on taking care of those connected to the church. They boast a large facility and a large congregation and everyone in their town seems to be impressed with them because they are so large.
Church #2 is a thriving church. It has fewer members that Church #1, but their worship is no less meaningful or powerful. They have lots of programs and ministries that encourage their members to grow in their faith and discipleship. They also look for ways to be useful to their community – to be a part of their city’s hopes and dreams. They look at their success and effectiveness not only by the traditional methods – such as attendance, worship, teaching, children and youth – but also by external measures – how they are having an impact on their neighborhood and community.
Now, before you answer the question at hand – be sure you hear this clearly. Both churches are vital, thriving churches. Both are making disciples and encouraging people to deepen their discipleship. Both seek to serve God and stay faithful to God.
Okay, here it is: “what kind of church is yours – ours?” Don’t answer, for a minute. Let’s consider a couple of other things.
Before we answer, let’s think about the kind of church God had in mind when God called the church into being. You hear a hint of it in the passage from Isaiah that we heard again this morning.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:3b-7)
Take a walk through Isaiah’s prophecy and one of the things you’ll encounter again and again is Isaiah calling his people to account because they spend a lot of their time and energy focusing on loving God, but they fail miserably when it comes to loving and caring for those in need.
When Jesus spoke of what God was looking for in the people God called, he told a parable that must have shaken his audience as much as it should probably shake us. You know it – you heard it again this morning – but here’s the punch-line:
Then 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And 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.’
It is interesting that Jesus did not commend the righteous for their powerful worship, how many people attended Bible study, how well they maintained their facilities, how many were on the church roll, or any of the standards we tend to employ when discussing successful ministry. There is a strong an undeniable current in the pages of Scripture that more than suggests that God is more pleased with those who care for those in any form of need than with those who pay lip service alone.
The scriptures clearly say that God desires a people – a community - a church – that expresses love for both God and neighbor.
Now, go back to the question with which we started. “What kind of church is yours – ours?” How many say we’re a little like Church #1 – a little more concerned about taking care of what we have and showing some signs of growth and vitality – expanding programs and participation? How many say we’re a little like Church #2 – calling new disciples, deepening the discipleship of those already a part – and intentionally trying to share the love of God with those in our neighborhood and city?
I think the truth is that we’re somewhere in between. We like to see more and more people discovering our congregation and becoming a part of what we’re about, and we know of the needs beyond these walls and we try to do what we can to meet them. So, we’re a little from column 1 and a little from column 2.
But, perhaps, the greater and more important question is simply, “What kind of church is God calling us to be?” Is God calling us to reach out to those who are on the margins of our society – orphans, widows, prisoners, aliens, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the disabled? Is God calling on us to care for those all too quickly and easily forgotten by the world? Is God calling us to come alongside those in our world who are under-resourced and disenfranchised?
Is God calling us to care for the city where God has placed us? Is God calling us to reach out to the city of Evansville and share the good news of God’s love for all people? Is God calling us to help this city to rediscover its soul – which, frankly, seems to have gone missing?
Is God calling us out of our comfort zone? Is God counting on us to go to those whose lives are in disarray and offer comfort and hope? Is God relying on us to retrain and re-equip those who have given up any expectation of finding employment, or education, or shelter, or economic independence, or any of the things that we simply take for granted?
Oh, I know: we are already doing much and for that we say “glory be to God.” But there is much more to do – and we all know that. But, is God calling us to stretch our energy and our resources to touch more of those who need the good news of God’s love and care?
Before us is the Table of the Lord and its simple gifts of bread and wine. It is telling that Jesus ended his ministry with his disciples by taking care of their most basic need – food and drink. He offered them something to eat and something to drink. And he told them to do this and remember.
Jesus gave to his closest friends something they could not give themselves. He gave them food and drink for a new way of life and living. He gave them the promise of his presence in their work and labor on his behalf. He gave them the sustaining presence of his life and ministry as they continued that life and ministry and as they took their witness to that life and ministry into the world, beginning where they were and expanding that witness to places farther afield.
As Jesus nourished those first disciples, so he promises us to nourish us and to provide us with all that we will need to meet the challenge of the ministry to which he calls us. Jesus promises that we will not be alone, nor will we be without what we need to do what we are called to do.
So, come to the Table to be nourished and equipped to a new day and a new way of ministry. Come to the Table to experience, once again, the provision of our God. Come to the Table to be united with God and with your sisters and brothers in faith. Come to the Table and have your eyes opened, your hearts warmed, and your faith renewed.
And then leave the Table, to touch the world with God’s endless and never-failing love. Love that is for now and evermore. Amen.