Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 25:31-36,40
“Building Congregational Vitality”
Friends, this has been a long and emotional week in the United States of America.
Yesterday, I found myself unusually exhausted for no particular reason
other than following the news cycles over the past week.
We keep finding ourselves in the midst of history in the making,
in the midst of events that our great-grandchildren will study in their history classes.
Our task in today’s worship is to remember the role and purpose of the Church,
the Church of Jesus Christ, and to encourage the renewed vitality of the Church.
In Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, he asserted that God has entrusted
the ministry of reconciliation in the world to the Church, to us, to you and to me.
Paul claims that since we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ,
we have been made ambassadors for Jesus Christ, and ambassadors for his coming kingdom.
Friends, this is how we must live and work and worship and speak in today’s confused and divided world.
Welcome to worship on this, the Lord’s Day.
As we worship today, we are reminded that the ministry of the Church has never been more important.
The ministry of the Church has never been more critical to the future of this country, than now.
The ministry of the Church has never been more urgent
than in this season of untruths and lack of understanding.
If you are visiting with us, we are glad that you are worshiping with us,
and hope that you will join us in this congregation’s mission of
“sharing Jesus Christ’s love for the world.”
At Decatur Presbyterian Church, our goal is that every child of God in this community
would come to know belonging to God and God’s people,
would become engaged in the compassionate mission of Jesus Christ,
and would discover transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In a spirit of hopefulness for better days yet to come,
and re-commitment to the role and purpose and vitality of the Church,
let us offer our praise and worship to God…
(Dudley Larus) On this Sunday that we remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River,
we recall the words he read when he began his ministry in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Jesus took out the scroll of Isaiah, sat down and began to read Isaiah 61:1-3.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
After Jesus read the prophecy, he sat down and began to say to them,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
As Dudley has stated, Jesus’ interpretation of the prophecy of Isaiah
was that Jesus was sent for these reasons:
to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to comfort all who mourn, to replace the ashes of grief with the oil of gladness,
to transform those with faint spirits into those who lift up a garland of praise.
In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, we discover another scripture related to the compassion of Jesus Christ
for those who are most vulnerable, and we discover a warning of judgment
for those who neglect such compassion.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 25:31-36, 40.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…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.”
Someone said this past week, in the midst of the shocking, yet not so surprising storming
of the US Capitol Building, that the “darkness is always deepest just before dawn”.
We do yet not know if the dawn of new light is coming soon,
if 2021 will truly be more peaceful and hopeful and safe than 2020,
or if we have not yet experienced the worst of what this season has yet to offer.
What we do know is that we must learn to live together in this country.
Our leaders must learn to work together in this country, and in our communities.
Our neighbors and our families must learn to live together, with common purpose,
with all concerned for the safety and well-being of others as well as themselves.
This learning to live together, this ideal of becoming reconciled one to another,
is exactly what the Church is called to do in the world.
Reconciliation between divided peoples is one of the high callings of the Church, of you and of me.
Whether in our own extended families or across the aisle of the sanctuary or across the aisles of Congress,
we have the important work of reconciliation to do, first for the sake of God,
and second for the sake of our broken and tired nation.
A rabbi once asked his students, When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?
One student replied, When I can tell a sheep from a goat? No, answered the rabbi.
Another said, When I can tell a palm tree from a fig tree? No, answered the rabbi again.
Well, then what is the answer? his students pressed him.
Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman
and see your brother and your sister, said the rabbi.
Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness.
(Source: “Seeking Peace” by Johann Christoph Arnold)
How can we begin to see those who stormed the capital building on Wednesday afternoon
as our brothers and sisters?
How can we begin to see those who protested last summer with the Black Lives Matter movement,
including the few who caused property damage, as our brothers and sisters?
How can we begin to see those in police uniforms, both those who sought bravely to protect the peace,
and those who perpetrated shameful deeds, even deadly violence upon black and brown bodies,
as our brothers and sisters?
We are one human family.
There is no one who is righteous, not even one; all have fallen short of the glory of God.
We are all accountable to God, after all, for our thoughts and our deeds, for our words and our attitudes.
In this country, we pledge that we are one nation, under God, indivisible.
And yet, are we indivisible? Are we open to working toward unity with all?
This week, we found ourselves teetering at the edge of a deepening chasm,
with no sense of unity and only a few, it seemed, calling for people to come together.
Most seem resigned to drawing lines in the sand, choosing up sides, and duking it out.
Friends, let us return to the role and purpose of the Church. In I Corinthians 5:15-20, we hear:
Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;
even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new! All this is from God,
who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us;
we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…”
Some of you may be aware that one of the 20th century’s best known Church historians,
who also happens to be one of the world’s most respected Latino theologians,
lives just down the street, about a mile from here on South Columbia Drive.
Justo Gonzalez and his wife, Catherine Gonzalez, live on the left hand side of South Columbia Drive
not long before you reach Decatur’s new Legacy Park.
Catherine enthralled two generations of students at Columbia Theological Seminary
with her engaging lectures on Church history, while Justo taught at Candler seminary
and wrote numerous books that he has shared with the global church.
In the recent edition of The Christian Century magazine,
Justo wrote about how his mind has changed over the years.
“Looking back now at what I wrote at that time, I see some points on which I have changed my mind.
