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‘If we will not face it, we certainly can’t fix it’

Diane Moffett says Matthew 25 invitation, Vital Congregations can be a balm to a hurting world

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett is president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

LOUISVILLE — The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, recent attacks and ridicule of people of Asian descent during the pandemic and many other horrifying examples all point out why the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must be a Matthew 25 church, even as the coronavirus still keeps many Christians from worshiping and doing ministry in person.

“All that terror has laid bare what has always been there. It angers me,” the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said Wednesday during a Vital Congregations Zoom conversation on being a Matthew 25 church during the pandemic. “If we will not face it, we certainly can’t fix it.”

Extended April 1, 2019, the Matthew 25 invitation draws from Matthew 25:31-46, the Judgment of the Nations, which, according to the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 website, “calls all of us to actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive and we wake up to new possibilities.” It invites the denomination’s more than 9,000 congregations, 170 presbyteries and 16 synods to work on any or all of three focus areas: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

“Those who are being pressed to the edge during COVID-19, we see the impact,” Moffett said. In states that voted not to expand Medicaid, “people have no (health care) resources,” she said. “Refugees are being hunted down, and Jesus is speaking loudly into this. The prison-industrial complex is the new Jim Crow. It’s a way to make money off (incarcerating) people. We are right on point with Matthew 25, and congregational vitality is applying what is faithful, getting out and being relevant and engaging your neighbors.”

Moffett sought to set the record straight: Coronavirus hasn’t closed churches, she said emphatically.

“The church never closed, and worship never stopped,” she said. “Worship literally means ‘to bow down.’ It is a lifestyle, and most worship takes place in the ordinary. I am excited about churches losing their life and gaining it … They are rediscovering what it means to be an authentic believer and follower of Christ, which should challenge us every day.”

Picking up on a favorite saying of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, that “The church is not dying — it is reforming,” Moffett acknowledged “there is a pruning that happens. It looks like we are hurting the tree or plant,” but it’s being cut back “to re-establish its roots so it might flourish.” This reformation “looks like death for us, which is a comma, not a period. The church is in the midst right now of transitioning. As we are faithful to Christ, God does a new thing … Our job is to allow the Spirit to flow through us into a ministry of love and justice and righteousness. Matthew 25 and Vital Congregations and the reformation of the church are right in line.”

While she may not have signed up to be president and executive director “during this kind of transition, and I know you didn’t sign up to lead churches through this either, we have a guiding vision lofty enough to stretch us and practical enough that we can do it,” she said.

If they’re angry at what they’re seeing, pastors and other church leaders can look to the Lord’s example with the moneychangers.

Jesus goes into the temple and takes a whip. He’s angry that the temple has lost its purpose,” Moffett said. “He cleansed it, and then he welcomed those who needed to be there.”

“We are a people of hope,” she said during a question-and-answer session that concluded the hour-long webinar. “We grieve. We go through the valley, but we don’t camp there. We have a good cry to honor the past, and then we turn through the future.”

“I have five grandkids. I feel that grief” of separation during the pandemic, she said, “but I balance it with the hope that is ours.”

Asked about how God may be acting during and after the pandemic, Moffett said it’s her theology that “God works in the middle of suffering, but God didn’t cause the suffering. I think God is showing us we are all God’s creatures and are all interconnected. All are worthy of dignity and respect. I am an Easter Christian … and if I were not a person of hope, I might as well be the walking dead.”

Moffett said she believes God is “using the pandemic to speak to the church, to let it know it’s a beautiful thing to come together, but not necessarily through formal worship in a beautiful building. By virtue of our baptism, we are all called to share this good news, to live it out, to be love with skin on it … We are social creatures, and that’s why this is so hard. Our bodies look for other bodies to connect with, and when we can’t, we get drained.”

“God will work this out for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose. I know that’s hard to hear, and yet that’s where my head is.”

Throughout the session, some of the 60 or so participants weighed in through use of a chat room. One noted Phyllis Tickle’s observation in “The Great Emergence” that every 500 years the church holds a “rummage sale,” discarding ideas and practices that no longer work. “We are overdue,” this participant wrote, “and I think the pandemic is forcing us to return to our roots and radically reform as we become the church for a post-pandemic world.”

“White ideology in the church needs to die,” wrote another. “The PC(USA) must become an anti-racist church in order to be a witness to the world around us.”

“Technology has reinforced that we are all connected as God’s children, and now our communication affirms that theology,” wrote a third participant. “This calls for us to have empathy and compassion for those who we once could ignore or overlook because they weren’t ‘us.’ It also challenges the place of privilege that those who have been a part of the church have felt as their privilege to have the authority to shape the church is being transferred to meet the needs of those on the margins.”

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