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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

3 of 7, Active Outward Focus

7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, a 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday July 9, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


This Summer, we are studying 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, 7 lenses through which to look at as a congregation and measure how alive we are, and how much life we add to the community around us.

We’ve introduced all 7 and have covered two.

Rev. Cindy Kohlmann taught us the first mark, discipleship… Lifelong Spiritual Growth… forever being disciples, students of God. In a vital congregation, all will constantly be learning and wondering and studying, trying to understand and live God’s unique way of life and community.

Last Sunday, we studied the second mark, evangelism… Intentional Authentic Loving. When a vital congregation engages people who don’t believe or aren’t sure what to believe, we don’t have to save or make them believe like us. We see them as Jesus looked on Nicodemus, as someone born of God’s spirit, already loved and forgiven. We love them and believe God’s forgiveness of them just as strongly as we hope and trust it for ourselves.

This Sunday, the third mark of a vital congregation is Active, Outward Focus. Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from Paul’s letter to a congregation in Rome…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Romans 4:16-25

13 See, the promise that (Abraham) would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through (obedience to) the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For, if it is adherents of the law who are to be heirs, faith is null and (God’s) covenant is void. 15 See, the law brings wrath, and where there is no law, neither is there transgression, (sin).

16 For this reason the promise (of God) depends on faith, in order that it may rest on grace, so that it may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faithfulness of Abraham in the presence of the God in whom he trusted,[e] (the God) who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (After all, Abraham is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)

18 Hoping against hope, (Abraham) believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was (promised), “So shall your descendants be.” 19 (Abraham) did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already[f] as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No skepticism made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong(er) in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being (more and more) convinced that God was able to do what (God) had promised. 22 Therefore “(faith) was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who trust, [believe, are faithful] in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 (the same Jesus) who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our righteousness.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)

Sermon Active, Outward Focus

Rome taught that men are better than women, over women. Citizens have rights and immigrants have none. Rich are successful because of their hard world and faithfulness, and poor are lazy sinners who probably offended the gods. Free folk are special and blessed and deserving of their freedom, and slaves are cursed, common, working off the debts of their ancestors.

The Christian congregation in Rome came together after learning what Jesus taught, how those Roman assumptions are lies. Congregations, like in Rome, came together as Jew and Gentile, citizen and immigrant, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, young and old, and all were precious forgiven equal children of God. All are included. All are welcome. All share and no one lacks anything.

A congregation of Christ is very different from the outside world, and like Christ, congregations do not only enjoy the benefits inside themselves but look outward, beyond themselves, and share the benefits with everyone. Did yall know, there was an accepted practice by some in ancient Rome of discarding baby girls and keeping baby boys. Early Christians sometimes rescued abandoned girls and raised them. Early Christians sometimes collected monies to buy slaves just to set them free. Early Christians opened the first public hospitals and gave free healthcare to the sick others would not treat or touch. Early Christians paid bail money for prisoners they didn’t know. A vital congregation welcomes into itself everyone, and outside itself embodies Jesus to everyone.

Paul had heard some worrying things about the congregation in Rome. They are not actively helping others and challenging Rome’s lies outside the congregation, and they are changing who is welcomed and included inside the congregation. Someone read scripture and told them God promised to make Abraham a great nation but Abraham had to promise something in return to be included. Before, they were loving and serving everyone. Before, they were including everyone as equals. Now, they were sorting people as in or out, worthy or not.

Paul, a Pharisee, knows the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. He writes to the congregation in Rome. God promised the covenant with Abram three times. The first time is Genesis 12. “…the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kin and your home to the land I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and … you will be a blessing (to all).” It was a huge risk, but Abram and Sarai trusted and went!

The second time God covenants with Abram is Genesis 15. “…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” … 5 (God) brought (Abram) outside and said, “Look toward heavens and count the stars, if you are able...” Then (God) said…, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And (Abram) believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

The third time God covenants with Abram is Genesis 17, what Joanne read with us today. “(God said) I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be (Abraham) the ancestor of a multitude of nations… “ But there’s more we didn’t read. “As for you, you all shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you... Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant.”