Perhaps the most notable change in my ideas has to do with my first book, Revolución y encarnación.
While I would still emphasize the centrality of the doctrine of incarnation
and its significance for our social engagement, as I did in that book,
my understanding of eschatology and its function in the Christian life has changed radically.”
“Eschatology”, for those new to such terms, refers to branch of theology concerned with the end times,
regarding the final events of history and the ultimate destiny of humankind.
Justo continues, “Today I would emphasize the importance of eschatology
not just as something for which we wait but also as the future from which we live.
Eschatology, precisely because it is the expectation of the (coming) reign of God,
means that our engagement in the present social, political, and economic order
must be shaped by our knowledge of that other coming order,
out of which we live and which we seek to proclaim.”
(Christian Century, How My Mind Has Changed: There’s No Theological Education Pipeline Anymore, December 23, 2020)
In other words, as Christians, we engage our present social, political and economic order,
based on what we believe about God’s coming order, the kingdom of God,
which has already been ushered in through Jesus Christ, but is not yet fully realized.
It is our ideal of the kingdom of heaven that is to shape how we live and speak today.
So, if we believe that in the kingdom of heaven, “all dividing walls of hostility have been broken down,
(Ephesians 2:14) then we do not participate in building walls of hostility!
If we believe that in the kingdom of heaven, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,
male nor female, for are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28),
then we live and organize ourselves and our Churches and our governments according to that belief!
If we believe that in the kingdom of heaven, the hungry are fed, the weary find rest, the sick are cared for,
the captives are set free, the oppressed receive good news, and the strangers are welcomed,
then we seek to do those things! We participate in what Jesus came to accomplish!
Carey Neiuwhof writes a regular blog post that often catches my attention. This week he wrote:
“It horrifies me that some in the church have descended into a lot of the hatred,
vitriol and division that has come to plague our culture.
Especially in a season like this, the culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself.”
(Carey Neiuwhof, blogpost January 7, 2021)
Our culture, our nation, needs not an echo of itself, but an alternative to itself.
Such is the kingdom of heaven. This is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer,
“thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Today, we have begun a three week study of what it means to be a Matthew 25 congregation.
Last summer, our session responded affirmatively to the invitation from our denomination
to become a “Matthew 25 Congregation”, which could mean many things
for the future emphases of this congregation.
The three particular emphases that our denomination is encouraging are these:
First, building congregational vitality.
Second, dismantling structural racism.
Third, eradicating systemic poverty.
These are high and lofty goals, no doubt, and yet they are goals worthy of the Church’s best energy
and focused attention.
If we pursue these goals, no doubt we will move a bit closer to the ideal of the coming kingdom of God.
Today, as we talk about the role and purpose of the Church,
we address the first of these three lofty goals – congregational vitality.
Oxford Languages defines vitality as “the state of being strong and active; energy”.
Vitailty is defined as “the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things”.
(from Oxford Languages)
What makes a congregation strong, what gives a congregation life and energy, is the Holy Spirit.
If we desire for our congregation to be strong and active, with energy,
we will look to the Holy Spirit to give us continuance of life, to enrich us with new life,
to guide us into new ways of being, into renewed hopefulness for a common humanity,
into being transformed.
On Wednesday evening, I gathered on Zoom with our Chancel choir for fellowship and prayer.
It had been a long and chaotic day.
One of our choir members, Susan Tribble, shared a quote with us that resonated with our conversation.
The quote is from John Lewis and can be found in Jon Meacham’s new book,
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. John Lewis said,
“I think there’s something brewing in America that’s going to bring people closer and closer together.
Adversity can breed unity; hatred can give away to love.
We need a leadership of love now, a strong leadership to lift us, to transport us,
to remind us that God’s truth is marching on.
We can do it. We must do it. We have to go forward as one people, one family, one house.
I believe in it. I believe we can do it.”
Friends, do you believe? Do you believe in the power of hope?
Do you believe that we, the Church, entrusted with God’s ministry of reconciliation –
for such a time as this – can help our nation go forward as one people, one family, one house?
Do you believe that we, the members of the Church,
can recognize disagreements without being so disagreeable?
Do you believe that we, the Church, can we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us?
Do you believe that we can we work together across divisions,
and even bring down walls of division, for the sake of the common good?
I am tired of the hateful speech and division.
I believe that many of you and many in our nation are so tired of the hateful speech and division,
which led to the harmful violence and the deaths of five people this past week.
We will only be released from the grip of such division, and the leaders of such division,
if a clear alternative is offered. The Church offers an alternative in Jesus Christ.
The only thing that will overcome the despair and chaos and hate that strangle us
will be the hope and peace and love of Jesus Christ that promises to free us.
Friends, let us not gloat over victories, nor double down on divisions.
Instead, let us be the Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, bearing seeds of hope, speaking words of peace,
committing actions of love, living and speaking God’s ministry of reconciliation every day.
(adapted from Carey Neiuwhof, November 4, 2020)
The darkness will eventually give way to the light.
We will know we are living in the light and we will know that God’s kingdom is present
when we look into the face of every man and every woman and see our brother and our sister,
and not only see them, but desire in our hearts to be reconciled to them.
By the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the awe-inspiring grace of Jesus Christ,
may God make it so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church