Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Evangelism...the "E" word

1 Peter 2:2-10
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
               I shared this with the quilting group last week but find it appropriate to share it with all of you today, slightly edited so that it’s a little easier to tell.  About 20 years ago, before I was married, long before kids, I received a phone call, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”  Since I wasn’t married and hadn’t been before, I felt pretty safe in assuming this was a solicitation call.  However, on the slim chance that it was legitimate, I took the safe road and decided to ask, “Is this a solicitation call?”
               The person on the other end responded, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               “Is this a solicitation call?”  I asked again.
               The woman ignored me again and asked, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               To which I said a third time, a little louder since perhaps she just was having trouble hearing, “Is this a solicitation call?”
               To which she answered a fourth time, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               I became completely incensed at this point.  What was she thinking?  Did she really believe that after being that rude to me, calling me at my home, taking up my time, and yet refusing to answer a pretty straight forward question about her identity that I was then going to BUY something from her?  But before I was able to point this out, I gave it one last try and in a very loud voice (I mean, perhaps she was really hard of hearing and simply couldn’t hear the question) I asked again, “IS this a solicitation call??!”  Her final response was to hang up.  End of call.  But not really the end because I was left angry and bewildered.  “What is the matter with people?” I thought.  “Is she just about spreading ill-will?  Cause she certainly did not sell me anything, not that there was any chance she could have.  But she did anger me.  What was the point of all of that?” 
               But after I calmed down, I found myself reflecting on evangelism, or, as is told here in Luke, Jesus’ call to go to the people, share the news that the Kingdom of God is near at hand and bring healing to the stranger.  And the reason my experience made me think of this is that I have encountered evangelists who seem to have the same “spreading of ill-will” agenda.  These are people who come to the door or approach me in public who will not hear the words, “no” or “not interested”.  It doesn’t matter that I explain to them I’m already a believer.  When I tell them I’m a pastor, usually these are folk whose personal beliefs see the frocking of a woman as a sign of her personal damnation.  They are persistent and insistent.  And not without good reason.  After all, they have my immortal soul in mind.  But when I am finally able to end conversations with them, I always find myself thinking that they do more to turn people away from Christ than they do to promote him.
               Gerald Mann tells this story: "The first time I met a Baptist preacher, he asked me about three questions, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jerry, you’re lost, and that’s all there is to that!” I started attending church regularly. I didn’t know what “lost” meant, but he said it with such gravity that I was certain I was whatever he said I was.  By the spring of my thirteenth year, the Baptists were “hard in prayer for my soul,” as they frequently informed me. An evangelist was coming to town to lead revival services, and according to them, it could well be my last chance to be saved. Such ominous warnings didn’t frighten me. What little I had had to do with God told me that God was not that kind at all.
            "However, I attended the revival anyway, because the evangelist was a former teen-age gang-leader who had once tried to stab my older brother. I was curious to hear and see a person who claimed to have been converted from the seamy side of life.
"The ex-hoodlum-turned-Bible-thumper was something to behold! He was dressed in white and red—white suit with red cuffs and lapels, red and white shoes. Even his Bible was red and white!
His sermon was a blow-by-blow account of his former life on the “wild side.” Graphically, he portrayed scenes of gang fights, heroin sales, and sexual liaisons with wanton sirens. Considering that the wildest thing in our town was playing dominoes at the pool parlor, one can imagine how captivated we teenagers were. This was genuine Mickey Spillane stuff! And in the flesh! We didn’t miss a word.
           "Then he told us of how Jesus had reached into the midst of all that muck and plucked him out of it. I am certain he didn’t intend to, but he made it sound as if Jesus had spoiled a rather exciting life! His message had the import of one of those True Confession magazine stories: “I immersed myself in a world of booze and dope and sex. And boy, was it fun! But I tell you my story only to keep you from making the same fun-filled mistakes!”
