The Matthew 25 initiative: A conversation with Diane Moffett

On April 1, an invitation went out: for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations and mid councils to declare themselves to be Matthew 25 churches. In doing that, they commit to working on at least one of the three emphases of the Presbyterian Mission Agency: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and ending systemic poverty.

Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, spoke with the Outlook’snational reporter, Leslie Scanlon, about her hopes for the Matthew 25 vision. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

What does accepting this invitation mean for a congregation or presbytery? If they accept the invitation, what are they agreeing to do?

“I see it as a vision, to be a church that is committed to active engagement in the world.”

The logo for the Matthew 25 Invitation represents unity and equality. The three interlocking figures represent the equality of all people without gender or race bias.

Some churches and mid councils are already doing Matthew 25 work, and “it’s important for our denomination to know – this is ground up,” Moffett said. The General Assembly declared the PC(USA) to be committed to Matthew 25. Also: There are Matthew 25 initiatives in other places, outside the denomination.

“Ours is very specifically designed to meet our mission work plan, our mission emphasis as we do ministry together as Presbyterians,” Moffett said. When you sign on, you are committing to doing one or all” of PMA’s three emphases. And there are resources available on the Matthew 25 website, ranging from curriculum to books to read on racism and gender bias to information on training events.

How does partnership develop?

“We are also developing what we call our theory of change. Because in order to eradicate something, you have to look at it step by step.” Acknowledging what the issue is, that there’s a problem. Researching the issue. Listening to people involved. “We come along and create from there solutions that are not offered by us, as we are walking with these constituencies that are dealing with racism or we are walking with people who are dealing with poverty, that they are encouraged to come up with the idea of how to eradicate it. And from there, we come and say, ‘We can partner with you.’ … The idea is to stimulate the creativity, the energy and the empowerment of those who are most directly impacted by it.”

Congregations will need to be creative within their own contexts.  The invitation to participate also will be extended to others in the PC(USA): to associations and networks, to chaplains, to those in campus ministry, for example. The plan is that over the next two years, representatives from the national staff will talk about Matthew 25 in all 170 presbyteries and 16 synods.

Diane Moffett

What are some theological implications of Matthew 25?

“Jesus’ kingdom is not only a place you go to, but a place you come from. … It’s the kind of principles, it’s the kind of teachings, it’s the kind of radical inclusiveness and love and justice that Jesus demonstrates in his life. There’s great joy in it, because people are set free. People have that abundance, that life to the full. … But I also say, what we signed up for is not easy. Who wants to take up the cross? You do it when you have come into that life-giving relationship. You see the beauty of what happens when chains are broken and people are set free, because you have experienced it viscerally. You know it for yourself. We’re not just another social service agency. It’s out of our faith we do it. … Jesus was very political in nature. Of course, he was executed by the state. It was because of the love, it was because of the truth, it was because of the systems that he was critiquing.”

In Matthew 25, Jesus offered a critique of nations and systems.

“He’s judging nations — how the nations treat people,” Moffett said. “The nations create systems that create access to food, or not. Access to clean water or not. Access to shelter, or not — to health care, to justice. Nations create or do not create that. It’s a systemic approach to that Scripture. It challenges us individually, but it speaks to us as nations and as systems.”

In this time and place, why is it important for Presbyterians to have something to coalesce around?

Moffett was ordained in 1987. Since then, “there’s been this constant sense of decline, this constant sense of scary, this constant sense of scarcity and people moving out” over theological differences. “At this point, as we have opened up to become a radically inclusive church,” regardless of gender, age, race or sexuality. “We are just an open door church. And many people have left, many of the siblings have left because they don’t agree with our theology. And we have an opportunity now not to major in the minors. We want to major in what it means to be a missional church, what it means to be the body of Christ and to be authentic believers. That calls us out. It’s not a place of comfort. It’s a place of radical challenge. But it’s also a place of excitement, to see God at work in us. I think it’s really time to have a sense of common mission vision. This is what the mission agency is about. To give a common vision — to help us see that we’re doing mission together.”

Presbyterians also need to go deep and think systemically, Moffett said.

