Evangelism (a sermon from 1/19/14)

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you hear the word “evangelism”?  Do you think about street corner preachers calling out phrases such as “repent and be saved”?  Do you get a picture in your mind of the television evangelist in an expensive suit on the stage of a stadium-size church?

Do you think of yourself?  After all, we are a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In truth, each of us are called to evangelism, to be evangelists – and yet there are many who would steer far from calling ourselves such a thing.  Perhaps that is because we have witnessed many times evangelism done so poorly. 

I think of a clear and cold winter day back in the mid-nineties.  My car had broken down on a freeway in North Dakota and a man and his wife had stopped to pick me up and bring me to the nearest phone.  I was thankful for their kindness and we chatted as we shared in that short time together.  Inevitably, they asked me where I was from and what I did and at the time I was a student in seminary studying to be a pastor and I told them so.  Their response was one that by then I had gotten used to as they then began to evangelize to me about how I was being misled, that it was sinful for a woman to presume she could be a pastor, that they would be praying for me that God would point me back on His path.  I sighed and politely thanked them for the ride.  I knew by then that they were just two of many, many people who interpreted scripture in such a way.  There was nothing I was going to be able to say in such a short amount of time that would change their mind.  Yet I wondered why they thought they could change my mind.  Did they imagine that what they were saying (these entire strangers) was going to be entirely new information and by the end of the car ride I would abandon religious studies after years and years of pursuit and the calling placed on my heart since the age of fourteen, a calling that had been affirmed and nurtured within me by my home pastor and my home church and my family who loved me and brought me up in the faith and taught me not only a love of scripture but to understand  and live in the life-giving faith and grace found in Jesus Christ – did they imagine their few words were going to strip away all of that?

What that couple tried to do that day, while I’m sure it was well-meaning, was hollow and only alienating.  It took into account nothing about me or my journey or my understanding of who God was and is.  They were trying to take their experience and their journey and impress it upon me, squish me into their idea of what a Christian really should be like in the time it took to travel over a few windswept Dakota miles.  I resented it. 

And that sort of thing, unfortunately, is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word evangelism.  I don’t like that because I know the heart of evangelism is much deeper and richer and far more meaningful than that – but I know well what our knee jerk reaction to that term “evangelical” can be – because I have felt it myself.

So what is being evangelical at its best really about?  We can take some lessons from our gospel today as we think about that.  First, there is John the Baptist who when he sees Jesus he can’t help but tell others about his experience, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”  So John can’t help but share this amazing thing that has happened and what he has witnessed to be true.  And he’s doing just that one day, and John’s witness must have been very compelling because two of his disciples who hear him then follow after Jesus – they want to experience some of the wonder that John is feeling in knowing Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist was a great evangelist because a synonym of the word evangelize is “Proclaim” – and he couldn’t help but proclaim who Jesus was and by doing so, he drew others to Jesus.  Some are able to do that.  Have you known people like that?  Their love for the Lord is infectious, their thirst and hunger to know God and live for God and study God’s word is so beautiful and humbling and passionate that it makes you want to have a closer walk with God?  That can be a beautiful form of evangelism, to be so in love with God and so devoted to learning as much as we can and serving as much as we can that we are consumed by love and we can’t help but share that joy we have found. 

However, while there are some who can do this, and perhaps all of us can at certain times – the difficulty of trying to be this kind of evangelist is that very few of us are always spilling over with our passion for faith.  It’s not because we don’t want that, I think all of us would want that, but the truth is that life is complex and there are dishes to be done and the cat needs to be taken to the vet and there are  appointments to keep and the constant buzz and hum of things to do and think about can so easily overpower our inclination toward always having our thoughts turned toward God.

So for those of us who might fall into this second category, we can take comfort in knowing there is another, even more powerful way of being an evangelist.  A way that draws us gently together and creates a space for the spirit of God to enter.

