Text: Mark 6:1-13, Ephesians 1:3-14
Delivered on Sunday, July 8th, St Peters, Key West
If there is one thing that strikes fear and trembling into more than a few Episcopalians it is the prospect of talking about “Evangelism.” This week I came across the story of a lady who was working at a bookstore, and as she was opening up, a Hasidic Jew came into the store in full attire: hat, dark suit, white shirt, full beard and ringlets coming down from his head. She asked if there was anything specific he was looking for, and he replied that he wanted to learn about Jesus. Dutifully, the lady pointed out the Spiritual and Religious section of the bookstore and rattled off a few titles she personally enjoyed. Imagine her surprise when the man said, “no, no! I want to know what you think about him. You tell me what you believe about Jesus.” Than woman later said, “My Episcopalian soul shivered” not even knowing where to begin.
When we think of Evangelism we usually think about speaking about our faith in the hopes that someone will become a Christian or, if they are already a Christian, will worship with us on Sunday and join our church. This is something that we in The Episcopal Church have convinced ourselves that we do not do very well. We tend to prefer to talk about Mission as is evidenced by our commitments to social justice and our various outreach programs. Our brothers and sisters in other churches, noticeably the Baptists or non-denominational churches seem to do a better job at getting new members, at least at first glance. If you look and listen closely, you will find a great deal of anxiety there when it comes to that topic. When I was hanging my hat with the Pentecostals in my early 20s, one thing I remember when talking with Pastors and lay leaders alike that the amount of pressure one can be under to “lead people to Christ,” and getting them to say the Sinners’ Prayer as if it were a magic spell rather than making sure we do things the Bible says Jesus is going to one day ask us about such as “Did you feed the poor? Comfort the sick? Visit those in prison?” Our tendency as American Christians is to try and separate the concepts of Mission – how we act out our faith – and Evangelism – how we speak about our faith. The two are actually very much intertwined. St. Francis of Assisi is famous for saying, among other things, “Preach the Gospel and use words if you must.” And sometimes, even dyed-in-the -wool Episcopalians must speak about their faith outside of the comfort zone of the Church.
When the disciples were sent out into the surrounding areas, we are told that they proclaimed the Gospel, but that they also healed. They combined both word and deed. They were also warned that sometimes they would face rejection or ridicule when they went out into the world, but Jesus didn’t really seem too concerned about that other than to let him know it was going to happen. And if anyone knows what rejection is like .. it’s Jesus.
Jesus had returned home from Nazareth after performing miracles in the area around the Sea of Galilee. When he speaks in his home synagogue, he blows everyone away. And then they begin to whisper and speak among themselves. “Wait a minute … who does he think he is? I mean, we grew up with this guy, and here he comes as if he thinks that he is somebody.” The Nazarenes are not exactly shown in a flattering light here … mean-spirited, mocking, even jealous. Because they refuse to see or hear anything more than the son of the village carpenter, this becomes greater than their capacity for faith .. and Jesus is rendered almost powerless. But when the disciples trust Jesus, they find that they can do and say some pretty remarkable things. So you see, Jesus powerlessness in his own home is not so much about him, but it is more about the response to the calling God has given us. We are not responsible for other people’s acceptance or rejection what the Gospel or the Church is about, but we are responsible to our own faithfulness to the call of God.
A lot of this is, admittedly, much more easier said than done. It is very easy for us to sit here and think that we are not that impressive. Sure, the church is beautiful, but maybe you personally might not think that you have too much to offer. You may not think that you have the ability to speak or to sing well or that you’re just a rather boring person. Or, if you’re someone who has lived here quite a while, or even grew up here, you might even think that people know way too much about you to be taken seriously if the topic of faith comes up in conversation. You might even say, “I’m too weak, I’m too old, I’m too frail, I’m not that smart,” or any number of things where you might believe you are not up to snuff to represent Jesus or do the Gospel message justice.
It is times like this we need to remember that when Moses told God that there must be some mistake and there as no way he could speak to Pharaoh, God said, “I will be with you.” St. Paul begged and pleaded for the Lord to remove what he calls a “thorn in the flesh” and the Lord replies, “My grace is sufficient for you, and power is made perfect in your weakness.” The Holy Spirit moved Ezekiel to stand on his own feet and gave him strength to follow through on his call, and if it can be done with all the messy and flawed people we read about in the Bible, He can certainly do that with us.
Most of us, myself included, are old enough to remember when going to church on Sunday morning used to be a cultural and social cornerstone of the community, but by many appearances, it has lost its punch. The General Convention of The Episcopal Church met recently and many people will argue that all of our proclamations, resolutions and press releases do not do any good. However, what “many people” say is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not we are being true to our calling to be the people of God in this particular place and time. We are not called to be right, we are not called to be successful, and we certainly are not called to be perfect, but we are definitely called to be faithful.
For better or for worse, we are a society that is obsessed with results. An evangelical friend didn’t think he was a good enough Christian unless he was “winning souls.” Today we hear about how The Episcopal Church continues to shrink. Gospel values are not so much concerned with success in mission or evangelism as the world defines it as much as they are concerned with continuing to put one foot in front of the other following in the footsteps of Jesus and doing and saying the things we are supposed to do and say. Evangelism and speaking of our faith is not simply to get more people “on our side” or even to “grow the church” (though in and of themselves they are Very Good Things). It is to tell others about the One that loves us and who we love in return. We invite others to a life lived as part of a community where you can have an encounter with God and find nourishment and peace for your soul. Evangelism, you see, at its heart, is nothing more than a beggar telling another beggar where you can get fed.\
One consistent thing I have heard about people who visit St. Peters is you get a sense that you’ve actually had church. I hear it from people who normally are members at other congregations, from family and friends passing through, and from people who wander in off the street who are not exactly sure why they are here. It’s not just the building, the wonderful music, the liturgy, or the beautiful altar trappings. It is the faithfulness of this community gathering together, passing the peace and coming forward at the communion rail where we are all being Christ to each other which becomes a gateway to an encounter with something or someONE much bigger than ourselves.
So you see, when we share our faith, when we invite people to church, we do not have to fret so much about being eloquent or worry so much if people say “no, I’d rather not go.” We don’t even have to worry about having some grand testimony to share.
The Good News that I have for you today as we will soon go forth in the name of Christ is that if we trust God and are faithful … If we act and speak and live like we trust God, we are absolutely going to get to where we are supposed to go and we will be the community .. the church … that God is calling us to be.