We are continuing to think about what makes for vital churches. Last week we talked about “Lifelong Discipleship Formation.” This week we are considering “Outward Incarnational Focus” (which is just another way of saying that Jesus asks us to look beyond ourselves, to focus on other people, other “beloveds” of God.)
The more I thought about this “mark” of a vital congregation, (and an individual follower of Jesus for that matter), the more I realized something. This, “outward incarnational focus” is a radical idea—radical as in “extreme” as well as radical as in “fundamental.” I would argue that the world we live in, and the values of our country right now, do not square with this idea of “outward incarnational focus.” In fact, we may be living in a time when the Christian church has less clout, and thus is more like the early church, than we have seen in generations.
Now we can bemoan this fact, looking back over our shoulders to the “good old, glory days.” Or we can take the opportunity to realize that Jesus’ call, God’s call, has always been radical—to truly follow God throws our lives upside down, and often puts us at odds with the rest of the world.
Take Abraham and Sarah, for example. They had heard God’s call to leave their home in Ur and go “to a land that I, God, will show you.” And Abram and Sarai started their trek through the wilds south of their homeland. Abram was 75. Now at the beginning of our scripture lesson (several chapters later) we are told, Abram was 99. So they have been wandering around for almost 25 years! And NOW God talks about a son from Sarai (after the birth of Ismael)! When they are old and weary and ready to retire and close the flap of their tent and rest on their laurels? No, God’s call is radical. “I still have more work for you to do. I still will bring generations after you. Don’t look back—look forward.”
And to acknowledge this new state of affairs, God renames Abram and Sarai, to Abraham and Sarah.
If we look at the gospel lesson for today, we run into Jesus’ radical vision. He knew that God’s call would take him, not into the seat of power, with wealth and prestige, but towards suffering, and rejection, and death. Talk about radical. This was not the way the messiah tract was supposed to work! And you see Peter pushing against Jesus’ vision. Peter who wears his feelings on his sleeve; Peter who often expresses what we feel but are afraid to say; Peter who gets it--“You are the Christ,” but then isn’t ready to let go of what he thinks “Christ” is.
And what follows is Jesus’ summary of the radical nature of God’s call to us—the outward incarnational focus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Here is where we can see the divide most sharply between the world we usually live in, and the world Jesus calls us to make. No wonder Peter tried to soften the message. Where is “me time” in Jesus’ radical call? Where is the laser focus on insular family, or neighborhood coalition, or love of country? Jesus does not allow time for navel gazing—we are not supposed to be wrapped up in ourselves.
Now a sidebar about this. I hope it is not the “Peter” part of my brain that chimes in—Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s remember scripture in its totality—for Jesus also says the commandments we are to follow are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Being wrapped up in ourselves, and loving ourselves do not have to be intricately tied together. We can make sure we take care of ourselves, as long as we do not forget to take the strength and wisdom and peace we achieve on our own, and share it with the wider world. Outward Incarnational Focus seems to me to need to be paired with Lifelong Discipleship Formation (which is certainly a focus on us, personally and communally).
And this “outward” focus, on others, extends (as the story of Abraham and Sarah so wonderfully shows) past our own generation, to the future of our planet, and to God’s call for those future people we will never know.
So our call is to be radical because we are asked to think about others, as much as we think about ourselves. It may also be radical for another reason. The “incarnational” nature of it. Why does Jesus ask us to follow on a path that may lead to suffering and hardship? Because suffering and hardship are good things? No. Why does Jesus want us to make our own lives difficult? Because God’s call IS radical, and places us against the powers and principalities of this world. Jesus isn’t trying to make us masochists. He is trying to state how much we are up against in this radical venture.
And the fundamental difference between God’s vision and everything else? It is that the world God created is good. People at their core are good. People, no matter how rotten they may appear, still retain, even in the smallest sliver, the breath of God—what makes us in the image of God. And if we didn’t believe it from the stories of creation—of God blowing into the dust of the earth to create the earthlings—then God had a second act. God would come and dwell with us, Emmanuel. God would become human in Jesus, and maybe, maybe we would see how beautiful people can be, how precious people are in the sight of God, how important people—other people—should be in our lives.
That is the radical call of God, whether we listen to the story of Abraham and Sarah, or hear Jesus’ difficult words about what the path may be like for his followers.