And it is all about relationships.  Yet not in the ways we might initially think about relationships and evangelism.  Oftentimes when we talk about relationships and evangelism in the church we think of them as a means to an end.  You know what I’m talking about – we worry about our attendance and so we say “invite your friends to church” and we think that will help fill in some of the empty spaces;  and we worry about our finances and so we say, “we need more people to come so then we will have more people giving.”  Or perhaps that couple I met back on the road in North Dakota was worried because the ways God had called me to serve him challenged everything they had been taught about what was right and so they needed to try to point out my error of thinking and set me on the right path.  Too often in the church when we think about evangelism and relationships we think of doing so as a means toward something else in the end.    As it says in the book, “Relational Pastor” by Andrew Root, “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of initiatives.  In other words, we have wanted people to be relationally connected so that they might come to what we are offering or believe what we are preaching or teaching.”  I think it is human nature and we all fall into this way of thinking sometimes – sort of a selfish evangelism – one that focuses on a goal somewhere off in the distance, not simply on that person and that relationship right here and right now. 

Yet how would it be to think of the relationship as our only goal? Not so that we can have them come to church someday and not so that we can get them to think about Jesus like we do someday and not so that their kids might come to youth group – no, just so that we can know another person and they can know us.   What if that was our only goal?  Could that possibly evangelism at its finest?

May I give you an example?  I think of the first Bible camp counselor I ever had.  Her name was Beth.  I was a terribly shy kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward, deeply uncool.  She liked to tell us stories – sometimes about Jesus but sometimes just about life and every night she would hug each of us goodnight and as she did she would whisper to us that Jesus loved us.  It was powerful and welcome – I would lie there in the dark and think about it.  Jesus loves me – I’m so strange and unpopular, but yet Jesus loves me.  Beth said so.  And mom and dad say so.  Grandma says so.  And if these people who take time for me and care enough to journey along with me in life wanted me to know about this precious love of Jesus, then it must be really something.  And so over time, the background noise that people kept telling me about Jesus’ love for me became a song, the dearest thing I had ever heard.  It was not a sudden thing, it was not because of just a moment or a single person, and it was never because of anyone trying to win me over for a particular cause or goal other than they wanted to know me and for me to know them.  And to know them was to know they loved Jesus.  And because of them and their care and the witness of their very lives – I fell in love with him, too.

Being evangelical will only start to sound like a welcome thing when we realize what it really is.  It is sharing faith, yet only sometimes with words. Sometimes it is sharing faith through a powerful and positive verbal witness to Jesus Christ but it is also sharing faith no less when you took time to bring over that food after he had the surgery, or to pause, even though you had so much to do, pause long enough to sit down and listen to the story when she was heartbroken.  That’s sacred, folks – Someone who wants time with you, whether going on a walk down the road, or hearing someone say “come on over sometime” or sharing a cup of coffee. There’s a reason these things feel like they matter, because they do.  It’s time shared, it’s life shared, it’s why when those disciples caught up to Jesus and they asked him where he was going, he didn’t just tell them, he said, “Come along and see for yourself.”  Jesus was modeling evangelism for us right there.

In the church we might do well to focus less on what the fruit of building relationships might be and more on just being present with one another.  At work, at home, at the grocery store, at the post office – being a gentle presence, being interested in others, listening without judgment, wanting to know the stories others bear and share ours with them and trust that in ways we don’t know and may never see, God will work through us to bring others to Christ.

So go on and be evangelical, church.  Proclaim Jesus through your words and through your lives this week.  Love and live in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sacred Passages

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22)

Jesus was baptized at about 30 years of age. At this age, according to Mosaic law, he could be baptized into priesthood. 

Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of glimpses into Jesus’ life before this moment and it’s not hard to guess why.  He was born for this day – this day of his baptism.  This day the heavens opened and revealed to all that what had been foretold was now coming true and what was until now only a whisper was a shout of revelation. 