"The story was so gripping that I was sorry he had been converted so soon. I wanted to hear a little more!
"Then the evangelist took the microphone and started down the aisle, while the song leader fed out the cord. In a flash, I realized he was heading straight for me. (Later, I learned that someone had “fingered” me as a potential convert.)
"He stopped in front of me and said in a booming voice, “Do you want to go to Hell!” The audience was silent. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and angry and confused. I bolted from the pew, dashed outside, and ran two blocks before I looked back."

               Is this the God we meet in Jesus?  A God who condemns and attacks anything that sounds like fun?  A God who tries to SCARE people into believing with the threat of hell?  No, I know it isn’t for any of you in here.  And it is because of that, and because, I think, of a lot of the images of hating and hateful Christians that we see in the media, that mainstream Christians avoid evangelism or anything that smacks of that, like the plague.  And yet, still, we are left with these directions from Jesus and his other words in Matthew, “Go make disciples of all nations.”  Well, we know the results of following that. The crusades, the destruction of whole groups of people in the name of “making disciples of the nations.”   And again, this has done more to alienate folk than to bring them to the church on any day.
               But therein lies the problem.  We have allowed those voices of anger, of hate, of destruction of others to be the face of Christianity.  We have allowed that by not putting forward a different image.  Lyle shared last week that LGBTQ folk are leaving the church in droves.  But frankly, it is not just them.  I lived in college in a house church, at what was then called Unitas and later became Westminster House.  20 students lived there at a time, all of us deeply committed to our faith.  But of those folk with whom I worshiped and served and ate and made close friends, the only ones who now attend church are those who have become pastors.  The rest don’t want to be associated with the faith that they see portrayed on TV.  Again, the hatred that comes from people who profess to follow a man who so clearly said again and again and again that it was about love, even for your enemies.  But in order to separate ourselves from that we usually choose to be quiet, to be still, instead of speaking out.  We don’t want to reach out to folk because we respect their decisions and their independence, we tell ourselves.
               But the reality is that God gives us a very different model for what it is to be people of God.  If we are the stones that God uses to build God’s house (as per the 2 Peter passage), or even if we are the stones helping God to build God’s house, we cannot do it alone.  The corner stone, or Christ, is the necessary foundation.  But it is not the whole house.  Jesus is who he is in relationship to us.  As much as we need Christ for our wholeness, for our grounding, for our center, Jesus also needs us and calls us to be the rest of the house.  That is an awesome idea isn’t it?  That God needs us?  And yet it is true.  No matter what our culture tells us about standing independent of others, the reality is that we are a communal creation. We are called into relationships with God and with each other. God created us because God wanted to be in relationship with us.  That is foundational to our theology.  It is the very nature of God is to be in relationship.
But the reality is that people don’t very often wander into churches on their own anymore.  If you are not alarmed by some of the statistics of church decline that I have shared with you before (such as the fact that last year 20 church a day closed in the United States), you should be.  It is anticipated that if we continue at the same rate of decline that we have been moving, that the Church, big C, has only between 10 and 15 more years to exist.  ANY church.  The congregations that are surviving have two big factors in common.  The first is that they have a clear identity, and are not just a generic church.  They stand for something, and they advertise what they stand for.  The second is that their members invite other people to come.  The thing is, if you are excited about something, you will mention it.  If you see a movie you love or have read an incredible book, you will invite others.  So, what programs that we do here excite you?  Our faith and film night, which was created for the purpose of outreach?  The quilting group?  Our midweek service?  Sunday mornings?  The concert series?  The adult study?  Our writer’s group?  Men’s group?  Grief group?  And if there aren’t any programs here that excite you, then the task is to discover what would excite you and to create it.  I am open! The session is open to many ideas!  Remember, YOU are the ministers of this church, this is YOUR church.  And therefore YOUR responsibility to make it a place that excites you.  That does mean you have to connect with people other than church folk. But that, too, is a clear part of our job…making friends and connections with folk outside of these walls. 
