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Members of God’s Family The Last Sunday after Pentecost

In 1991 the Episcopal Church launched “The Decade of Evangelism.” During the last ten

years of the 20th century, Episcopal congregations were asked to “make new Christians.” Our

General Convention, the decision making body for all Episcopalians, boldly declared: “We will

endeavor, with other Christian denominations, to reach every unchurched person with the

Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Thirty-two years later, we have every right to ask: How’s that working for us? It would

be easy to say we’ve failed, when we look at the decline among all denominations in church

attendance and membership, other than in so-called Third World countries. But when I think of

that phrase about Evangelism, I can’t help remembering…a cartoon.

A priest was talking with someone about a new sign in front of the church. The priest

was young. His cartoon conversation partner was a well-dressed, older woman. She pointed to

the sign and said to him, “I just don’t know why we need ‘The Decade of Evangelism.’ Everyone

who is supposed to be an Episcopalian already is one.”

Today, in light of today’s Gospel lesson - rather than How’s that working for us? - I

think some better questions might be: What is Evangelism? What does it mean to ‘make new

Christians’ these days? (And: Who are the sheep…and who are those goats?)

Our lesson from the prophet Ezekiel is all about sheep. There are no goats, but there are

fat sheep and lean sheep (34:20). Now, there’s a post-Thanksgiving image for us! God is

shepherd of the sheep in Ezekiel. In the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus is the good

shepherd (10:1-21). But today, we have Matthew’s version of the Gospel.

In this, Matthew’s last parable, Jesus tells a story about himself. It’s about a king who

also acts like a shepherd. This is a king, a shepherd who’s not afraid to get down and even dirty

with his flock, “sleeping with them, carrying them to safety, binding their wounds, caring for

their nutritional needs” (Karyn Wiseman, FOTW, pp. 317-319).

Not only that. This is a shepherd who is cared for by the sheep: “I was hungry,” he says,

“and you gave me food…thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you

welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was

in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36). Jesus is essentially saying he can be both a shepherd

and a sheep. In other words, Jesus is our king, and he is also our kin, our brother. Which leads

me to what I call the “both-and” perspective.

If Jesus can be both shepherd and sheep, both God Incarnate and the Lamb of God, then

why would we not be both-and, too? One religion professor puts it this way: “Each of us is both

believer and unbeliever, both commanded to care and in need of care, both judged…for our

failures…and saved by grace, both a goat and a sheep” (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, p.

336). This means that at All Saints’, we will find both saints and sinners, both sheep and goats.

It’s been three weeks since I gave notice that, as of next February, I will no longer be your

Priest in Charge. For you, maybe I’ve now fallen into the sinner category, rather than saint,

more goat than sheep. I’ve had my moments when I’ve wondered whether it was the right

decision. And then… the Good News of the Gospel got me. Again.

About a decade before the Decade of Evangelism, I began to hear more and more clearly

what I became convinced was a call to ministry. One day, the priest who walked with me during

those early times of discernment asked me to go with him to visit a member of the church. I

went. It was the first time I’d ever set foot in a nursing home.

Now, forty years later, I know what I learned for the first time alongside Fr. John

Howanstine. It was all about the Gospel lesson given us today. I learned that “I was sick, and

you took care of me” can mean you or I simply took the time to care enough to visit someone

who might not otherwise have any visitors at all, someone who might even feel like that nursing

home - or the hospital bed in their home - is more like a prison.

Now, forty years later, I want to take a bigger, better look around and try to see where

people who feel like the least, the last and the lost might be. Not just the least of these, Jesus

says in our Gospel story today, but “the least of these who are members of my family” (25:40).

And not all of the least, the last, the lost, Jesus says. Just one.

Just one. One of the least of these who are members of God’s family might be one person

we know who is “unchurched,” someone we could ask to come with us to church some Sunday or

any other day. One of the least of these who are members of God’s family might be someone

who used to come to church here, years ago, but who has no church to go to right now. I once

read that when an Episcopalian stops going to church, they either find another Episcopal church

or they just don’t go anywhere anymore.

One of the least of those who are members of God’s family might be someone who comes

here for one of All Saints’ yard sales to find some clothing that will keep them from being or

feeling naked. It might be someone who is hungry for the kind of food and drink a music

concert can provide their hungry, thirsty soul. It might be someone who doesn’t feel welcome

anywhere, and a kind word makes all the difference to them.

One of the least of these who are members of God’s family also applies, I have learned, to

a small church. I believe I’m now called to be available on a Sunday morning to other small

Episcopal churches who might not otherwise have a priest to share Holy Communion with them.

And for me, someone who has learned how rich my ecumenical and interfaith friendships are,

one of the least of these who are members of God’s family means, more and more, for me to

reach out to my Jewish, my Muslim or my Christian sister or brother who now feels treated

more like a stranger or an enemy than a friend.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, fellow members of God’s family, what might

Evangelism - sharing the good news of God in Christ - mean these days? How might we “make

new Christians” by making ourselves new, following in the footsteps of brother Jesus? And how

might we receive God’s love and forgiveness, when we feel like goats?

~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg

Priest in Charge

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

1508 South White Station Road

Memphis TN 38117

November 26, 2023


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