How did Jesus feel that day?  Surely he had known this was coming, or perhaps he hadn’t – some scholars think that scripture shows evidence that Jesus’ divinity was hidden from him until his baptism day. Regardless, how must it have felt for him to finally be in the moment where he knew what he was born to do?  When he stood on the edge of who he had been and stepped forward into all that he was to become? 

We’ve glimpsed such things ourselves. God makes it to be so.  We may not get to see the Spirit descending like a dove or hear voices from heaven marking our passages but we feel their weight and joy nonetheless.  When you clasped your hand with hers and realized that was the hand you would be glad to hold the rest of your days.  When you heard the baby cry and gasped to know nine months of heartburn and swollen ankles had finally come to this – blessed THIS!  When you embarked upon that task which both exhilarated and frightened you nearly to tears, yet you knew you were the one to do it. 

Our passages are sacred as well.  And God is no less present in the waters that run over the head of every mortal as God is present in the water and the word at the river Jordan the day Jesus was baptized.

Good Moral Behavior? (a sermon for the last Sunday of Christmas)

It is the twelfth day of Christmas today.  Tomorrow is Epiphany and the Christmas season will end.  Sometimes I feel a little bad for the Christmas season.  We tend to rush to get it here – wanting to sing the Christmas carols and see the decorations long before Christmas Eve and then by the time we are at the end of the short, twelve day long Christmas season, we are wondering why are we still singing Christmas songs?  Why is the tree still up?  The rest of life around us has long since packed up Christmas, traded it in for New Year’s resolutions and even looking ahead toward Valentines Day.  But in here, it is still Christmas.  For one more day.

Our Gospel for today (John 1:1-18) won’t let us forget it, that is for sure.  If the gospel text sounds familiar, well, it should – especially if you were here Christmas eve and Christmas day – it is the same exact reading we heard both those days.

And no less confusing now than it ever is.  “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This text talks about Word and Life and Light – all these things coming into the world and becoming flesh.  This was John’s way of simply talking about Jesus’ birth.  God’s word put on flesh and came to live among us and through him we receive grace.

Not long ago, a friend of mine from Minnesota, a high school friend, wrote an article on his blog telling his readers that he wasn’t a Christian.  He said that he just didn’t really believe that Jesus was God and the only reason he sends his kids to Sunday School is because he thinks it is a good place to get sound moral teaching – but that is about it.  He then said that if anyone who knew him didn’t like that and chose not to talk to him anymore he would understand.

I thought a lot about his article in the days that followed and my feeling as I did so was sadness.  And not sadness because he was expressing doubt about believing in Jesus.  I think if most of us are honest we have all had doubts.  I know few who when standing over the gravestone of a child or after watching the news about another terrorist bombing, or even just after a troubling amount of days of feeling a lack of God’s presence or a distressing lack of visible answers to prayer, I know few who don’t have doubts about who God is and how it is that such evil or seeming absence can happen under God’s watch.  However, even for those people who might never have a doubt, if that were possible, such faith would be a gift from God anyway, so it is nothing to get proud about.  My experience is that most faithful people are quite a lot like that father in the book of Mark whose child needed healing from an unclean spirit and he came to Jesus asking for help and said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”  We believe but we also doubt.  We trust, but yet we are skeptical.  We are saints, but yet we are sinners.  This is us – human beings, all of us.

