Year B, 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9 July 8, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”
What is the church? It is a relationship. It all flows from the Trinity, that swirling cloud of begetting and becoming, of pure and perfect love shared in the persons of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life and love itself. The church exists between that God and each one of us, individually as each of us individually knows God. It exists between each other, you to me, you to you, us to ya’ll. And then collectively, this ecclesia, this beloved community has its own particular relationship with God, guided by our tradition, our affiliation with a larger church, our Bishop, our ancestors, that great cloud of witnesses from ages past, and of course by the particular if not peculiar collection of souls gathered here in this very moment. All of that knits together as the Body of Christ, the Church with the big “C”. We are the church. You are the church.
Our selection from St. Mark’s Gospel today is about a lot of things; one of those things is about being the church in the world, we, disciples of Jesus Christ being empowered by Him to take the Good News straight from His heart and spread it wide and far. It is right there in the text. After Jesus’ less than satisfactory experience in His hometown, He went out teaching in the nearby villages. Right away, He called the 12 and began sending them out “…two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” And then He gave some basic instructions on how to do that, what to wear, what to bring, how to accept hospitality (and what to do when it runs out). “So,” St. Mark writes, “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” (They also cast out some demons and healed some folks).
Well now, that is some pretty early precedence for you all, the people of the church, to get out there and do God’s work in the world in the name of God: by exorcising and healing, (which can be taken for good works in the name of Christ), and by spreading the word. Do you know the church word for that? Evangelizing.
What does the word “evangelism” mean? _______ Succinctly, it means telling the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (Gospel is Greek for Good News). Evangelism doesn’t mean recruiting, or converting, or convincing or selling anything, it means telling the Good News of Jesus Christ, telling others about the God that you know, and how your life has been (and theirs could maybe be) made better by that relationship.
Some folks will flat out say “I don’t believe in evangelism.” Well, you just need to get over that, because what most thing is evangelism isn’t the full story. Remember, each of us is here because at some point, someone evangelized us or an ancestor, and not always at the point of a spear. We are products of evangelism. Yes of course, evangelism has earned a very bad rap, and not undeservedly. We’ve all been accosted by folks in sandwich boards at the farmer’s market, or earnest people knocking on our door at inopportune times. But just because other people do it wrong or at least not how we would ever consider doing it, doesn’t mean that the whole concept is corrupted. Evangelism is our word, and practice, too. We must not cede it. What is next, do we become ashamed of the word Christian? No. It is something we promise to do in our baptismal covenant and more importantly, I truly believe that the fate of the world rests in part in the good and loving news of Jesus Christ getting out there, changing people, helping them. Helping them to see that their individual interests are not more important that our collective interests. Helping them to see that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, you know, the fruits of the spirit, are important, are the most important qualities to have and practice. Look round, collectively, our moral compass is off. We need, NEED to join together around beautiful, good, love-filled things. Like God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and God’s people joined together to discern and do God’s will in the world. Evangelism is about helping people come into relationship with that loving God, that gracious Christ, that all embracing Holy Spirit, and into relationship with others who also seek a relationship with the ground of being itself. That is all very good news. Evangelism is sharing that good news. If you believe that that is what we are up to here, seriously, how could you hide it under a bushel? How could you not share it?
Okay. Most of my friends live in South Eugene. I know lots of reasons why we don’t share it. But we need to reframe that. (Maybe this is like the thorn in the side that Paul is talking about. The discomfort we feel in sharing our faith is maybe good for us). We need to evangelize not because the big “C” Church will die if we don’t spread the word (though it will). We need to evangelize, but not because this church will wither slowly away and die, or not make budget and have to cut staff if we don’t grow even more than we are growing (though that is true, we’re closing a 10% gap with savings that will run out). The church is not the end. It is a sloppy means to an end. We need to evangelize, to spread the Good News, because our world in this unstable, acrimonious moment, can go a lot of ways. Some possible futures are good, some are distinctly not. We need more people immersed in, or at least exposed to the Love of Jesus Christ and the moral heart that enlivens and guides your life so that 1. They can better weather the storms that are coming; and 2. Can maybe get out in front those storms, can be loving, compassionate solvers of problems, resolvers of conflict, lovers of souls. There are not many places in the world that you hear that kind o message. Don’t you wish more of our public officials heard these sermons every Sunday? Tasted the redeeming body and blood of Jesus Christ around this table in this community? Saw the children joyously marching into the sanctuary into God’s and our loving arms? Wouldn’t that help the world be better? And if you think so, don’t you think you should tell people about it? I’ve got sandwich boards out front, be sure to take one when you leave.
We have something really good here that is worth sharing. No, it is not right for everyone, but it’s kind of presumptuous to decide for someone else what is good for them or not, isn’t it? Can we agree that it is good to spread the love of God in the world, and even to invite others into that love. OK? The question is how. This is South Eugene after all.
The Rev. Canon Steve Bonsey was one of my priests at the cathedral in Boston. He wrote a wonderful little pamphlet called “A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism.” I borrow from it liberally in this sermon. He really hits Episcopal reluctance to evangelize on the head. Challenging us to thing evangelically, he writes, “Let’s pretend that you are someone who might be willing, in theory, at some point, possibly, to consider maybe doing something that, while not “evangelism” –type evangelism, still could be in some way construed as a sort of sharing of hope. Kind of.” Can you see yourself in there at all? According to Fr. Steve, it is estimated that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once ever 27 years! And he pleads with us, “Friends, with the grace of God and a little self-confidence, we can cut this figure in half!” Twenty-seven years is tongue and cheek, but you get the point. And when was the last time you invited someone?
