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Way back in the olden days, around the turn of the century, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, waiting tables, and working as a part-time youth director for a medium-sized Episcopal Church up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We built our youth program on the “Purpose Driven Church” model of Rick Warren and Doug Fields. Every letter I mailed, every postcard I sent, every announcement I made ended with a reminder of the purpose for St. Thomas’ Youth Ministry. I’m sorry to say I had to look it up for the writing of this sermon, but there was a time where every youth at St. Thomas, each of their parents, the whole staff, and I could recite, by memory, that “The purpose of STYM is: to EXPOSE teens to God’s love; to EQUIP and ENCOURAGE them; to CELEBRATE God’s love and authority; to CONNECT with and CARE for one another; and to SERVE others in Jesus’ name.” Every decision we made was first run through the gauntlet: does it fit within our purpose statement. If it didn’t, we didn’t do it.
Here at St. Paul’s we aren’t quite so wedded to our statement of mission, but we have one and it, at the very least, runs through the back of the minds of your staff and vestry as we make decisions and plans for the future. Some of you know our mission statement, some of you have wondered if we have one, some of you are so new, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. But if you flip open your bulletin to the second to last page… go ahead… I’ll wait. Our statement of mission appears before you every Sunday; whether you know it or not. “St. Paul’s is a ministering community: reaching up in worship; reaching in to serve; reaching out in love, to the glory of Jesus Christ.” Maybe I’m harkening back to the olden days, but it seems appropriate to me on this Sunday, the day of the 88th Meeting of St. Paul’s Parish, the last day of our Liturgical Year A, Christ the King Sunday to look back and ask ourselves, “are we living into who we claim we want to be?” But first, a cautionary tale.
For Jesus, the marathon that was Tuesday in his Holy Week is coming to an end. Jesus has successfully angered the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Herodians, the money changers, and just about anyone else who found themselves in a position of relative power in Jerusalem. Left only with a small group of faithful followers, Jesus tells them a story they can’t even begin to comprehend, about a time when he will return to inaugurate his Kingdom in fullness and glory. He tells them that when he returns all the nations will stream to him: Jews and Gentiles; rich and poor; depressed and joyful; Christians and non-Christians; those who believe in God, those who believe in a god, those who believe in many gods, and those who believe in no god at all; all nations will be gathered around him, and he’ll start separating them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats at the end of the day. Now this might sound like an easy enough task, but if the biblical scholars I choose to listen to are right, then being able to tell a sheep from a goat was not something every Joe Shmoe could manage. It took an intimate knowledge of the flock to know which was which. Only a shepherd who had spent much time with his flock could, as the sun was setting, quickly seperate, by sight, the sheep from the goats. Jesus can do that, with all the nations. The sheep go to his right hand and the goats to his left. The sheep are those who are “blessed by the Father” and who will “inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.” The goats are they who are “accursed” and banished to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The sheep saw Jesus hungry and gave him food, thirsty and gave him something to drink, saw him as a stranger and welcomed him, naked and clothed him, sick and took care of him, in prison and visited him. The goats did not. And neither group was aware it was Jesus all along. Both groups wonder, “when did we see you, Jesus?” And Jesus is quick to respond, “Whenever you saw one of the least of these who are members of my family, you saw me.”
For us, members of a formerly Mainline Protestant church, it is rare to hear scriptures that contain such clear judgment. It is even more rare to have that judgment come from the lips of Jesus himself. We’ve done a pretty decent job of sanitizing the gospel message so that we’re sure that we’re in (and in the worse case scenario, so is everybody else we like, care about, or in some way tolerate). But in this vision of the age to come, Jesus is very, very clear that there will be judgment, there will be those who make the cut and those who don’t, and there will be very clear criteria. The sheep, those who make the final cut, are those who “saw Jesus hungry and gave him food, thirsty and gave him something to drink, saw him as a stranger and welcomed him, naked and clothed him, sick and took care of him, in prison and visited him.” Love one another. Take care of one another. And pay particular attention to the least because if you are looking for Jesus, that’s where you’ll find him.
Which brings me back to our mission here at St. Paul’s. We are a ministering community. Ministering, a verb, something we do, specifically, we “attend to the needs of others,” and in order to attend to the needs of others, we are actively seeking out those who have needs. To jump to our third precept first, we reach out in love in a variety of different ways. If you measure by weight, you need only to look to the basket in the Narthex where nearly 3,000 pounds of food has been collected and donated to the Ecumenical Ministries Food Pantry in 2011. If you measure by wattage, you need only look to the power bills for the months of February, March, April, May, and November when groups from Habitat for Humanity, Ecumenical Ministries, and Family Promise have used power and taken showers and been blessed by that great big two story house we call an education building. If you measure in man-hours (or woman-hours, as the case may be) you need only look to the hundreds of hours that have been donated to the children of Foley Elementary School. If you measure by dollars, then think of the thousands of dollars that have been given away through grants from the Episcopal Church Women, in kind gifts of meals for Family Promise, through Project Rebound to oil spill victims, and a penny at a time in soup can labels, box tops, soda cans and their tabs. Saint Paul’s is a ministering community, reaching out in love to the least who are members of Jesus’ family.
But attending to the needs of others isn’t possible if we aren’t also attending to the needs of and strengthening those who call St. Paul’s Foley their spiritual home. We reach out in love, but we also reach in to serve. Through a revamped Pastoral Care ministry, we’re praying for and cooking for and driving for and loving on members of this community who are suffering in mind, soul, body, and spirit. We’ve strengthened our programs for children by offering hundreds, if not thousands, of scripture based arts and craft Word Offerings to God Sunday after Sunday. We doing our best to welcome the strangers in our midst whether it is their first Sunday or they’ve been coming for 50 years. Saint Paul’s is a ministering community, reaching in to serve.
Despite what the story of the sheep and the goats would lead us to believe, however, what makes us a ministering community, what will ultimately make us sheep, is not limited to the stuff we do; reaching out in love and reaching in to serve. These things are nice, but if that was all we were about, we’d be no different than the United Way or the Rotary Club. What sets us apart is that we are a community of faith that reaches up in worship. We love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and we offer God thanks and praise in word and song. We come before his presence with thanksgiving and raise a loud shout to him with Psalms.
As we look back over the year that was Lectionary Year A, 2010-2011, we can’t help but be a little bit proud, and a lot joyful. Knowing the story of the sheep and the goats reminds us that the stuff we do (and the stuff we don’t do and the people we don’t see) has eternal consequences. Programs like this week’s Turkey Take Out, a program that is actively seeking the least and the lost, are proof to me that we are on the right track, following the lead of the Holy Spirit by serving members of Christ’s family be they least, most, or anywhere in between.
We may not be vocal about it, but St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley has a mission and we strive to live it out. We are a ministering community: reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ. As we prepare for a new year, may God pour out his Spirit upon us that we might continue in that mission each and every day. Well done friends, now, let’s do it all again. Amen.