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Marks of Vitality: Outward Focus

Marks of Vitality   •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  18:26
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A vital congregation turns its focus outwards, out into the neighborhood and to the needs of the community. This is mission, to love and support the shalom of the world. And it is in these places, out and involved with the lives of others, that we encounter Jesus himself.

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Matthew 25:31-46

The New Revised Standard Version The Judgment of the Nations

The Judgment of the Nations

31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Introduction

Good morning. We share the hope in Christ as a people gathered in many places, yet as one body. This morning we’ve decided that it is best for our congregation to worship from their homes, rather than gather together in a large group because of the threat of spreading illness among ourselves and to more vulnerable populations of people.
We could feel sadness because of our distance. But I hope that today we would find resolve and purpose because of the state of our world. This is a moment for the Church to rise up, to live out its mission as the Reign of God on Earth, to stand for those in need and care for all who bear the image of Christ through our actions, in thought and word and deed.
This morning, I’m going to continue preaching through the series of Marks of Vitality, associated with the Vital Congregations Initiative which our congregation is exploring this Lenten season. As only the Spirit of God can do, this morning’s text seems most amazingly prepared for us as we wrestle with what it means to be the church in times of crisis and confusion.
Let us pray.

The Church Social Club vs. an Outward Focused Congregation

This morning’s Mark of Vitality, the third Mark we will explore is being a congregation of Outward Focus. Last week, remember, we looked at how healthy followers of Jesus display Authentic Evangelism, sharing the good life with all we encounter, drawing others to the fountain of life. The week before that, we considered what it means to be a Lifelong Disciple, formed in the way of Jesus through our practices and day-to-day devotion to the simple ways of the faith. Today, we continue to move our eyes and our hearts outward, into the public sphere, into the ways of living in and with all people, with an Outward Focus.
What is the contrast to an Outward Focused church? Perhaps its a social club, where we gathering with like-minded people and insulate ourselves from the wicked world out there. In these settings, everyone is well-fed, healthy, has a stable income, shares a common regard for the leisure of gathering as a community. But it also lacks conviction — we’re just there for the free buffet and drinks. The social club mentality has little imagination for what the church is meant for, what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the real world.
Another contrast might be to emphasize being a church that only goes out into the world to convert and pull new members into the fold. This is a community built on fear and scarcity — we’ve got to make sure we continue to add people into our group because if we don’t we’ll die out. This kind of community is hungry, but never satisfied, thirsty, but never satiated.
But what, then, is the Outward Focused Congregation about?

Seeing Jesus

We see from this morning’s text that what Jesus looks for, when he arrives in all his glory, when he is finally seated on the throne and justice finally rolls down upon all the nations, we see that what it looks like to be an Outward Focused people is to be people who see and love Jesus.
Outward Focused means we have found ways to be formed (Lifelong Discipleship) so that our hearts look for and see Jesus in all the places we go. I’m talking about Seeing Jesus when we gather in worship, through the celebration of our practices and singing and fellowship — but I’m also very much talking about being the kind of people who have figured out how to see Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the imprisoned, the naked, the sick. We have found eyes that see the need and in the need see Christ.
Contrast this with a social club — we can talk a big game about how great Jesus is, we can throw our energy behind a big campaign to highlight all the great things about our church and mission. But if we cannot actually get out into the world and find Jesus in the places that are not clean, polished, and safe — then we are simply a club and have missed it.
Seeing Jesus means seeing the one who loves us in the ugliest, sickest of people and places. It means greeting a stranger not with distrust, but with an openness that it is Christ we welcome. And this seeing requires a fundamental reorientation of our whole selves to be awake to it. It requires that we are disciplined in our faith, it requires that we let down our defenses, it requires that we humble our pride and realize that Christ is walking among us, ready to be loved and cared for.
Christ is in the victims of the coronavirus. Christ can be seen and served and loved in patient-0, in the germaphobe, in the person who forgot to wash their hands, in the CDC official who is trying their best to get test kits, but not quite hitting the mark. Christ is seen in the crying children who cannot go to school, in the stressed out parents who don’t know what these next few weeks are going to look like. Christ is seen in our elderly friend who is so lonely in the care facility, where visitors are no longer allowed in. Christ is seen in the unhoused woman who is shivering on our streets, hungry and has no where to go because our emergency services have been cut back because of risk of spreading disease. Christ is in these places.
And the king asks — did you go and find me there? Are you willing to now?

Being Jesus

Because the next step, for folks who are able to go and see Christ in all of these places — is to go then and BE Christ in all these places.
Before you tune me out — wait a second — I’m not saying we shouldn’t take precautions, I’m not saying we should simply sacrifice our wellbeing because we need to go be Jesus. I’m not saying we should be ignorant to the real threat of exponential spread of illness by our mixing together of sick and healthy, vulnerable and strong.
What we are hearing here is radically defiant of these fears and also incredibly wise to the realities we face.
To be Jesus means to seek out these people in need, and do so in the safe, healthy, and effective ways. It means, for instance, not gathering together as a large group this morning, because that is what it means to care for the body of Christ. But it also looks like getting creative about all the ways we can continue to Be the Body of Christ in the face of the evil of illness.
When I was in prison, did you visit me? I’ve visited people in prison — you don’t have to touch them when you talk on the phone and look at them through the window. So we can visit the prisoner and we can take the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe and healthy. When I was thirsty or hungry, did you give me water and food? Jesus isn’t saying we need to feed someone directly or pour water down their throats — but what about reaching out to folks who might need an extra meal or delivering groceries to the doorstep of a sick person?
And you say, well, certainly the healthy among us can do these things, but I’m not in the place, I can’t help, I’m compromised too. Nope, that doesn’t have to hold you back either. Do you have a telephone? Can you write a letter? Have you tried emailing or maybe even video chatting with a friend who is lonely? You can do that from the comfort and safety of your home. We can do this, all of us, we can reach out to each other and Be Jesus for one another and See Jesus in each other.

The Virus and Our Mission

This can be the moment for the church to rise. To truly take on its mission of being a light to the nations.
Don’t you feel like we’re at one of those moments when all the nations are being gathered up into one common conversation, namely — how do we stop the global pandemic?
Perhaps this is a moment of Christ’s glory descending, with the angels, being with us, enthroned and taking stock of all that is going on: This is a Kingdom Come moment. There have been many of these in history. And what has the Church done? We have, in so many ways, heard these kinds of crisis as a call to rise.
I remember the prayer and worship services in the days after September 11. I remember the church gathering together to pray and hope for peace.
I’ve heard stories of the church during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1919-1920. How the church was a place of refuge and help.
Our mission, as St. James Presbyterian Church, is to rise up and care in this time of crisis. Our calling is to be people who look for Jesus in the cries of the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely, the outcast, the laid off, the foreigner turned away at the border, the student trying to graduate and having classes delayed, the single parent who has to figure out how to care for their kids and keep their income while schools are closed. For the church — our mission is to see Jesus in these people and be Jesus to these people.
Want to know what Vitality looks like — it looks like rising up in a time like this.
May we.
Let’s pray.
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