“You may have opened up a soup kitchen and be providing meals to people five days a week. And that is great. That’s the compassion part. We’ve got to be compassionate people. But we also have to ask, ‘Why are we having to feed these people? What is causing this need? And then we go deeper to the root issues, the systemic issues of what people in that particular context are dealing with.”

We live in polarized times. What would you say to people who don’t support policies to provide assistance to immigrants, the homeless, to those in prison — sometimes as a result of their religious and political views?

“I’m so glad that God is not like that. The compassion of God fails not.  We read Scripture and we allow Scripture to read us. … When we really take a look at Jesus’ life, we will see the intersection of faith and politics. Again, it was the state that executed Jesus. It was because he was stirring up trouble. Right? There was the sense he was so empowering people that they might take over. That was a threat. He was executed because he wanted freedom, he wanted justice, and he was critical of his own faith tradition. … That’s why he used parables. They were subversive.”

“I think faith makes a difference. Your faith is very political. To think that it’s not, I question how deep we go then. Because anywhere I am, I don’t take my Christianity and put it in a box. I am the church. We are the church. The church is not the walls, it’s the movement, it’s the people. So wherever we show up, we show up with these principles. We show up with these radically inclusive kinds of teachings that inform how we are to treat our neighbor. Who is my neighbor?”

Historically, “in the best of the black tradition, and I would say the black Presbyterian tradition, we were very much involved in the issues of the world.  The whole civil rights movement was led by the Rev.” – Moffett emphasized his ministerial title – “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was out of his faith that he protested this idea that there was inequality among humanity, that one race was superior to another. It was totally out of faith.”

Some Presbyterians worry about advocacy being seen as “too political.”

Moffett’s response: “So I say to people, are you going to be prophetic or not? Are you called to be chaplain, to comfort the people? Or are you called to be prophetic? And if you’re called to be prophetic, that means you are going to say things that people may not aspire to. And that’s wonderful. Now let’s talk about mutual exploration. Let’s talk about what you’re saying, let’s talk about what I’m saying, let’s talk about what the gospel says. What does the Bible say about that? Where in the world do we get in the Bible that we do not welcome the stranger? Over and over and over again, Israel has said I’m a stranger. Jesus says ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.’ ”

“I would really say that the church is where it is – and when I say the church, I’m talking not just the Presbyterian church, but the church with a capital C – the church is where it is in terms of its influence in society because of how faithful or not it has been to the gospel. How prophetic or not. I did not see Jesus in bed with the political figures of his day. … He called it like it was, and people didn’t like it.”

Are some Presbyterian congregations really not Matthew 25 churches — not caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger? If not, why not?

“It’s counterintuitive, but those who would save their life must lose it. That’s the Scripture.”

Some congregations become inwardly focused. “When you turn inward and it’s all about you … you have to ask yourself what would happened had Jesus been like that? Or had the early church been like that – if it was just about us. We didn’t care about the world. We were going to forget about the world and just live here. Then we wouldn’t have gotten the gospel. … That’s our assignment — to share in word and in deed the good news of the gospel. And people would rather see your sermon than hear it any day. They saw what Jesus was doing. They saw his healing, and they came to him for healing.”

How does the vision of being a Matthew 25 church connect with the work of the 2020 Vision Team?

“I try to work with everyone. The Hands and Feet initiative and the Matthew 25 vision were already there; I’m just lifting it up. The Hands and Feet, which the clerk [stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson] started, is an initiative of Matthew 25. There will be others.”

Moffett has spoken with the leadership of the 2020 Vision team, which the 2016 General Assembly created, instructing it to develop a “guiding statement” for the PC(USA) and to come up with a plan for implementing that statement. “I wanted them to know what we were doing,” Moffett said, “so we’ll all be working together.”

In June, you’ll have been executive director of PMA for a year. What are some of the challenges you see ahead?

 “When I accepted this position, some people said condolences, and some people said congratulations. People who were inside and saw, for whatever reason, there was a time of confusion and conflict, particularly for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. But I want to go on record: The Presbyterian Mission Agency is filled with people who are very committed, hard working, dedicated. … We are one church. The biggest challenge is for people to see we are one church. … I’m hoping that Matthew 25 will provide a framework for that.”