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.

Reformation

The new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote a humorous story in the Lutheran magazine that just came out.  She writes, “A first-call candidate assigned to the Northeastern Ohio Synod came to me about an interesting encounter she had with a waitress.  The waitress admired our candidate’s Luther Rose pendant and asked what it was.  “It’s Lutheran,” replied the candidate.  “Where’s Lutheran?” asked the waitress.

She said they chuckled that the waitress imagined a place of beauty and mystery called Lutheran and were also a little rueful that she had never heard of Lutheran before.

Growing up where I did in rural Minnesota, Lutherans were by far in the majority.  In my little town of 700 people there were three Lutheran churches in town plus three more in different directions out in the country.  So it was quite a shift for me when I moved to other parts of the country where people didn’t automatically know what a Lutheran was or were even still shocked to see a female pastor or failed to recognize what I was when I wore my collar.  I remember when I was on internship, I was still single, it was a Sunday I had worn a nice outfit and my clergy collar.  After church a family invited me to go to lunch with them and as we were escorted to our seats we passed a table with a couple really handsome, smart-looking fellows who looked to be around my age.  Like I said, I was still single, so I flashed a little smile as I passed their table and as I walked by I heard one of the guys say to the other one – “did you see her?  That nun was flirting with you.”

I didn’t go back and explain to him the error he had made – that I was not a nun – but I did begin to realize that the language I had been speaking my whole life – the language of Lutheranism – was one that not everyone spoke.  And over time I began to realize that even within the Lutheran church sometimes we can all get a little confused about our fundamental beliefs and what sets us apart from other denominations when we hear so many other theologies from various sources all the time.

So what does set us apart as Lutherans?

I’ll tell you right now what is particularly awesome about being Lutheran.  It actually has nothing to do with us or Martin Luther but it has everything to do with God.  It is God’s ridiculous, extravagant notion of grace.

There was a news story I heard earlier this week that illustrated grace perfectly:  Jessica Eaves was shopping in Guthrie, Okla., earlier this month when her wallet was taken. She spotted the man she suspected of taking it in a nearby aisle and wondered what to do next.

“As I saw him, a scripture came to me from the Gospel of Luke, which basically says ‘If someone should take your cloak, you should give them your shirt as well.”

The passage inspired her next actions.  She approached the man and said she would like her wallet back now but if he came with her to the front she would pay for his groceries.  And that is exactly what she did.

Was that what the man deserved?  Most likely we would say he deserved punishment for taking what wasn’t his – but instead of calling the police, the woman decided to bless him and give him a gift.

That is grace right there.

And God’s grace is receiving God’s love and forgiveness – but not because we deserve it.  While we believe that it is important to do good works and to give generously and to forgive others we also believe that it isn’t any of those things that earns salvation for us.  We can do nothing to earn God’s love – it is a complete gift.

We need God’s presence in our lives to bring about any good or blessing from us.  That’s why we confess every week, “we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word and deed.”  We are confessing that we are as Luther said – in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Lutherans believe that all that could ever be done to achieve our salvation was done on the cross by Jesus.

That is why for the Lutheran – the language we hear much of the time throughout the Christian church about accepting Jesus and deciding to follow Jesus should strike us as not quite right.  Lutheran theology focuses on God’s activity, not ours.

For example, while someone from another denomination might say something like “I accepted Jesus into my heart” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus came into my heart”.  While others might say, “I have decided to live like a believer,” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus love compels me to follow him.”  Others might say, “I was saved when I answered an altar call when I was twelve years old.”  Lutherans would say, “Jesus saved me when he died on the cross.”  Do you see the difference?  Other denominations like to put the emphasis on what human beings can do to get to God but for Lutherans, it’s all about what God has done and still does to get to us or perhaps more appropriately, stay with us.

Even being able to say “I Believe” is a gift – Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism – “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

This is why we promote that babies be baptized and that one doesn’t have to have grown up or be able to believe anything in particular before they are baptized.  God’s saving work that happens through baptism happens regardless of what we are able to believe or not.  It’s all a gift.

And it makes complete sense when you think about it.  I mean, when my children were born, I didn’t think to myself, “now okay – when Owen and Jesse can accept me as their mother and start doing the things I tell them to do, then I’m going to love them unconditionally and forgive them for the bad things they do and give them the gift of being their parent” – no, from the moment I heard their cries, from the moment I felt them move, from the moment they were even a possibility Chad and I whispered to each other, I loved them and knew I would give them everything I ever could.  That is what a parent does.  My love is not based on what they will do for me now or someday.  It wouldn’t actually be love if I felt that way.  And if we are made in God’s image, then is it really so strange to think that God would do the same for us? God gifts us with love and mercy and kindness – God does not wait for us to deserve it or ask for it.

Reformation Sunday is not a day that we celebrate Lutherans – because what is particularly awesome is not Lutheranism or Martin Luther or any of us – it is what God has done and continues to do.

A Blessed Reformation Day to all of you!

Brave?

Since I wrote my last post, the sermon I gave this last Sunday at my church:  “Okay, God, What Next?”, I’ve received some comments from friends that I was brave to preach that sermon which stated my complete support of the Supreme Court decision that all gay and lesbian people deserve the legal right to be married.

I’ve been thinking about that.  I know I am not brave. My friends are brave who came out to their families and friends not knowing what kind of support or derision they would receive.  I may have had the smallest snippet of bravery when, sixteen years ago, I preached a similar sermon at my first congregation in New York – long before my own denomination stated their support of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but even then I knew my synodical bishop and many fellow clergy agreed with me, so I was not standing alone.

But now, as I sit here in 2015, with the ruling of the Supreme Court and the affirmation of my own denomination behind me, I am not brave to speak out in favor of gay and lesbian people having full marriage equality.  Rather, I feel remorseful and ashamed.

I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now. There were many years when I no longer had the vigor and passion of being a first-call pastor, ready to change the world and willing to say the hard things that needed to be said.  Those years when I was an associate pastor and I did not feel it was “my place” to speak out on issues and show disagreement with a senior pastor or those years when I was in rural Texas and knew my congregation was just barely holding on to the ELCA by a thread and I didn’t want to be the one to push them too hard for fear of them leaving the ELCA altogether. Those years when I supported my gay and lesbian friends, attended and sometimes was given the beautiful honor of preaching or presiding at their weddings, and yet I did not post the pictures on Facebook or speak about it too widely because I wanted to be sensitive to “where my congregation was at.”  I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people.  Spineless.  Neither hot nor cold.  A hypocrite, really.  I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth.  How dang noble, Ruth.  Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry.  I’m ashamed of it.

This is my confession today.  I am not brave.  I have been the opposite of brave.

The culture of our churches in these times makes it difficult, truthfully.  Clergy have families to feed and so there is a certain amount of wanting to keep a congregation happy so that one’s paycheck keeps coming.  The problem is that the real, raw gospel of Jesus Christ is upsetting and even infuriating…but none of us like being confronted and challenged regularly. So there is this balance that pastors try to find between sharing the convicting truth of the Gospel and also the endless grace.  We need both.

But too often, way too often, churches get so worried about anyone getting upset about ANYTHING.  So much so that this becomes a god of its’ own.  I’ve sat in countless council meetings where fear of losing members was the guiding decision-maker, not “what would Jesus do.”

And when a church does this too much, not only does the pastor get disillusioned, but so do the people.  People are passionate about the church when it is fired up about sharing the gospel, not when it is fired up about itself.  When we find our identity in Jesus, not when we find our identity in our programs or our pretty buildings, then we are authentic and brave and frankly, irresistible.

Anyway, here’s to being brave.  I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, an age that I am comfortable saying I may be halfway through my life.  The first half was very good – full of love and beauty and grace.  Now, the second half – I pray I will be truly brave.

Upsala Lutheran Church, Calloway, MN

upsala


I have an affection for country churches and I’ve been trying to figure out how to channel this into something that can be shared with any who might be interested as I am.  Perhaps it will turn into a separate blog but for now I’m going to share some of my country church adventures here.

Since moving back to Minnesota nearly two weeks ago I have come across a TON of Lutheran country churches – because there are just SO MANY here.  I always knew that but had kind of forgotten after being away and serving churches in other states for the last 16 years.

Upsala was not the first country church I went to find – but it is my favorite so far because it is so tucked away that one would not ever know it is there if you just stayed on the paved roads.  It is north of Detroit Lakes on highway 59 about 7 miles, then turn right on 240th avenue until you come to “Upsala Church Road” and turn left.  As you wind your way on the gravel road that cuts through the grassy hills, eventually up ahead you will see the steeple of Upsala peeking out above a grove of trees.  The church itself has a long driveway shaded by oaks – as I drove in I decided I would have to come back in the fall and take more pictures when the leaves are at their best.

Upsala was established in 1871 which makes it older than most of the other churches in this area.  It may even be the oldest but I need to do more research to determine whether or not this is true.  I walked around the beautiful cemetery and took many photographs, and of course, I had to check to see if the door to the church was open and fully expected it to be locked as every country church in Minnesota usually seems to be.  The front door was locked – but a back door was open!!  I was full of glee to be able to actually see the inside of this structure which has not been used for weekly worship since 1964!!  The altar rail and pulpit were very typical of the Scandinavian style from the late 1800’s.

There was an interesting article hanging on the wall about how the church had been used for Midsummer Night celebrations even after its’ closing and that there was a small group of people who were committed to caring for the building and keeping it nice.  I wonder who those people are now and where the church records are kept.  The article also said that the church closed because the area was simply “overchurched” at the time.  This is not hard to believe since one can practically see Richwood Lutheran (ELCA) from there if there weren’t hills and trees in the way and I believe Lund Lutheran (LCMC) is close, too.

The setting of this church is quite simply one of the loveliest places I have seen.  Unfortunately, a home has been built quite close to the church so if you look in that direction the illusion of stepping back in time is spoiled, but nevertheless, when one is in that church yard you can practically picture the early settlers arriving at worship in their wagons, the pioneers coming early to put wood in the stove to warm the church before service, or the preacher coming in on horseback.

I’m so glad this beautiful building has not been torn down so that we can still have a glimpse of what these original churches on the prairie really looked like.

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