Sunday, January 16, 2011

Evangelism: Building the Beloved Community

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany/Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday: Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

“You are the sacrament of Jesus.” That’s how I ended last week’s sermon. I asked you to think and pray about that notion from Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. You are the sacrament of Jesus.

I was trying to suggest some new language for thinking about what evangelism is, a language that has authenticity and integrity for us as Christians who live in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition. The idea that we are called to evangelism as a church may be off-putting, but in our Baptismal Covenant we promise to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” That is to say, we promise to be evangelists.

So here we are continuing our journey through the Epiphany season, the season during which we contemplate how we are sent into the world, how we are, in words from Isaiah this morning, “a light to the nations.” And here we are on the Sunday closest to the civic holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we have just heard a bit of his writing. What is there here to help us sit with this word “evangelism” and find the good news in it for us?

First I need to say something related. Debates in the church often create false opposites, either/or’s that are really unhelpful. One of those either/or’s you hear discussed in the church is whether or not the church is primarily about worship or about doing justice, or primarily about evangelism or about social justice. The truth is that a healthy church is about a balance of all these things. Evangelism and Justice need each other, for instance. You cannot send disciples into the world to do Jesus’ justice if you haven’t made followers of Jesus in the first place. Christians are not born, they are made.

And it works the other way too. Evangelism needs Justice, otherwise all we have is the offer of an invitation to feel better about yourself, and you can get that by watching Dr. Phil. I want to suggest to you this morning that evangelism is about inviting people to join and build the beloved community of which Dr. King frequently spoke.

It was 1993 and Bill Clinton had just become president. There was a day not long after his inauguration when I went to grab some lunch at my favorite place around the corner from the church I was then serving. I drove because it was winter and there was no way to walk there except in the street. I entered the parking lot and was relieved to see a spot close to Lambert’s. Then I saw it on the car next to that open space. A shiny new bumper sticker that read: “He’s not my president.”

I guess there were some ways at that point in my life in which I was fairly naïve. That bumper sticker shocked me. How could anyone put that on their car? I sat stunned for a few minutes, then drove back to the church and sat in the chapel for awhile not being able to fathom what had just happened to my country.

As I said, I was pretty naïve. But thinking about that bumper sticker still makes my stomach clench.

We have learned since then, all too well, that expression was tame compared to the political rhetoric in which we are awash, and the extreme polarization in this country. If I do not agree with you, you are evil and I have the right to say anything about you that I want to, no matter how false it is, no matter how demeaning it is, no matter how violent it is.

We are awash in precisely the opposite of what Dr. King meant when he dreamed of the beloved community. We are the Jerusalem over which Jesus weeps.

Dr. King did not, of course, invent the notion of a beloved community. It is a dream rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Second Isaiah, sometimes called Isaiah of the Exile, who wrote chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah, dreamed this dream as the exiles in Babylon prepared to go home. He dreamed of a beloved community that would be a light to the nations, and the nations would stream to it in order to live in that light.

Jesus called disciples, like Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, taught them, and sent them out to spread what he called “the kingdom of God,” a kingdom not in heaven but on earth. He was simply acting on Isaiah’s dream. He, too, dreamed of a beloved community.

We are called to do these things too: to respond to the call, to learn and to dream, and to build. You just heard Dr. King say it this way:

We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be children of your Father which is in Heaven. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization.[1]

Sometimes I think that the mainline Protestant church has come near to collapse because ever since Dr. King was killed, we have not been able to find our heart, we have not been able to dream our dream, and we have not been able to build our beloved community. We began a great conversion in the 1960’s, inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Then Dr. King died and looking back you can almost see the air going out of the balloon. We got scared and we chose to protect ourselves, and look where it has gotten us.

It is time for the conversion to be renewed. This country, this world, is desperate for the beloved community, although it will not be established without great resistance, vitriolic opposition and at least the threat of violence if not violence itself. This country is so addicted to violence that the ways of nonviolence will not be accepted without a fight.

Unconditional, self-sacrificial love and nonviolence as a way of life and faith were core values for Dr. King, and I believe he was just following the one he called “Lord.” Jesus wants us to be a loving and nonviolent people, he even commanded it. And these values do not come naturally for most of us. They are not how we were raised. They are not the lifestyle that is encouraged and supported by the culture around us. We have to be constantly converted to them. We have to learn constantly how to adopt them as our own lifestyle and teach them to others.

“Conversion” is another word right up there with “evangelism” that is not well thought of in our part of the church. But the beloved community has no chance of being anything but a dream if we do not invite people to consider its ways and teach them, along with ourselves, to make it real in the world. That’s evangelism and conversion. Without them there is no beloved community.

So here we have another bit of language to redeem our notion of evangelism. Evangelism is being a sacrament of Jesus. Evangelism is inviting people into the beloved community and teaching them its ways.

How to make that invitation? Jesus gave us all we need in this morning’s gospel. It only takes three words. “Come and see.”

Dr. King and President Obama will have the last word this morning. First, Dr. King:

…the end [of being an evangelizing and justice-making church] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding good will that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].[2]

And to end, President Obama from his very fine speech in Tucson this week:

We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

[1] These words were spoken by Dr. King at the First Annual Institute on Non-violence and Social Change, held in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1956. The reading can be found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, pp. 139-140.

[2] Ibid.


Cheryl said...

Ok, If you want to talk about Evangelism from a standpoint of social justice and the kingdom (or realm) of God on earth, that is totally cool. I for one have a very clear vision of the realm of God on earth. It involves lots of urban gardens, art, music, peace in diversity, more walking and less car-riding, children playing outside, more equality, (including that sometimes it is Daddy's job to wash the poop out of the kid's underwear, not always Mommy's job!!!) The church is part of this realm of God. So is the mosque and the synagogue. If the church is the sacrament of Jesus, it should be a model for what this realm of God would look like if it took over the world.

SOON said...

Hi Michael Hopkins,

I've just found your blog and notice your emphasis on evangelism. I wonder if you have seen my friend's page and resources about online evangelism, at