Someone told them obedience to this law, circumcision, is what really includes a person. Someone told them the worthy of God are those who are circumcised or willing to be. They changed from loving everyone and serving everyone, to dividing themselves inside, and judging others outside.

Paul has to challenge that teacher who has misled them. The covenant was made a first time, a second time, and a third time with Abram long before the sign of circumcision was ever introduced. And why did God repeat the covenant? The second time, Abram and Sarai had become afraid. They doubted God, and took matters into their own hands. They decided to have children through one of their slave girls. Despite Abram’s fear, doubt, and impatience, God repeats God’s covenant with them anyway. God even extends the covenant to Ishmael, the offspring of their doubt and impatience.

The third time, “Abram felt done; spent. He was … old! Abram had heard God’s voice (when younger)… promising children… a future and a legacy ... He and Sarai … struck out in faith… (now)... He was (tired), ready to turn inward, to let the events of the outside world take their own course—without him.” Only then, after the third time, does God suggest a sign, a way for Abraham and his ancestors to hold themselves accountable. But notice, God was faithful to them always.

Inside a vital congregation, we show radical welcome and inclusion of anyone, and outside a vital congregation, we do our best to change the world for the better for everyone. Everything we practice and enjoy inside ourselves, we focus outward, and actively go to make our community and all the world that loving, that inclusive, that equal and just and fair. But in congregations, there will come.a moment when some will ask, “Can’t we just come to church to rest, recuperate, heal? In church, we shouldn’t have to talk about the problems of the outside world.

Three times God reminds Abram of God’s covenant. When they liked it and took off, it was true. When they doubted and got afraid and impatient, it was still true. When they bent back toward it, it was true. When they got tired, disheartened, turned inward, it was still true. The promise of God is, was, and always will be true, despite doubts, fears, impatience, or exhaustion.

The congregation tried to believe what Jesus said and taught about God, and God’s vision of holy community, and included everyone and served anyone in need. Now, some preacher using scripture poorly tells them God’s covenant only includes those who obey a tradition. Inclusion was changing from everyone to those who obey. Service was changing from anyone in need, to only those who seem worthy and willing to become like us.

Paul shows them, even in scripture, God’s covenant was never about obedience. If obedience to law or commandment was even possible, then the law would have been able to save us. God would have waited for our obedience. But God, knowing we cannot ever fully obey, sends Jesus, and in Jesus’ faith, Jesus faithfulness, the punishment of sin and the law are lifted. Grace wins. Love wins. The law, obedience, never could save, and still cannot save. The law only reveals our brokenness and proves how much we are equally sinful, and equally dependent on God. It wasn’t obedience to some law that made Abram and his descendants right before God. It was Abraham’s faith, his struggling, waffling, back-and-forth, ever-maturing belief, faith, trust that God would keep God’s promise no matter what.

That’s what God reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.

When the congregation in Rome believes, has faith, trusts that God is gracing and loving and forgiving of all, and that God’s perfect community is possible, they continue to include and welcome all, and change the world for the better. But if they slip away from that, they start picking things to obey as signs of who is and isn’t worthy. They turn inward, and start taking care of themselves and ignoring others.

Paul is trying to show the congregation in Rome to set no boundaries on who is included. Include everyone, whether or not they obey, whether or not they fully believe. Even the tiniest bit of wavering faith is enough for this God, and this God keeps God’s promise even when our faith falters. And then, set no expectations on those we will go out to love and serve.

The Congregational Vitality Survey says it this way. “The church is meant to be a beacon of Christ’s grace, justice, freedom, and love. Active, Outward focus means we daily take up our cross and follow to the marginalized of society, the poor among us, the suffering and sick, the stranger and enemy, the down-trodden and “the least of these.” We do not focus on bringing similar or like-minded people inside to assimilate to our way of doing things; nor do we just go to people and places that are familiar and comfortable. Active Outward focus requires an emboldened faith that goes because Christ is already present, and calls us to join.”

May this congregation forever be radically welcoming inside, and the actively, outward take that welcome, inclusion and love to all our neighbors.

To God be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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