Sunday, February 9, 2014

"e" who must not be named

Epiphany 5, Year A
February 9, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The scene opens in a dark chamber, the light from the wildly flickering candles creating shadows that dance ominously on the stone wall. A blonde (it’s always a blonde) woman is tied to a chair, struggling mightily but unsuccessfully to free herself. At that moment the door opens and the villain enters, his lips curling into a sinister grin at the sight of the damsel in distress’ vain attempts to get free. “What do you want from me?” she cries. “You can have my money, just let me go!” “You know what I want,” he replies. “I’ve already asked you.” The woman’s eyes open wide and she recoils in horror. “No, not that! Anything but that! I won’t do it. You can’t make me!” 

This, my friends, is the scenario that I imagine whenever someone mentions the dreaded e-word. You know which e-word I’m talking about: EVANGELISM. This word strikes fear into the hearts of most Episcopalians. Yet this is exactly what the readings for today are urging us to do. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14,16). We are to share the Good News of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven with the world! “A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14). We are that city on the hill. For various reasons, we have chosen to follow Jesus, but his story is not meant to be a well-kept secret; it’s not meant to be hidden but shared with the world. 

So what exactly is it about evangelism that terrifies us? Maybe it’s that we are afraid of offending people. We don’t want to be accused of forcing our religion on others--and that’s definitely not what I’m advocating. Too often evangelism conjures up images of people shouting on street corners or handing out frightful tracts, of judgement and condemnation, hellfire and brimstone. The word evangelism has been hijacked and it’s time we reclaim the word. Instead of speaking from a place of fear, we are spreading the Good News of God’s incredible, unending love for us.  

Now, I don’t live under a bushel basket; I know that not everyone will appreciate your invitation. And I’m not telling you to be pushy or rude about it, either; after all, as the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” If you’ve made an offer and someone declines, don’t push it.

Perhaps the biggest fear about evangelism is that we believe ourselves to be insufficient to the task; we are not faithful enough, or educated enough in matters of faith to speak with any sort of authority. Paul, himself, speaks of his insecurities in his letter to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:1-3). 

Throughout the Bible, we see that God chooses unexpected people to further God’s will, people no one would consider “worthy” for the task. Esther, a humble Jewish woman, becomes queen and uses her new position to save her people, risking her life in the process. Moses, a murderer with a stutter, leads the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, a journey that will eventually bring them to the promised land. Fishermen, tax collectors, and other “lowly” men are chosen to be Jesus’ disciples. Saul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes Paul, who after his conversion, spends the rest of his life teaching about Jesus, spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. If God can work through them, then God can definitely work through us, no matter how unworthy we feel. After all, it is not our own ability; it is Christ working through us that will give us the words we need. 

One of the problems we have with evangelism is that in our society we tend to think of faith as merely personal. But this is not true Christianity. Matthew’s Gospel says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). We come together as a community to learn from one another. God is working through all of us, and your experiences of struggle and success can give the rest of us insights into our own faith journeys.  

You may be saying to yourself, “Who am I, to speak of this?” Who are you not to?

“But, Mother Lara, what about that quote by St. Francis? You know, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words’?” First of all, I love this quote, and it has a great message. I think the point the quote is trying to make is that you have to walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk. Yes, how we live our lives, how we choose to act toward one another is an important part of the Christian life. But talking is part of it, too!  

How has your belief in Christ changed your life? How have you been nourished by the Gospel? How have your struggles with faith led to a deeper relationship with God and with the world around you? This is what I’m suggesting you share with your friends, and ask about their experiences, too. You don’t have to talk about certain theologies or the nitty gritty details of faith. You just need to be real. 

This past Thursday the Episcopal Church remembered the sacrifice of the martyrs of Japan. In the 1500s Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries went to spread the Gospel to the people of Japan. They actually ended up getting quite a following: around 300,000 people by the end of the century. Sadly, because of unfortunate circumstances including the capture of a foreign ship loaded with ammunition and the captain’s explanation that after Christianity spread invasion usually followed, the Japanese government outlawed any religions other than Buddhism and Shinto. Not only did they outlaw Christianity, however, they made an example out of the followers. 26 Christians, both foreign priests and local Japanese, were hung on crosses and then stabbed. Japan then effectually shut down trade with most foreigners. After about 250 years, commerce with the outside world was once again allowed and religious restrictions were lifted. People discovered that the church, thought to be annihilated during the time of persecution, had gone underground. There were pockets of Christian communities, about 30,000 people, who had secretly kept the faith. It had changed somewhat, but Christianity was still alive. 

The Word of God cannot be killed by human action or inaction; it has survived countless threats and persecutions. 

You know, I have a hard time with evangelism, too. It can often be quite awkward. Yes, I went to seminary for 3 years at a great school and I learned so much, but you can spend a whole lifetime and not come close to understanding God. Every week I stand up in the pulpit and attempt to communicate the love of God in Christ. If I happen to succeed, it is only because the Holy Spirit has somehow taken my muddled words and translated them into a truth you are able to understand.

Friends, I am not asking you to teach theology but to share why you love Jesus, why you love the church. How about inviting someone to join you on Sunday morning, or participate in handbell practice, or come listen to one of our amazing concerts? If your neighbor is struggling with something, offer to come over and pray with him or her. If a friend is trying to find meaning in their lives, share what has brought meaning to yours.

Evangelism doesn’t have to make us think of old horror movies. We are called to plant the seeds of faith and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Let the love of Christ work in you and the light of Christ will shine through you. “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14,16).

Information on the martyrs of Japan found here and here.

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