(Follow up to Matthew 25 sermon series)
Keenan and I love the TV show The West Wing though it’s moved streaming services now and we won’t be able to see it anymore. The show follows the goings on in the west wing of the White House during the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlett. At the end of many episodes, President Bartlett wraps his knuckle on his desk and says to whomever is in the room, “What’s next?” As Todd finished up his three week sermon series on Matthew 25 and the denominational initiative named for the same, the question that ran through my head over and over again was, “what’s next?” What do we do now that we’ve spent time in Matthew 25? What do we do now that we’ve thought about building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty? You may be asking the same question. What’s next? What do we do now? It’s a spiritual question. It’s a faithful question. Because there has to be a next step, there is always a next step, and it’s our work to discern what that next step might be.
Presbyterians tend to be seekers and lovers of knowledge. In our tradition, we love education. We love learning. Here at DPC, we enjoy various kinds of educational opportunities and we take advantage of the wealth of knowledge that is available to us from pastors and professors and life-long learners within our congregation. I’ve served in several churches now and not all churches have a seminary down the street or biblical scholars in their midst or university presidents and other academics available at a moment’s notice. One of my seminary professors used to say, “Inquiring minds want to know…” all the time and I think that could be a tag line for us Presbyterian type Jesus followers. We’re an inquisitive bunch.
And knowledge is good. Knowledge can help us to learn and grow. Knowledge can help us to expand our worldview and see outside of ourselves. Knowledge is a gift. And yet, as the apostle Paul tells the Jesus followers in Corinth, knowledge puffs up or it can. As I read the passage from 1 Corinthians 8 today, you may have been wondering what on earth the apostle Paul is talking about here. Good question. He’s talking about a very specific situation for the Jesus followers in Corinth. They have questions about some cultural customs and whether or not those customs align with faith in Christ. We may not have questions, ourselves, about food that has been sacrificed to idols and later sold in the marketplace but I’m guessing we all have plenty of questions about the world around us and how our culture aligns with our faith in Christ. It would be far too simplistic to say that our culture does or doesn’t align with faith in Christ and that’s part of Paul’s point here. In Christ we are free, at liberty to live as we please. We are free to behave as we please. For the Jesus followers in Corinth, it’s not really about the meat. Eat the meat or don’t eat the meat, Paul says, you are free to do what you like. What matters for us, as Jesus followers, is how we choose to use our freedom, how we choose to live. And our living is guided by love of God and love of others. Knowledge puffs up, but love? Love builds up. Loving others is the goal. Loving others with our words and by our actions.
When our session discussed the possibility of becoming a Matthew 25 congregation, we talked about learning more about each of it’s focus points: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty. We have a great deal to learn in each of these areas. We know that we won’t be able to begin to do anything related to these big ideas unless we really dig deep to learn more about each one. Our session also talked about the need for discernment alongside that learning. We can read all we want to about the cycle of poverty. We can learn every statistic there is related to poverty and race and churches. We can read all we want to about the history of racism in our country and community. We learn all there is to know about racism in our current culture. Attaining that knowledge will be a piece of the work and it’s a great place to start. In fact, we’ll begin that part of the work in Lent. We’ll then have to discern what to do with all that we learn. Knowledge isn’t the goal, love is. And I don’t believe that as followers of Jesus Christ we’ll be able to sit idly by when our eyes have been opened to the injustice and inequity and suffering around us. I don’t believe that as followers of Jesus Christ we’ll be able to close our doors, our minds, our eyes, our hearts. Learning and loving just may be our next steps.
I’ve often heard people say, “Why can’t we just talk about loving our neighbors? Why can’t we just hear about that when we come to church?” We can and we do. It’s our call, though, as followers of Christ to discern what that means and what that looks like…on the ground, in real life, and in concrete ways. Loving our neighbors can be a pretty abstract idea. The good folks in Corinth were asking very specific questions of Paul about how to love their neighbors. “Hey Paul, is it ok to eat this particular food? What about this sacrificed meat?” Sure, Paul says, you’re free to do as you please. And then Paul asks in return, “how does it affect other people? How does it influence other believers? How are your words and actions seen by others?” If the things you say and do cause harm to others, you’re not loving your neighbors. If the knowledge you have doesn’t spur you on to build others up, you’re not loving your neighbors. If you turn a blind eye to those on the edges and the margins, the cast aside and the cast out, you’re not loving your neighbors. As Jesus followers, we’re in a constant process of discernment. Who are my neighbors? How do I love them? What about my enemies? How do I love them? What about those who smell or are homeless or can’t catch a break or have mental health problems or have been kicked out of their homes and communities for being LGBTQ or voted differently than I did or came across the border without going through the proper channels or, or, or? How do I love them? What does that look like?
I’ve been listening to Bishop Rob Wright’s podcast, For People, a lot lately. He’s the Episcopal Bishop for the Diocese of Atlanta and he says that in order for us to love our neighbors we have to first know the facts on the ground. If we want to love our immigrant neighbors, we should know something about immigration and we get to know something about immigration by building relationships with immigrants. If we want to love our homeless neighbors, we should know something about homelessness and we get to know something about homelessness by building relationships with the homeless. If we want to love our black and brown and indigenous neighbors, we should know something about what it means to be black or brown or indigenous in America today and we get to know something about that by building relationships with our black and brown and indigenous neighbors. If we want to love our neighbors who are stuck in the cycle of poverty, we should know something about poverty in America right now and we get to know something about the cycle of poverty by building relationships with our neighbors who are caught in it. How do we begin building those relationships? By asking questions, being curious, having a conversation, approaching these relationships with humility, knowing we have a great deal to learn from all of God’s children.
So, let’s think about some things we know: we know that there is one God from whom are all things and for whom we exist; we know that there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. We know that as followers of Christ we are called to love God and love others. We know that all people are created in the image of God. And we also know that not all of God’s children are housed, clothed, fed, treated with dignity, given a fair shot. We know that not all of God’s children feel welcome in our church and in our community. We know that not all of God’s children know that the love of God is for them just as much as it is for us. We know that not all of God’s children are seen as whole human beings worthy of love. So, what are we going to do with that knowledge? We’re certainly free to do nothing. We can do as we please. The question, though, is what is faithful? What is beneficial for others? What demonstrates the love of God? What are we doing to build others up? What does our faith have to say about it…whatever it is? It seems that we are called to live our lives for the sake of others: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To seek abundant life for our neighbors are we seek abundant life for ourselves.
What’s next for us as a Matthew 25 congregation is to learn what’s happening on the ground in regarding to the initiative’s three parts. In Lent you’ll be invited to specifically learn about structural racism in history, in the church, in the world right now. That’ll be the first step in doing the work. What follows that learning will be a matter of personal and congregational discernment. The learning will be one step and we’ll trust in the Spirit of God to lead us forward into the next. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not an easy thing. It requires living with Christ at our center and everything else flowing from that point. It takes intention and energy. It takes humility, a willingness to get it wrong and to try again as many times as it takes. It takes courage to live differently. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable. It takes grace for ourselves and for those around us. I’m sure thankful that I don’t have to live this life of faith alone. I’m sure thankful that I don’t have to do this work alone. I’m sure thankful for this community that challenges me to learn and grow and practice what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m sure thankful for the guidance of scripture and the Holy Spirit. What’s next, Spirit? What’s next? Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, minds to learn, hearts to love. Amen.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care