‘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?’

This question is asked not once, but twice in today’s text from the gospel of Matthew.  The first time, we hear it from the lips of those deemed righteous; we can almost hear their earnestness. These acts of mercy sound familiar to them, but surely they’d remember if Jesus had been in need of such care?

The second time we hear this question, it’s from the lips of those who are accursed.  Instead of earnestness, we hear skepticism—“Jesus, when were you ever in need of such aid and support?  Surely we haven’t denied that care to you?”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it (or did not do it) to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me. 

I’m not sure Jesus can make it any more clear that what we do (or don’t do) matters to God; how we treat others is the difference between being righteous or accursed.  It is a clear metric for judgment.  As one scholar notes:

“Judgment, as it appears in this parable, has more to do with mercy than it does with works. Has the community of believers been formed in a spirit of mercy? Those on the right hand of the Son of Man (also designated the “King”) are those who have gone through the great tribulation, those who have lived out their baptism, not those who have conscientiously performed good works or have been morally upright. They are the ones who have risked dying and rising with Jesus in this world and are not waiting for some other future world or life” (Dirk G. Lange, WP).

I hear something of this congregation’s story in those words, friends.  There has been “great tribulation,” indeed.  And so many of you faithfully lived out your baptism through the seasons of schism and pandemic to usher us to this place, to this new season of ministry.  One in which I think we might just be hearing and heeding the call to “risk dying and rising with Jesus in this world” as people who “are not waiting for some other future world.”

We are not able to wait any longer.  Change is already unfolding all around us, and we are discerning how we’re being called to enact God’s beloved community here and now.  We’re seeking new forms of ministry and vitality with one another and in relationship with our community.  I think all of this is exactly why the PC(USA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency selected this text and its message to serve as its central vision. 

Since 2016, this national movement has been joined by 1072 Presbyterian congregations and nearly 100 Presbyteries and Synods (which are the wider regional bodies of our denomination).  Each of these partners has made a commitment to prioritizing three areas of focus for their mission and ministry:  Building congregational vitality; dismantling structural racism; and eradicating systemic poverty. 

These three joint focuses of the Matthew 25 initiative remind us that our own congregational flourishing is directly connected to our faithful, justice-seeking work in the world.  One cannot exist without the other.  A vital church is integral to the needs of the poor and the oppressed. 

We cannot be vital in a vacuum of our own reality; we cannot be vital sitting in our 124,000 square feet of building on 32 acres of land if we’re totally disconnected the needs of our neighbors.  Instead, hear how the Presbyterian Mission Agency describes this mutual, reciprocal church-community relationship:

When we welcome others, we welcome Christ; when we bring together people who are divided, we are doing God’s reconciling work. We are called to serve Jesus by contributing to the well-being of the most vulnerable in all societies – rural and urban, small and large, young and not-so-young.

From affordable housing to community gardens to equitable educational and employment opportunities to healing from addiction and mental illness to enacting policy change – there is not just one way to be a part of the Matthew 25 movement.

Make no mistake, Jesus is calling us to perform ordinary acts of compassion in daily life. In so doing, we continue Christ’s work of proclaiming release to captives and good news to the poor — the good news of God’s righteousness, justice, and peace for all.

That is a vital church.  And in it, we hear again Jesus words: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these siblings of mine, you did it to me. 

And friends, I have to confess that I hear these words with both calling and conviction.  You see, white, mainline Protestant churches have not always been particularly connected to our community and its needs. 

For many decades until recently, we’ve based our churches on an attractional model that seemingly worked well: we offered programming that created growing membership and then built ministries primarily aimed at meeting the needs of those members. 

Sure, we served the wider community in some ways, often through charitable giving, short term mission trips, and service days.  But if we’re really honest with ourselves, churches like ours have kept most of our resources for ourselves and haven’t really made a clear, lasting impact in our communities.

At least not when we consider the kinds of models that black churches in America have been using to transform their communities for more than two centuries.  Given the kinds of disparities that persist in terms of access to resources and power, Black churches have long organized themselves to directly serve vulnerable community members. 

One example here locally is Greater Shiloh Church in Easton.  In 1993, they built Shiloh Manor, 58 units of senior housing.  In 1995, they launched Shiloh Estates, a residential community for first-time homebuyers.  They use their previous church building, Shiloh Chapel, as a food pantry and emergency sheltering; they run Nehemiah House, a transitional housing for men in recovery; plus, they’re in the process of opening Shiloh Restoration Center, a program for returning citizens with mental health needs to support their transition from prison back into the community, and developing Shiloh Commons, a 60-unit affordable workforce housing project.

Donna Taggart, one of the co-chairs of the Strategic Mission Steering Committee, and I visited Greater Shiloh Church last week to learn more about their community development work, and we were both struck by the vibrant, bustling hum of the church building on an ordinary Tuesday morning. 

Somehow, in the midst of all the other projects they have going on, Greater Shiloh Church also runs the state-funded county emergency rental assistance program for three surrounding zip codes in partnership with The Neighborhood Center and with support from county staff who have workspace on site.  Greater Shiloh is integral to their community and has cultivated deep civic and nonprofit partnerships.

Now thatt… all of that… is community impact.  That is putting resources to work for vulnerable neighbors.  That is church.  And dear ones, I pray that is how big our Mathew 25 imagination is for the future vitality of our congregation!   

I understand that we’ve been nudged to adopt such imagination for doing church differently because of some challenges presented by the state of our building and operating budget.  But friends… I count that as a profound gift!  It is an engraved invitation to do church differently – to be more relational and transformational and faithful; it is a mandate to be the church out in our community and to use our resources to meet the needs of the least of these.

Because the truth of the matter is that God is out there, in the suffering of our neighbors.  God is out there, beyond our walls and our piety and our boundaries and preconceived notions.  And Jesus’ call to us in this text, and our denomination’s call to us in the Matthew 25 movement, is to be sent from this place, from this table, as Christ’s body. 

To be sent from here towards God out there.  And to use this place—this very one we’re sitting in—to create God’s beloved community on earth as it is in heaven.  Because “in yet another Gospel reversal, it would appear that the judgment we are all subject to is not one from on high but a judgment that is spoken through the need of our neighbor” (Dirk G. Lange, WP). 

‘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 siblings of mine, you did it to me.

May it be so, dear ones.  In ways big and small.  This day and each day.  Amen.