               A friend of mine who is now a pastor told me how she came to the church. She was an adult and she had been asked to write an article for the paper about a local congregation.  She said, “When I came in I met the pastor. After our cordial hellos, she described herself as an evangelist with a social justice agenda.  I knew I was neither of those things.  Still, I appreciated her openness.  I certainly had no notion that I would ever fit into a Presbyterian church, but I was curious about this female Presbyterian pastor and I wanted to hear what she had to say, so I stayed for the service.
               “I have no memory of her sermon that day.  What I do remember is the panic that set in when I realized that the Sunday I chose turned out to be a Communion Sunday.  I had not taken part in Communion except for a couple times as a young child.  Yet, when the pastor said the words, “This is God’s table and all are welcome,” I found the courage to stay and partake.  That was an invitation given in a language that I could understand, and it is an invitation that even to this day I cherish.”
               She continued,…”that time of my life was one of major upheavals because my parents were dying three states away and I was trying to finish my degree.  It was also the time when the pastor was opening the sanctuary for prayer Tuesday mornings.  I could drop by on my way to school and just sit in the quiet.  Being able just to sit in the sanctuary, to get to know the pastor as well as a couple of the members was, I think, really instrumental in my involvement in the church.  I felt safe there.  I did not have to know the language, the culture.  I did not have to sign up for anything, I could just be.  I could get off the tour bus.  Sometimes in the quest to be a welcoming church, churches can fail to just let people sit with God.  To just be.  It was also on a Tuesday morning when I found myself crying because I knew I had to return to Texas yet again to deal with my ill parents, and I thought I did not have the strength.  The pastor simply held me in her arms and my tears flowed, and I sobbed.  People know I often cry, but in truth, I seldom sob, and never in the arms of someone I do not know well.”  And finally, “In this church, quite simply, I found love, and it was because of that love that I chose to be baptized.” 
               The Bible doesn’t stop with Luke telling us Jesus asks us to go and heal and teach.  The Bible has other passages as well with which we must measure everything we do.  John’s passage, for example, in which Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep, tells us that loving Jesus looks like caring for one another in really concrete ways, feeding one another, providing for one another – not just spiritually, but practically as well.
               Sometimes and for some people, it may feel easier to preach at people than to feed them.  It may feel easier to talk to someone about faith rather than to risk the financial and emotional resources to be in relationships with people who have little to nothing or who are going through difficult times.  It is definitely easier to be a Sunday Christian than to have to think every minute about how we show in our lives and actions what it means to be a Christian, and whether or not we will be the loving person that might intrigue someone into finding out more about the church of if we will present ourselves in a way that turns out to be someone’s excuse to fail to explore Christianity.  But no one said being a Christian was easy. 
               You all here at Clayton Valley are a special group of people.  You minister to those who enter here with your smiles.  You feed them.  You welcome them.  You sing and make music.  You visit the sick and those grieving. You care for each other and the larger community in hundreds of ways, big and little.  This is truly a wonderful congregation to be a part of.  My wish is that as a congregation we continue to be the hands of feet of Christ both within and outside these walls, that we continue to reach out and make disciples through our love, to continue to listen, value, respect, feed, reach out to the stranger, and to the loveless.  We are God’s ambassadors.  Let us shine God’s light into the dark places and show God’s love by feeding God’s sheep.
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.  After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.  It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.  In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs.  After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation.  As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.  He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, 'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fire-y sermon.  I will be back in church next Sunday'.
               How do we go forward as people following Jesus’ call to go out and connect with folk, heal and tell them God’s Kingdom is near?  How do we teach about Christ?  We do it by following Jesus directions in John.  By feeding Jesus’ sheep, by caring for people, we show God’s love in ways that cannot be ignored.  It is by our actions that we show people the Christ.  It is by our actions that we teach Christian love.  It is by our love that we make disciples of all nations.