And I wasn’t sad because this friend of mine said the main reason he sends his kids to Sunday School was so that they could have strong moral teaching.  I hope our churches will always be places where children can receive that – of course, I hope they get it at home, too, but I pray their church families always help reinforce that and are places of good influence.  However, I think if that is our main goal in coming to church – that idealized vision of good morals and nice people and kindness overflowing, then we can get pretty disillusioned in the church fast, too.  Because the church is, once again, full of human beings – and sin can slip in these doors just as easily as anywhere else on earth.  Christian people, all of us, are as big a lot of sinners as anyone.  Even if we unite here under the common goal of following Jesus it doesn’t take long before something happens that reminds us of that.  A cross word, a thoughtless deed, a selfish action, something happens and sooner or later, again and again, we get reminded that being on church property doesn’t mean perfect behavior.  Lord no.  I’d rather the lesson my kids get in coming to Sunday School is not one of good moral behavior not nearly as much as the message that they are forgiven and loved always.  That if and when they mess up, they are loved and accepted here by us and by our God just as much as when they have been on their best behavior.  Yes, we teach the ten commandments here – but those are just a fraction of the story and a story made complete by the message of grace that Jesus brought.  That, and that being part of a Christian community such as this means simply that this is a place where we come and try not to seek a utopia of any sorts – but rather this is a place where we get to not only worship and learn about God but practice being God’s people.  We keep practicing at forgiving, speaking the truth in love and encouraging each other in the faith and then do our best to bring those skills out into the world around us.

So why was I sad about the words my friend had written?  I was sad because his impression of his Christian friends was that some of them would probably not want to be his friend anymore if they knew this about him.  If they knew he was a person who could have doubts about faith and Jesus Christ, that his Christian friends would reject him.

Is that the impression we give to the rest of the world?  And if so, why?  And if so, how can we change that?  Because we must.

You know, the thing is, I don’t blame anyone for being confused about Christians – because I know a fair number of Christians who probably would  prove my friend right about his assumptions.  Refusing to associate with a non-believer.  Condemning a fellow human being for having doubts.  Pointing out the speck in the eyes of others without seeing the plank in their own.  But none of that is living as Jesus Christ showed us. 

And that is what this season of Christmas is supposed to remind us.  That God sent Jesus, God’s word with skin on, to show us that being God’s people wasn’t nearly so much about the law as about love. That all those things that you struggle with – whether it be jealousy or depression or greed or anger or boredom or addiction or gossiping – that you don’t have to be able to purge yourself of any of those things in order to be loved or forgiven fully and completely.  Who you are is precious and beloved – right now.  That Jesus came to be born and walk around the earth and show us God’s face – and that face was one that looked on others with compassion and acceptance, grace upon grace.

Let me be clear:  God doesn’t love you because of how good you are.  God loves you because you are. 

The Christmas season is coming to a close and we feel ready for that.  We can’t be eating Christmas cookies all year round.  We’re most likely looking forward to singing some new songs and putting the carols away until next year.  But before we do, let’s pause at that manger one last time to remember the whole reason for it.  Jesus coming to earth, God’s word coming to us, love coming to us – not merely a singular event in time – not at all.  Jesus came to us to show us that is how God’s love is always – it comes to us.  We don’t have to work to get to God and to deserve God’s love because God’s love comes to us and promises to be born in us again and again.

And as we turn now and walk away from the manger we show our response to God for that great gift.  What will we choose as we journey through the seasons to come?  To accept that gift of life and love and then respond with selfishness or do we respond with consistently looking for ways to serve and help others?  Do we accept that gift of life and love and then respond with hording as much as possible for ourselves – more stuff that we don’t need, more luxury for ourselves when others are wondering where their next meal is coming from – or- do we respond by working hard to learn how to give, to see the beauty and peace that can be found in generosity?  Do we respond to God’s gift of life and love with accepting division and animosity and gossip and hatred to be a part of our days – or – do we respond by always, always, always working to speak well of our neighbors and let kindness and mercy be our first response?

God’s gifts to us are already given and great – all that remains to be seen is how and if we show our gratitude through our days and deeds.

Let us pray…

Lord, help us to live gratefully, boldly, lovingly, hopefully, mercifully and generously.  Help us to never stop thanking you for this gift of Jesus born to us, our dear Savior.  Help us to remember that you don’t require perfect understanding in order to receive your love.  Help us to remember that doubts are normal and that it is often by praying our way through those doubts and looking for our answers in you that you drive us toward deeper faith and peace.  Living God, we are yours, now help us live our lives for you.  We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.