November 4, 2007

Nehemiah 5:1-13
Psalm 15
James 1:19-27
Matthew 25:31-46

Last week was the first time that I haven’t finished delivering my sermon on Sunday morning. Those of you who were here know that one of our choir members had a minor medical emergency, and I stopped preaching, just a minute or two before the sermon would have reached its conclusion anyway.

I am mentioning the excitement of last Sunday for two reasons… first, so that I can let you know that Donna is fine and not to worry. And second, because of a comment that one of you made during the week. “It was wonderful to see members of the congregation on Sunday move so quickly from listening to God’s Word to getting up out of their pews to act on it.” When someone was in need, no one worried too much about interrupting worship. We stopped what we were doing while those who were close by and those with medical expertise sprang into action to make sure that Donna was well cared for.

Today’s theme for Presbyterianism 101, and the final theme for this series, is “Justice and Mission.” Presbyterians are probably best known for our system of governance, or our style of worship, or our focus on scripture study. But Presbyterians are not just academic Christians who sit around pondering ideas, forming committees, and never putting anything into action. Presbyterians are people who care about justice and who engage in mission. We are not merely “hearers” of the Word. We seek to be “doers” of the Word as well… using our gifts, talents, and time to give ourselves for others in the way that Jesus gave himself for us.

Presbyterians are not just “Sunday morning” Christians, distinguished from other people only by our choice of Sunday morning activities. Presbyterians live our faith every day of the week — not necessarily by talking about Jesus all the time, or by hounding our friends and neighbours to believe what we believe. Rather, Presbyterians approach all of life — school, work, friendships, family, and community involvement — as people who have committed ourselves to be followers of Jesus. The focus of our lives has shifted from pursuing success, fulfillment, comfort, and happiness for ourselves. Our purpose has become focused on the greatest commandment as epitomized in the life of our Lord Jesus… loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Though Presbyterians spend a lot of time studying and thinking about how to do that — how to live the way of Jesus — our intellectual pursuits are meaningless if we don’t get up out of our pews and start “doing” something to put our ideas and values into action.

If you consider the departments and programs of our national church, you will notice that we have a strong focus at the national level on encouraging and equipping Presbyterians across the country to put our faith into action. Through Presbyterian World Service & Development, Youth in Mission, the Women’s Missionary Society, and Justice Ministries, we are making a difference in many parts of the world. We don’t just give out food and clean water to people who are poor, but we work with local partners to support people in the ways that are most helpful to them — funding wells, educating about HIV & AIDS, helping people gain skills or set up businesses, supporting local churches & missionaries, breaking cycles of poverty so that people can live dignified and meaningful lives.

Our Gospel text today reminds us that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, providing clothing for those who have none, taking care of the sick, and visiting people in prison is the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Matthew’s Jesus does not say, “If you believe in me, you’ll get to live in the kingdom that I have prepared.” He doesn’t say, “If you worship me every week, you’ll get to live in the kingdom that I have prepared.” No, Jesus says that we will inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world because we fed, clothed, cared for, and visited “the least of these.” In as much as we are doing those things, caring for the poor and those in need, through our national church programs, or in our own local initiatives, or in our daily lives throughout the week, we are on the right track — we are on the way of Jesus.

It’s exciting for me, when I see us moving from being “hearers” to “doers” of the Word… like the time I heard that one of our members encountered a lost and confused person on a downtown street corner. He spent the next few hours taking care of the woman, finding out where she lived, and getting her safely home and cared for. Or when I hear that people in our church are volunteering for local charities, canvassing for cancer research, or walking to fight MS, jumping into icy cold water to raise money for a children’s hospital, or spending time in the drop-in centre at the Native Circle Ministry. Or recently, when one member suggested that we have a “Kitchen Shower” to help the church at Mistawasis set up their kitchen, or when our church school students decided to take their lesson one step further by collecting donations for the Crisis Nursery and Interval House.

Generous giving of our time, talents, and tithes can make a significant difference in people’s lives, and when we give of ourselves, we are putting our faith into action. But often our gifts can only do “so much” to alleviate hunger, homelessness, and need in our community and around the world. Often, there are deeper issues in our society and our worldwide economy that work to keep many people poor, while a few thrive and live in comfort. Sometimes we have to do more than just give gifts. Sometimes we need to advocate for changes in the way things are set up in our societies. Sometimes we need to change the system.

Presbyterians have never been the type of Christians who separate themselves off from the rest of society. We are not an isolated community of love and peace that has retreated from any involvement in our communities, cities, and world. We read the newspapers and watch TV. We pay attention to the political debates, and we go out to vote. Some Presbyterians get even more involved in politics, either working behind the scenes for political parties or as candidates themselves.

Presbyterian ministers don’t tell their congregations who to vote for. The Church is not associated with a particular political party, and we recognize that none of the candidates or parties is perfect. Still, Presbyterian ministers do hope that what we do here on Sunday mornings, what we hear in this place in Scripture and sermon, and what we believe about justice for the poor and our call as followers of Jesus to live our lives “for others,” will affect the way we vote.

When Presbyterians go out from the worship space on Sundays, we go out to put our faith into action throughout the week. We go out to be not merely “hearers” of the Word, but to be “doers” of the Word in the world. Think of the story that we heard about Nehemiah this morning.

Nehemiah was neither a king, nor a prophet. He was an official of King Artaxerxes, during the Post-Exilic period when Persia had control over Israel and Judah. Nehemiah’s family was originally from the Tribe of Judah. So when Nehemiah heard about how his people were having so many struggles back in Jerusalem, trying to rebuild after returning from exile in Babylon, he asked the king if he could be sent home. He asked if he could go back to Jerusalem to provide leadership and help in the process of rebuilding the great city. The king made Nehemiah the governor of Judea, and off he went with a team of assistants to help the people of Judah.

In the story we heard today, it comes to Nehemiah’s attention that many of the people are suffering from poverty and increasing debt. There is a famine in the land, and people are pledging their fields, their vineyards, and their houses, in order to get food to eat. Those who are rich are lending to those who are poor, and charging them interest that they can’t afford to pay back. Even worse, those who are really stuck are selling their sons and daughters as slaves so that their families don’t starve.

Nehemiah didn’t take all this news lightly. And he didn’t just respond by helping out a few of the people who were in the worst situations. Nehemiah was angered by what he heard and what he saw happening among the people. What was happening wasn’t right or good or just, and he believed that it must be stopped.

After thinking it over, Nehemiah decided to bring charges against the nobles and officials who were charging interest against their own people. (Charging interest was strictly prohibited in the Law of Moses.) Then he called an assembly of the people in order to deal with the oppression and injustice that he saw among them. He confronted them with their wrong-doing, and he challenged them to make it right. And they did.

Presbyterians are not only called to make our weekly offerings and give a few gifts to worthy causes. We are called to be out in the world putting our faith into action every day. That means paying attention to the injustice and the oppression and the neglect of the poor that we see around us all the time. Like Nehemiah, we are called both to care and sometimes to get angry when what is happening to our neighbours is not good or right or just.

We are called to use the power that we have to stand up for justice and compassion and the basic dignity and freedom of all God’s children. We are called to use our voices, and our votes, as well as our time, talent, and money to love our neighbours as ourselves. May God give us wisdom and strength, as we seek to be “doers” of the Word, and not merely “hearers.” Amen.