Why Is Central a Matthew 25 Church?

More than seven years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a bold vision to engage actively in the world so that our faith comes alive and we join God’s work to build a Kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven. We are called to see our neighbors through Jesus’ eyes and serve those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, immigrants, poor, or otherwise left out with his compassion.

The initiative has three particular components:  to eradicate systemic poverty; build congregational vitality; and dismantle structural racism.  As if those weren’t big enough, the Matthew 25 vision embraces some related priorities around climate change, gender justice, and peacemaking.  Under the leadership of the unsinkable Molly Brown, our Director of Mission, Central’s session adopted this initiative as a guide to our own mission; not long after that the Presbytery of Denver affirmed it as well.  All of it is foundational to the gospel as Jesus proclaimed it in. . . you guessed it. . . Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-45.   Listen for God’s Word in Jesus’ teaching brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit.   [Matthew 25:31-46]

Did you hear that?  I have to think that some ancient ancestor of a Central member had a hand in preserving this text because it so closely reflects Central’s mission priorities from its earliest days.  Service to those in need is deeply part of this church’s DNA.  Freed slaves were welcomed to Central (even if the elders asked them to restrain their enthusiastic cries of “Amen” and “preach it Brother” during staid Presbyterian worship).  Central women organized English classes and childcare for Chinese families of railroad workers brought to Denver –people severely discriminated against and treated almost as slaves.

It was Central leaders who made capital investment in Denver’s first hospital with a specific mission to provide health services to the poor, in 1916.  Decades later, this church donated funds that had been set aside for an educational building to the struggling hospital, stabilizing it for continued care for all, regardless of ability to pay. Former pastor James Emerson joined with the pastors of three other downtown congregations to start an organization to provide essential services to impoverished folks, which became Metro Caring, the region’s premier hunger alleviation center.

When my sister Sue Ellen served as Associate Pastor during the 1980s, she led efforts to respond to the City’s request for overnight shelter during winter for unhoused  neighbors. . . which has continuously developed into sober living housing community we celebrate today as Heartbeat Denver Working Men’s Shelter.   The idea for a supervised visitation ministry subsidized by the church to reunite parents and children separated by conflict, incarceration, or substance use disorders came from a Central member and young attorney, Natalie Hanlon-Leh.

And in the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration, Central leaders once again stepped up and the church became a Health Navigation Site to enroll downtown folks in low-cost, high-value health insurance plans—many for the first time.  Even our recent five -million- dollar capital project intentionally prioritized the needs of our building partners to carry out mission effectively.

That overview of Central’s history is not for self-congratulation but to illustrate that this church has always been about service, putting Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves” into action. And all those actions took discussion, prayer, decision-making and substantial funding. None of them followed a perfect arc either; there were fits and starts, delays, debate; I’ve often wondered if any of the votes were unanimous.   Additionally, they addressed needs in a particular context, shaped by the particular cultural, political, and social forces of their time.

The biblical text stands for all time.  The Matthew 25 initiative represents a relevant and effective path to put it into practice in our time.  That’s one reason Central has embraced it.

Another reason is because the people described in Matthew 25 are too often unseen, rejected, or bear the brunt of society’s judgment.  On the very day the Presbytery of Denver announced its annual focus to be on the value of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, the New York Times ran a full-page article describing how business, civic, and educational institutions are moving away from these values, dismissing them as “woke,” unimportant, and harmful to the smooth functioning of society.

But the voices for dismissal seem like the same ones benefiting from the status quo, and a deeply inequitable society with the widest wealth gap in US history, a country in which people of color are more likely to be incarcerated than enrolled in college, and experience disproportionately high rates of infant and maternal mortality.   By some accounting, poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in our country, and at least ten million Americans are homeless [cited by Liz Theoharis from Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for a Moral Revival]   

Central is a Matthew 25 church so that we will keep from separating Jesus and justice.  Note that the biblical scenario describes the judgment of nations, not individuals.  The Church is called to lift up those at the bottom, which means recognizing unjust conditions as immoral and responding with a sense of urgency.  Perhaps now as never before the Church and other faith communities have the responsibility to call attention to these conditions and work together (with business, civic, non-profit groups) to change systems and structures that keep inequities in place.

At the opening worship service at the recent Matthew 25 Summit that Molly and I attended, the pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church , Rev. Hodari Williams preached a powerful sermon on this text.   He reminded us that the core of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all injustice is the societal capacity to keep people invisible:  if I can’t see you, I am not compelled to value you.   He pointed out that neither the sheep nor the goats recognized Jesus in the faces of need and missed the foundational principle that justice work is relational.  It’s about building Beloved Community among the whole human family—not selectively or paternalistically.

In a time when divisions are becoming more hardened,  there are fewer and fewer spaces where people of different socioeconomic conditions, different political perspectives, different worldviews are welcome to engage with one another, to “see” each other, and identify each other as fellow members of God’s family, it’s all the more important for the Church to be that community and to create that space.  Rev. Williams invited us to affirm this truth by sharing a South African word Sawabona with one another.  Sawabona is often used as a greeting, though its meaning is much richer than  How ya’ doin’?   Sawabona means I see you.     I see you—the whole of you—-your pain, your strengths, your fear, your hopes, your scars.  I see you.   The response is Yebo SawabonaYes, I see you too.   Can we do that right now?  Just turn to someone around you and greet them with Sawabona;  hold them in your gaze as they respond Yebo Sawabona.    Lord, when was it we saw you hungry, homeless, in prison, sick, a stranger and cared for you?  When we “saw” one another.   Central is a Matthew 25 church to improve our vision and insight in here and out there.

Finally, we’re a Matthew 25 church because God’s work is too large, to transformational, too comprehensive to do on our own.  We join thousands of other Presbyterian congregations and presbyteries —including global mission co-workers—as well as local nonprofits, interfaith groups, business and civic partnerships to serve, advocate, and actively engage in the world God so loved.  I’m excited by new possibilities arising from the vacancy on the third floor; an immigration law firm assisting refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers to live and work here legally.  And interest from a social service organization that offers supervised visitation among other services.  More to come!

The mission of our Matthew 25 congregation is bold and exciting.  We can never forget that our vision and our strength come from an inexhaustible supply of Divine love and wisdom.  God provides all we need to do the work to which God has called us.  So I want to close this sermon by sharing some of the prayers you offered for Central a few weeks ago, prayers for your church in this unfolding new year:   [I pray that Central might walk the path of unity while courageously proclaiming the true Gospel in this difficult election year. . . . May we be a light in Denver for how we care for Sacred Earth!. . . .  Blessings for Central’s dedicated and caring staff. . . . prayers that we will acknowledge with clear eyes and minds to ask for moral strength to continue God’s purpose. . . . Let 2024 be a vibrant and strong year for Central.  Let our mission work do your will and be good for all.  And let Central remain financially strong as well.  In your name we pray. ] 

And let all God’s people say .. . AMEN.