Scripture: Matthew 25:31–40
Many of you will remember the old song “Whistle while you Work.” It was one of the first big hit songs from a Disney movie, featured in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Of course, if you remember the movie, the context is that Snow White has found the dwarves’ messy house and as she cleans it, she sings (and whistles) the song. The point of the song, more or less, is that there is work to be done, but one can find joy in that work.
This is a perfect way to introduce our fourth “W.” All month long, I have been introducing the initiatives of our ReShape process. Throughout 2021, the congregation has offered feedback and creative solutions, as we have asked together what God is doing to ReShape our church out of the pandemic and a tumultuous 2020. We have talked about ReShaping Welcome, and a rebooted Welcome Team that invites folks virtually and in person. We have talked about ReShaping Wonder, and mid-week Zoom sessions and Sunday afternoon lunches. We have talked about ReShaping Worship, and a new venture that we are calling the 838 Service.
And today we talk about our fourth W: Work. Needless to say, we preachers love some alliteration. You have heard me often speak about the Four W’s. And I have shared before about how we do that work, what I have sometimes called Three R’s:
- In our shared mission work, sometimes what we do is Refill. We refill the food pantry. We refill the coffers of organizations doing work on our behalf. We send a check or a virtual donation and help others do the work. During the pandemic, we have had to rely on Refill a bunch. Unable to be in person, we have given resources to others. Use Family Promise as an example: instead of coming to the church kitchen and cooking a meal for our guests, we have given money so that meals can be taken to families housed through the program. We have had to rely on Refill, big-time.
- The second R of our mission work is Relieve. We roll our sleeves up and we relieve the suffering and pain of those in our community. In person. Getting our hands dirty if needed. Some of you did this yesterday at the Mobile Food Pantry (in the 108 heat index!), or throughout the pandemic at the in-house pantry or LINK. Or, continuing our example of Family Promise, we met last week with representatives of a dozen churches, beginning to ask when and how we can return to the rotation model, once again hosting families in our building. We want to do it safely, but we know we need to do it: there is simply no replacement for live, in-person, relationship-building relief ministry.
- Finally, the third R you have heard me talk about is Reverse. In our shared mission work, some of what we do is ask why there is homelessness in the first place. What systems are in place which create injustice and poverty and racism and sexism and discrimination? Again, Family Promise serves as a great example. This week at our Board of Directors meeting, the Executive Director Dana Ortiz shared the statistic that it costs between $4,000 and $10,000 per family to move them from a situation of homelessness to stable housing. But if we can focus on prevention, on anticipation, on reversing the problems before they reach homelessness, she said that they spend on average $750 a child to prevent them from even reaching homelessness. It just makes sense—why wait until people are in dire situations before we step into help? It costs less. It is less traumatic for families and children. Let’s do the justice work of Reversing those systems on the front end and save a lot of heartache and a lot of money!
The alliteration of the Three R’s is not just cute preacher-speak. It is based on Scripture. Today’s passage, Matthew 25, has long been seen as a core passage for First Baptist’s Missions Ministry (pulls out t-shirt and holds it up). This is a t-shirt from that ministry from several years ago, broadcasting the importance of this story of the sheep and the goats and Christ’s call to care for the least of these. This passage has long been at the heart of our missions work.
Scholars Craig Koester and Rolf Jacobson name it as incredibly influential, as well. They talk about the theology of Matthew 25 and how intentional the Gospel writer was with his placement of this parable of the sheep and the goats. They remind us that immediately following Matthew 25 is Matthew 26, where we see Jesus betrayed, arrested, imprisoned, starved, stripped, and killed. It is no accident, they say, that the previous chapter includes a parable about how we are to treat those arrested, imprisoned, starved, and stripped of their clothing in our context. In our time and place. What Matthew seems to be reminding us is that when you allow this injustice to happen in our world today, you are crucifying Jesus all over again! “Whenever you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” The injustice of this world is not unlike the very injustice of the Crucifixion of our Lord. Koester and Jacobson suggest that this passage is meant to open our eyes to our own context, to how we treat Christ with callousness and indifference and injustice WHENEVER WE DO IT to the “least of these.”
And yet, Matthew 25 gives us hope. There is judgment, but alongside of that judgment is hope. Inherent in the challenge to create justice in our world is the reminder that as we do, we are not just saving other people. We are saving ourselves. According to Matthew 25, caring for the needs of others isn’t just charity or something to post on social media to garner likes. To be clear, our own salvation is caught up in this work. Listen to what the passage is actually saying! As we are saving the broken and hurting bodies of our context, we are saving a broken and hurting world, and we are saving our own broken and hurting souls …all at once.