God’s call asks us to make sure we lift our eyes, more than once in a while—to see outside ourselves, to see outside our safe community, to see outside our living generation, to see outside to those we have yet to know.
God’s call asks us to struggle to see the good in people. To never forget the image of God contained in each and every human being. To look for the sparkle of the divine light—the puff of the divine breath—the faint glimmer of love and peace and all that can be good.
God’s call asks us to recognize that this is not an easy road, not a popular way, maybe not the life we envisioned, or fantasized. I think we need to start listening to Jesus about how hard it is to follow—how counter-cultural it is, how not in the mainstream it is. There are a lot of voices who loudly proclaim that we should think only of ourselves, and that we should be afraid of most people, especially people who do not look like us, or speak like us, or act like us. Pushing against that huge tide is radical. It is also what I hear from the scriptures today.
So let us proudly follow in Abraham and Sarah’s footsteps, knowing that we too have been given new names, as children of God.
Let us take a deep breath, and determine to follow Jesus, down whatever path it is we need to go.
Let us be willing to swim upstream.
Let us stand strong on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us.
Let us never forget that we are the stepping stones for those who come in our wake.
And let us cling to the words of God about creation, about us, “It is good.” “We are beloved children, and if children heirs of the kingdom.”
Even as we pick up our cross--our struggles, our attempts at making a difference, our lifelong straining to hear the whisper of God, our fear and dislike of making a scene, our comfort in the way things are.
This is radical—“extreme.”
This is radical—“fundamental.”
This is God’s call.
May we join hands, and march together, working to bring about God’s vision of our world.
May it be so. Amen and Amen.
“Outward Incarnational Focus” 2nd Mark
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
In Matthew 25: 31-46 we find the Apocolyptic Parable of sheep and goats. This portion comes at the end of Matthew’s eschatological movement and one of the last of Jesus’ great sermons. In this reading the Son of Man answers the people who wonder what actions in their lives have given glory to God while others are shown where they let opportunities pass by them. The feature that both groups share is unawareness. Neither the sheep nor the goats are aware that “the least of these” in need or distress is a proxy for the Son of Man. In both instances, the Son of Man does not identify with the groups but with the one needing care. The sheep are not rewarded for being nice to the sheep nor are the goats punished for their inattention to the other goats. The praise or condemnation is only in response to their approach with the “other.”
The “other” is given as one who needs. The hungry need food, thirsty need water, the stranger needs welcome, the naked needs clothing, the sick need care, and the imprisoned need visiting. (vv.35&36) Jesus invites us to imagine his presence in these needs and enables us to be the one who meets these needs. And the list does not end here. Our communities have their own many and varied needs. Jesus is wrapped intimately in those needs as well. The congregation not only has the gifts needed to meet these need but it must use them if we are to glimpse Christ in our community.
“Disciples who engage this story honestly are likely to find themselves caught somewhere between the sheep and the goats. This parable is not meant to grant certainty to any of Jesus’ disciples, but to make us watchful, attending carefully, faithfully, and creatively to Christ’s presence among the least of our brothers and sisters. Anything other than this ambivalent, risky, and uncertain existence is likely to yield something other than the full realization of God’s empire of the heavens. God’s empire belongs not to the self-proclaimed righteous ones, but to those who continually hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, which leads not to certainty but to the cross.”
- How does this reading inform our discussion on Outward Incarnation?
- In what practices have we extended care for the other?
- In what ways are we blind to or ignore the needs of others?
- What needs would we add to the list that Jesus gives in the parable?
- What practices can your congregation put in place to keep awareness and attentive to the needs around you?
- Hospitality dreams: Ben Justus at TEDxCornellU
- Radical Hospitality for the REST of Us
- Embrace Radical Hospitality | Grace Rodriguez | TEDxSantoDomingo
- Amy Oden - Hospitality in the Christian Tradition
Suggested Engagement Opportunities to Further Explore
- Serve at a local soup kitchen
- Invite police officers to join groups for coffee or a meal to find where they see need.
- Walk the communities around the church building (never know what you will see).
- Have conversation with local shelters, finding out their needs.
- Encourage a Sunday school class to study scriptures on Hospitality.
- Begin a letter writing group for people that are home bound or lonely.