Martyr Vitale and Christ as the Judge (detail)
This Sunday we considered this period of transition in the life of Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, the ways in which congregations can cruise along on auto-pilot, and the ways in which these scriptures speak into that reality.
Good morning! I was going to write a short sermon this week, because I didn’t want any of you to miss the kickoff for the Steelers’ game. But then on Friday the NFL moved kickoff back to 8:20 this evening, so I figured I could add a couple pages to my sermon. Hope you’re all comfortable!
Okay, I’m only teasing about that. A little. I mean, this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew is probably my favorite story in the Bible. I could talk about it for hours—but I won’t! I promise.
The reading from Ecclesiastes is another favorite. I often use that passage when I officiate a funeral. In fact, some of you will hear me read this later tonight, as we celebrate the life and the resurrection of one of the saints of this church, Rick Matson. I find that scripture to be very comforting because it reminds me that there is a time, a season for mourning and weeping. Those are important and holy tasks, and I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves that grief is not something to be hidden away. Instead, it must be acknowledged, even as we celebrate the life of the one we’ve lost.
It also strikes me that this passage from Ecclesiastes is very relevant to our time of transition here at Rehoboth. This congregation changed a lot over the 28 years that Rev. Klein served as your pastor. During this time, we should celebrate our history and where we’ve been, while at the same time, we must acknowledge that we cannot go back to where we were. We must celebrate and mourn our past before we can move into God’s plan for the future of this congregation.
Our Gospel lesson offers us some guidance about how we might live into that future in this congregation. This scripture is sometimes referred to as the Judgment of the Nations or the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this story, Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowds that have gathered around him, and offers a definition of righteousness: The righteous people are those who feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and the sick, and welcome the stranger. Those are the sheep, the people who follow the call of the shepherd, the Christ.
The people ask Jesus, “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?” Jesus responds that whenever anyone does any of those things for anyone, they have done it for Jesus.
Conversely, those who fail to feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and the sick, or welcome the stranger—they are the goats. They are the ones who haven’t followed Christ’s call. The goats will be sent away for eternal punishment, while the sheep will follow Jesus into eternal life.
Now I’ve always loved this story because it reminds us that we are called to respond to people in need. The essence of the story is that, “when people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding to, or failing to respond, to Christ.” This is a simple idea—we have to care for one another—but there are two reasons why we need to be careful about this simple explanation.
First, if we read this too simply, we can reduce the message to this: if you treat other people kindly and you give to charity, then you will get into heaven. This is a very tempting reading, because it’s very easy—it provides a simple blueprint for salvation. But it’s not that simple. As reformed Christians, we believe in grace by faith alone. That is, you can’t work your way into Heaven. You cannot earn God’s grace. None of us can be kind enough, righteous enough, generous enough, or good enough to earn our own salvation. Rather, God extends grace to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ. That is the supreme act of love for humanity; that is God’s new covenant with all of us.
The second problem with reading this story as a simple roadmap for salvation is this: each and every one of us thinks, “I’m one of the righteous ones; I’m already doing what Jesus asks of me.” But the thing is, the righteous people in this story, they don’t know that they’re righteous. And the unrighteous people don’t know that they’re unrighteous, either. It’s a surprise to everyone!
The same is true in our world today. For people inside the church, for folks who have long since stopped going to church, and those who have never believed; most of us think we’ve got it right and we’re used to seeing ourselves as righteous. This is especially true in churches that have enjoyed long periods of stability. They go on auto-pilot. They sing the same hymns they’ve sung for years. They do things as they’ve always done them in the past, because, well, that’s the way they’ve always done things.
Rev. Klein was your pastor for 28 years. That’s the definition of stability! Sure, you’ve lost members. Sure, you don’t have as many people in worship as you used to, but that’s true of every church. Money is tight here at Rehoboth, but it’s tight at most churches. The fact is, you can still maintain your building and pay your staff. The temptation during this time of transition is to attempt to keep everything as it has been, more or less. You might hope to gain a few more members and maybe get another large bequest to balance the books. That’s tempting because it’s easy. It’s easy to look to your past. It’s a lot more challenging to examine yourselves in the present and discern God’s call for this congregation, right here, right now.
This gospel story comes toward the end of Matthew’s gospel. The disciples have seen Jesus perform miracles, feed the hungry, heal the sick; they’ve seen Jesus doing the work of building the kingdom of God. Jesus could just tell the disciples, “Hey, guys, keep doing all this stuff that you’ve seen me do,” but he doesn’t. Instead he gives this lesson as a parable. By doing this, Jesus forces the disciples and the crowd to ask the questions: “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?” In other words, Jesus forces the disciples and the crowd to examine their own actions.
This is also the way forward for a congregation in transition. These tasks that Jesus sets before us—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners, welcoming the stranger—these are the mission of the Church. We don’t do these things in the simple hope that we’ll be rewarded with a trip to heaven. We don’t earn salvation simply because we’ve done as we’re told. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide water to those who are thirsty, visit the sick and the prisoner, and welcome the stranger because Jesus did these things. And Jesus is the new covenant. We do these things to remain faithful to Christ, faithful to the new covenant.
There are many, many different ways for us to live into this covenant. And I think that if we live more faithfully into Christ’s call, we will see positive changes in this congregation—changes that may lead to growth. In his weekly letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge, who serves as pastor to the presbytery, notes that growing congregations show a strong sense of mission:
In Pittsburgh Presbytery, congregations that grew from 2003 to 2013 were equally likely to be small or large, urban or suburban, wealthy or economically challenged, liberal or conservative. What distinguished these churches was their deep investment in mission, as reflected by diversity in their congregations. They made it a point intentionally to reach out to people unlike themselves, to welcome them into the community of faith by professing faith in Jesus, and to prepare them in turn to do mission work. Why did they do this? For the love of Christ!
They don’t engage the community and do mission work in the hopes that they will grow. They reach out because that is an act of covenant faithfulness.
I believe that those congregations experience growth because their faithfulness shines through in everything that they do. And they show that faithfulness to the surrounding community. Sheldon closed his letter saying:
We don’t choose our church; God chooses us to be church. The main business of church is not what happens when we gather; that is simply preparation for what we do beyond its walls, reaching out to a world riddled with enmity and poverty with the marvelous Good News of the Gospel.
I don’t have a quick, five-point plan for how you ought to engage with the community and do the work of the Church and I can’t do it for you. But I know there lots of different ways to live into Christ’s call. And I can work with you to help define your sense of mission. You will need to define your sense of mission before you call your next pastor. In fact, your sense of mission will inform your pastor search. Then your next pastor will help you live into that vision that you folks articulate.
While I can’t do this for you, I have some thoughts about how you begin this process. The first step, always, is prayer. Ask God to equip you with a spirit of wisdom and discernment as you work to define your mission in this community. Each of you should consider your own talents and interests, and also the areas of need that you see in this community. After you’ve given some thought to those things, pray some more.
The next step is to start a conversation. Please, talk to me. My door is open. Talk to the members of the Session and the Deacons. Talk to the folks you see in the pews every Sunday. Talk to your friends and neighbors. These are sacred conversations. The Holy Spirit will move among you if you make the time and the space for these conversations.
While you’re doing these things, pay close attention to the world around you. Look for things you haven’t seen before; things you’ve overlooked; things you’ve stopped noticing. Pay attention to the lyrics of the hymns that you sing. You may find inspiration in a hymn that you’ve sung a hundred times, but never really thought about. For that matter, learn some new hymns. Psalm 40 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord. . . He put a new song in my mouth.”
Mission requires the efforts of the entire congregation. Not everyone can go on a work trip or take meals to the homeless, but everyone can find where they fit into the mission of this congregation. Some will raise funds, while others will raise up prayers. And others will learn new songs and teach them to this congregation. Everyone here can pray. Everyone here can sing—more or less. And everyone can talk. As we have these sacred conversations, we will begin to clarify our vision for this congregation. In this we will live more faithfully into Christ’s call to be the Church. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!
 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 456.
 Sheldon Sorge, “Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part II: It’s All About Mission,” retrieved from: http://www.pghpresbytery.org/news/sheldon_shares/2017/ss_011217.htm
 Sheldon Sorge, “Foundations of Life Together.”