According to the ReShape process, you already understand this. As the church leadership reviewed the months and months of responses to questions of who we are as a church, and what ministry we should continue and what new ministry we should explore, one of the top answers was a renewed call to justice. A high number of responses included a yearning for the church to renew a commitment to social justice. A commitment to racial justice. To renew our commitment to Earthworks and environmental justice.
You have spoken. We have listened. As we have with all of these other initiatives, we created a team, primarily made up of the Missions Ministry that you elected for 2021, and that team has tried to parse this call to justice. Now, the word “justice” can mean different things to different people. “Social justice” can mean a lot of different things. “Racial justice” has about a million implications and potential avenues. And we figure we need to parse that some more, together, as a congregation. So, to that end, the ReShaping Work team has taken this information, and worked up a three-part initiative, helping us as a church to explore our relationship with justice.
Part One. “Do your work.” This phrase is commonly used as a way to get folks to turn the mirror toward themselves. To ask what is happening on the inside that keeps us from being able to care for the least of these. In terms of justice ministry, a part of recognizing systems of injustice which need to be reversed is acknowledging how we contribute to those systems. How we benefit from those systems. Let me be clear, this is work. Hard work. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it matches our “W” of work. Sometimes the hardest work of justice ministry is the ministry that we do with our selves and our own sinfulness and brokenness. We don’t want to believe that we can be part of the problem, and so we make excuses and avoid the hard conversations and refuse to do the work. But the team understands that we have to engage in this internal stuff. And we might as well do it together. They are discussing ways to engage in this hard work, offering small groups, and training sessions, to understand ourselves and our role in justice work. Now, let me predict a thing: they will offer a session or a series, and you will read about it in the newsletter, and you will say to yourself “that sounds horrible. I would rather people talk about how great I am for an hour! That sounds like too much work.” It is. But it is the work of justice and of ministry and of redemption and of Matthew 25 salvation and of caring for the least of these. Don’t just scroll past the announcement: do your work.
Part Two. “Justice Field Trips.” Remember when you crowded on a school bus when you were a kid and went on a field trip together, to visit some place you have never seen before? The team wisely understands that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel on justice. The First Baptist of Lawrence Kansas is not the first group of people to talk about justice! There are organizations and events and opportunities that abound in our community and region. Part of doing our work internally and congregationally is to go and see that reversal ministry at work. They are already building a list. They are talking about going together to KU to listen to Ibram Kendi talk about how to be an antiracist. About going together to Haskell University and learning from organizations like Sacred Ground Haskell and the Indigenous Community Center. If we can find the time, I would love to sit down with some of the staff at Family Promise and listen to stories of their Prevention—Reversal—ministry that they are doing. We can visit the City and County and see some of their housing-first work that they are doing. We can check in through Earthworks to sustainability ministries happening around our community and region. We can visit and partner with other congregations doing important work. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can take these Justice Field Trips and learn from others, as we do our work together. Keep your eyes open for those opportunities down the road.
Finally, Part Three. “Exploring Covenants.” Eventually, as we do the work internally and open our eyes to the external work already happening, the team recognizes that we might want to take a further step. There are organizations that partner with churches to do this ministry, and we may want to explore the possibility of covenanting with them. Last year’s Martha Stearns Marshall preacher, Claire Chadwick, talked about Martin Luther King’s legacy known as the Poor People’s Campaign. This is an organization that leads congregations in the work of social and racial justice, on several fronts. The Missions team plan to meet with them next month to explore the possibility of a covenant. With these Field Trips, we may find other local organizations that we would want to partner and covenant with. The team feels like this is inherent in what the congregation is asking for through ReShape, but of course it will come with a lot more conversation and prayer and discernment. They ask you to join them in that work now.
You have spoken. They have listened. Together, we continue to listen for how God is calling us to work. To reverse. To reshape our ministry to be about the work of all three R’s at once.
Like I said, we preachers love our alliteration. So, it may not be a surprise that, as the story goes, this week a retired pastor and a recent seminary doctoral graduate, both from our congregation, were sitting together for a meal. And as they sat, they started to come up with more W’s for our collection. The first comes from the Snow White: Whistle while we work. A reminder that through all of the Matthew 25 work to which we are called, there must be an infusion of joy. Of hope. Of excitement. And alongside of that, they came up with sixth W: “Wail while we hurt.” Matthew 25 calls us to lament the agony of those in our world who are hurting, struggling, those with lips too dry and cracked to whistle. Together, these two W’s—bringing our total to 6!—remind us that the call of Matthew 25 is to bring the depths of who we are as humans: hurting, rejoicing, yearning, hoping, fearing, wailing and whistling. Today, and in the days ahead, as we pray for God to reshape us as a congregation and as Christians, we bring ourselves as an offering to the living and holy Lord.