The starting point in that pamphlet for doubling the invitation rate to once every 13 ½ years is a three-step process. Step 1. Love God. Step 2. Love your neighbor. Step 3. Think about getting the two of them together. That’s it. That is evangelism. That is spreading the good news. Nothing more. Nothing less.
But how do you do that? It can feel hard, invasive, even. The gospel, that’s about faith. My faith is personal, thank you very much. It is private. We get along here precisely because we don’t talk about such things; that’s Fr. Brent’s job. I don’t know, that doesn’t ring true.
As I said above, the church is relationship, loving relationship. That is what we have to offer and that is what we are inviting people into. The doctrine, the teachings, the Bible and Mass and all of that, like Archbishop Rowan Williams tells us, that comes later, that’s the form, not the content. The content is the relational universe revealed in Jesus Christ. And that really does sell itself. The form, no, its not for everyone, but you would be amazed what people acclimate to when what is at the end of the rainbow is so very, very good like what we have here. But you still need to say something, and a lot of us are very uncomfortable talking about our faith, we might not even know what we believe. But that is ok. You don’t need to know what you believe to be a good and honest Christian, or to invite someone to come and see what the good news is all about. So here are a few gentle steps suggested by Fr Steve to begin to spread the good news.
So you know someone, or you meet someone that maybe you’d like to go to church with, or you sense could use some of the medicine the church has to offer. The first thing you need to do is establish a relationship that has the first inklings of Jesus in it. So how about asking how someone is, how they are right now. Maybe say, “How are you doing?” (And want to know). You may already know them very well, family level of knowing, and know that they have things going on, or maybe they are a co-worker that you don’t know, or someone at the gym, or a parent at school. Whomever. The point is, evangelism starts by making a caring connection. Make it clear that you know them and love them for their own sake. That’s how God loves us, right? That is very, very good news that everyone wants to feel. And if it goes no further than that, that is totally fine. The Gospel has been spread!
That’s it, opening relationship. As a relationship develops, do as relationships do, go a little deeper. Tell them that you’ll pray for them. (If you will). Don’t do it in some pious or self-righteous way, but just tell people you will hold their joys and concerns and bring them to the God you know and love. I say that all the time to the most unlikely characters, unchurched, seemingly unchurchable, and the reaction is uniformly positive. Don’t you like it when someone say that to you?
Another passive or gentle evangelism technique is to follow Bruce Sedgwick’s lead and make proper and frequent use of the word “AMEN.” Anything can become a prayer when capped with a heartfelt Amen, a wish, a hope, a concern a belief. Churching it up a bit makes helps to demonstrate that God’s attention is everywhere. It contextualizes it and you in relation to your faith and your practice of your faith.
Another minor linguistic move Fr. Steve suggests is to substitute the idiom “Thank God!” with the slightly more formal “Thanks be to God!” That tiny change can really bring attention to what is actually being said, “God is revealed and praised as the One who has acted.”
That’s it. That is the practice of evangelism. Initiating relationships in the context of your faith. Now in my experience, you start putting subtle church stuff out there (and don’t worry, what we Episcopalians have to offer is pretty subtle), people are curious. “Hey, I like this person. Never would have pegged them as a Christian. Hmm…” or “Wow, what a nice guy. He’s gonna pray for me? Hmm…” Or “Resurrection? The church with the tiny houses? They put their money where their mouths are. Hmm…” It’ that “Hmmm…” that you’re looking for. Hmmm… It all starts there. My journey into Christ was very much “Hmm…” led as I first encountered the Eucharist. “I don’t know what is going on here, but hmmmm…” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Now there are some do’s and don’ts that Fr Steve suggests that I think are helpful.
On the Don’t side, you might not want to say
- You are a sinner condemned to hell – unless you take advantage of this limited time offer.
- You look wayward and lost. I bet you could use a church community.
- Our church is tolerant of all kinds. Even people like you!
- They told me to invite someone to church and you are the only person I could think of who isn’t busy on Sundays.
- Church would be less boring if you were there. (That is actually not bad).
- And if someone does come and check us out, you might not want to accost them in the coffee line with a “vampire” statement: “Are you new? The vestry could use some new blood. Are you a money person?”
On the do side, here are some suggestions:
- Wow, you are a tenor! Our choir would love you.
- You do so much for others. Do you have a place you go to be fed?
- You always ask the tough questions. You’d be great at our adult ed classes.
- That’s a lovely iguana. Have you ever been to a blessing of the animals?
- Or one quite relevant right now. The Bishop Michael Curry, you know, from the wedding, the Episcopal church – been in the news a lot recently. What do you think?
None of those things sound too hard to say, do they? There is no creepy-Christian vibe there, is there? They seem to me to be about what we do here and what folks need, even if they haven’t considered that they need it.
Fr. Steve sums it up with the very simple statement, “Evangelism is the sharing of a precious gift.” I believe that the Church of the Resurrection, this constellation of relationships is precious gift. You are here for some reason, and likely it is a very good one. Others have reasons too. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know that Resurrection existed until someone told me about it. Most don’t know that churches like this exist anywhere, where hearts and minds not only can be open, but are basically required to be for admittance.
So I encourage you to begin to sort of consider that maybe you possibly could perhaps say something to someone some day about church. Maybe. You never know, it could save someone’s life. It saved mine. Maybe it saved yours. And maybe all of our lives depend on the light of Christ shining more brightly and more frequently in this beautiful and fragile world. Thanks be to God. AMEN.