Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Gospel and Action

Matthew 25.35ff:
"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.” 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? 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 who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.” 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?” 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.”

Since before there was an established Christian church, Christians have followed Jesus by feeding strangers, healing the sick, visiting those in prison, and bringing good news to the poor. This is not simply about doing good deeds –– it is the Good News of the Gospel, and as central to our lives as worship.

I’ve grown up seeing how much of this vital Gospel work is carried out, in all kinds of places throughout our diocese: small food pantries, Lord of the Streets, Houston, The Cathedral Dunn Center, Houston, El Buen Samaritano, Austin, and Ubi Caritas in Beaumont. But I also know that, in many places, outreach, social justice and mission work are a real point of challenge for our churches.

We as a church often fall into the trap of staying in our heads and not acting from our souls. Too often, we find it easier to let committees talk about social problems, than to actually feed hungry families or serve the elderly and sick in consistent ways. Or, we set up our own bureaucracies, instead of encouraging and funding creative, grassroots efforts. We waste our time talking about it, and not enough time getting personally involved. We act as if outreach is something that should be left to professionals––instead of seeing it as integral to the life of every single member of the church. Our diocese can do a lot more to empower, fund and train members of parishes to actually do Gospel work.

Sometimes this kind of ministry on Jesus' behalf gets politicized. The Diocese of Texas has adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). [] We have people assuming that support of these goals means embracing a particular set of political ideas. Of course, the actions of the church in the world inevitably confront politics....but it’s important for our diocese to make it clear that we are serving God and our neighbors because Jesus calls us into action. Christians help people because Jesus tells us to.

There is a spiritual challenge to ministering to the poor. We tend to talk about feeding the poor, or visiting prisoners, or caring for the sick, as ways for churches to help “the less fortunate.” We act as if “we,” the church people, are doing something nice for “them,” the poor people. But Scripture tells us that our salvation depends on strangers, and on serving others. And Jesus tells us that “we” are “them.”

I know from experience that poor people and rich people alike share a hunger to give of themselves. I believe with all my heart that real Gospel work—hands-on, done with integrity—is essential if we are to catch and keep the attention of young people, who yearn to make a difference with their own hands. And I know that by taking up Jesus’ work and making it our own, our churches will become renewed.

The Diocese of Texas Mission Funding Program was established to meet these challenges. Mission Funding is a diocesan program that was created because the missionary dollars from the churches were decreasing. It increased parish participation in work throughout the diocese. I am proud to have been a part of the Mission Funding Task Force in its early years. After a decade, we have a program that works well. We now have an outstanding Mission Funding Coordinator. But today, people don't just want to send money, they want to go themselves.

I believe Jesus has been waiting for us as a culture to go out into the vineyard where the harvest of compassion is bountiful. It is time to dream again about what we can do together.

I want to dream together about what we can accomplish in the next ten years. Can you imagine a online resource, where you can watch a video or slide show of your dollars in action? Can you imagine information and a map of where in the diocese your missionary dollars go? Can you imagine finding out how to volunteer, take a mission trip, or make a donation directly to the programs in the field? Then, can you imagine going and working hand in hand with the poor?

We have to get better at connecting. We have to get better at connecting the people in the pew with the people in the neighborhood. We must realize that we are, as a whole, rich and poor. We are a diversity of classes. We are a diversity of experiences. We are all poor in very real ways.

As we look at a church enveloped in mission work, we must find ways to work with the poor, instead of for them. It will take vision; it will take prayer; it will take putting energy and resources into developing concrete new programs and redeveloping ones that already exist.

Daring to act hand in hand with the poor will lead us closer to the Kingdom of God, and there we will find the words of the Gospel translated into experiences of grace.

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball