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.

This Is The Gospel of the Lord? (a sermon from 7/12/15)

Our gospel for today from Saint Mark is actually a flashback that Herod has when he hears of all the work that the disciples are doing in Jesus’ name.  Some were saying the John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and Herod was thinking they might be right – and this is when we have this flashback where we get to hear what happened to John the Baptist.

It’s not a happy story and it’s kind of a big wet blanket text right here in the middle of the summer.  It’s one of those gospel texts that when I read it, instead of proclaiming afterward, like I always do, that this is the gospel of the Lord, I want to put a question mark after it.  This is the gospel of the Lord?

King Herod in this gospel is a descendent of Herod the Great, who was infamous for having all the toddler boys killed after the Magi announced Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great had a few sons – two of which he had killed, along with his favorite wife, because he heard a rumor they were plotting his death. 

Two surviving sons were Herod Philip and Herod Antipas.  It’s like that show, Newhart – do you remember that show? This is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl.  Anyway, here it is Herod and his other brother Herod. Herod the Great’s grandniece Herodias came along and married Herod Philip, her uncle.  I read there was a lot of inter-marriage within this family because they believed that their bloodline was superior and they didn’t want to sully it by marrying outside the family.  Herod Philip and Herodias had one daughter.  The story that we read about in our gospel begins when Herodias leaves Herod Philip for Herod Antipas – her other uncle.  Unlike Herod Philip, Herod Antipas was the greatest Prince in the family – he held rank and wealth.  It didn’t matter to Herodias that Herod Antipas was already married – she quickly left Philip and took their daughter and went to Tiberius to be with Herod Antipas.

This was not legal according to Mosaic Law.  If Philip were dead, it would have been honorable, in fact it would have been required at one point in Jewish history for a brother to marry the widow of his brother – but there was nothing good about what Herod Antipas and Herodias have done.

Now even though their marriage arrangement was illegal and distasteful, no one interfered – Herod was powerful and influential.  Only one person spoke out against what had happened – “Mark 6:18 reads, ‘for John had been telling Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

So here is John the Baptist, pointing out the sin that no one else will point out. He’s got guts. And we might say, “Good for John the Baptist!”  Until we remember that time when someone pointed out some sin or shortcoming of ours and we remember that it doesn’t feel very good.

What do you mean I could be a better giver?  I do pretty well.  Well, sure I didn’t need that new pair of heels but they were so pretty and they were on sale.

What do you mean I really need to stop gossiping?  I mean, it’s not like I said anything that wasn’t true.  Well, sure that’s not exactly an uplifting way to talk about my neighbor, but come on.

What do you mean I better think hard about the first commandment and the false gods sucking up time in my life?  I mean, sure I spent way more time on Facebook and catching up on old episodes of the X-files last week than studying scripture or in prayer, but everyone needs some down time.  Right? Come on.

None of us like being faced with our sins.  Those who call us on them become an unpopular drag really, really quickly.

This was the place in which John the Baptist found himself.  He called out Herod and Herodias on their sins and they did not like it one bit. Herodias wanted him dead immediately but Herod was afraid to do this because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man.  In fact, here in the gospel of Mark it says that Herod liked to listen to John.  Maybe he wondered if there were things he should be learning from John.  The gospel of Matthew contradicts this, however, and says that Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people.  Regardless, we do know that ultimately he had John imprisoned.

But that wasn’t enough for Herodias.  She was out for blood.  Our translation reads, “She had a grudge against him.”  Other translations read that she “nursed this grudge” – she fed it and tended to it and kept it alive.

It’s crazy how crazy anger can make us – especially if we feed that anger.  A very long time ago I remember a fellow I had been dating broke up with me and of course that was hard and sad – we had been dating for a couple years.  But then a day or two after we broke up, I found out that before he broke up with me he had started dating someone else.  This completely changed my sorrow to righteous anger.  How dare he?  My indignation knew no end.  My energy immediately turned from weepy tears to plotting how I could inflict the most pain upon this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Norwegian Lutheran jerk.

But all the angry letters I might want to write him, all the little speeches I planned in my head that I would present to him when I saw him next, all his friends that I planned to date in retaliation – I knew none of it would really be satisfying.  Oh, I definitely let him know that I found out about his sorry little cheating heart – I had to do that.  But then, I stepped back and I remembered what Jesus said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.  So I prayed hard – every day.  I prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed for myself and I prayed for that ex-boyfriend, I even prayed for his new girlfriend.  I prayed for them with bitterness for a long time, but I kept praying, until the anger started subsiding, the hatred melted, and I could start to see clearly again.  I could feel myself slowly starting to forgive them – and that felt so much better than the cold little stone of anger I was tempted to keep carrying inside. 

I wish Herodias could have understood how good it feels to forgive rather than to nurse hatred and grudges.  It sounds like she was laser-focused on her revenge, however. 

She made a plan – so she would be ready when the opportunity came.  The opportunity for her revenge came on Herod’s birthday – there was a big party for his birthday.  This would have been a party for men – women of good reputation didn’t go to these parties – not even Herodias, his wife, would have been invited.  I read that the only women usually found at these kinds of gatherings were women who danced and entertained men after the meal.  Whatever the equivalent was in those days of women who jump out of cakes.

So then it is peculiar that his daughter, who is actually Herodias and Herod Philip’s daughter, comes in to dance.  Here the daughter is simply called Herodias but in other places she is called the daughter of Herodias or Salome. Most theologians I read speculate that it was Herodias who sent her daughter in there, not caring about her daughter’s reputation as much as she is banking on that Herod has been drinking and just might be feeling generous enough to offer her what eventually does.  The King said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”

The girl leaves and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?”  Now what kid does that?  If you ask my kids what they want, they don’t come and ask me – they know very well what they want.  They probably have a list prepared right now they could hand you.  Coming up with requests isn’t hard for kids usually.  So that’s why some think that Herodias had coached her daughter beforehand, “After you dance for your stepfather, if he offers to give you something, come and tell me.”

Well, we know what Herodias told her daughter to request – the head of John the Baptist – on a platter.  I always thought that part was a bit extra nuts – that it had to be on a platter. But whatever.  The scriptures say that Herod was grieved to do it, but because he didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests and go back on this promise to the girl, he had John beheaded.  The head was placed on a platter, given to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.  This is the gospel of the Lord?  This is the good news of Jesus?

Well, thank goodness, this story doesn’t stand by itself in scripture – right before this, we are hearing the story of all that Jesus was doing and how word was spreading about his healing and the disciples were going out and casting out demons and curing the sick in Jesus’ name.  And right after this story about John’s death, the miracles continue with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water and doing more healings. 

But just as John was killed for speaking truth to power, the same thing would eventually happen to Jesus.  This gospel of Jesus Christ – this gospel that makes life worth living, that brings healing to the sick and wholeness to our hearts and amazing grace, it is not without cost.  For John the Baptist and for Jesus and for countless martyrs for the faith it cost them their earthly lives.  And we are living a very shallow, hollow, surface sort of faith if we think it does not cost us something as well.

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

What does this mean?  It means we are the children of God, given the gift of God’s grace – and a gift like this – how can we help but want to thank the Giver?  How can we do this?  How can we live lives of responding in thankfulness for God’s beautiful grace? 

Being willing to be convicted when we are wrong and try to do better is a start.  Giving not just out of our leftovers but giving our first fruits, the best we have to offer to God, that is a start.  Stepping up, being brave to use our voices and efforts to speak up for justice for those who are experiencing injustice, that’s a great start.  Forgiving, even and especially when it is hard, turning away from the temptations that make us less than the people God has called us to be, being diligent about studying the Word of God, beginning and ending our days and filling the hours in between with prayer, visiting the sick and the elderly and the homebound, writing the note of encouragement and support, teaching your children about the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the ten commandments, honoring your parents with visits and support especially as they age, being honest in word and deed, using your words to speak well of others and never cut others down, be faithful to your spouse, be thankful for what you have….all of these things are a great way to start.

Not because our salvation is dependent on us doing these things but because we are so thankful for the love that Jesus has already so freely given us, we want our lives to be transformed by him. Isn’t that what we want?  I mean when someone gives you a gift, you want to respond in turn, and I pray that we never take God’s grace so for granted that we forget to seek him daily and be shaped by Jesus daily. 

Most of us will likely never be killed because of our faith, and yet this faith we share does require something.  Namely everything.  May God help us to give this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.