Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Evangelism: Walking Humbly Together

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 30, 2011, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

This is, of course, one of the questions we are asked whenever we renew our baptismal covenant. The last three weeks we have been wrestling with the meaning of this question and the word that goes along with it that causes fear in the hearts of most Episcopalians, “evangelism.”

I have been trying to give us some new language around this word, language we need to counteract the images of street corner preachers screaming bible verses at people, calling on them to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior or burn in hell for all eternity.

So I have suggested three things so far:

  • · To practice evangelism is to be the sacrament of Jesus in the world—to be “an outward and visible sign” of Christ.
  • · Evangelism is inviting people into the beloved community of which Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” or “the Kingdom of Heaven.”
  • · Evangelism is the proclamation of joy, that is, absolute confidence in God’s love and mercy in spite of the circumstances of one’s life.

This morning we are given an unusually rich set of readings, and I think, taken as a whole, they make clear just what is the “good news of God in Christ” that we are called to proclaim.

“Good news,” “Gospel,” and the Greek word euangellium are all the same thing, by the way. If evangelism is not about the “gospel,” which is “good news,” than it is not evangelism.

I think the shorthand for the good news for us is simply “God’s love.” God loves you unconditionally is our message, surely. But we always have to take the next step, what I would call the “So what?” step. God loves me unconditionally. OK, so what? What difference will that make in my life?

We should never pretend that the answer to that question is easy or simple. In fact, if we choose to begin walking the path of God’s unconditional love, we will spend a lifetime learning what that means and, more importantly, learning to act as if it were the truest thing in the world.

But we have some important biblical signposts on the journey this morning. The first is one of the great statements of biblical faith from the Hebrew prophets.

The prophet Micah’s ministry came during a time of great prosperity and peace in Israel. The Jewish way of life seemed to be working and most people took the prosperity and peace as a sign of God’s blessing. Micah, however, knew better. There was an underbelly to the peace and prosperity. It was peace and prosperity built on the backs of the poor, propped up by religion whose only purpose was to bless the status quo.

As the reading this morning begins, God has called Israel into “court.” God has a “controversy” to create with his people. He wishes to “contend” with them. “Have you forgotten all that I have done for you?” he says.

Israel responds by asking, “How religious do you want me to be?” Do want more sacrifices? Are you demanding the sacrifice of our firstborn? (The frightening implication is they just might be willing to do that).

“No,” comes the answer. If you had been paying attention you would always have known what I wanted. It is simple, but very difficult for you because it will require a great change in your life. I want three things:

  • · I want you to do justice, that is, practice equality, redistribute power. This economic hierarchy you have developed has never been my intention.
  • · I want your steadfast love for me and one another. We are in unbreakable covenant. (The translation “kindness” is a terrible choice; “mercy” is better, but still weak. This is about covenant relationship).
  • · I want you to walk with me humbly, which is to say that you should live as if there is always something more important than yourself.

I do not think that any of us could claim that if we strove to do these things it would not change our life. We would have to make many choices about living between this way and the way our world works.

Jesus speaks in this very spirit as he begins the Sermon on the Mount with what we call the beatitudes. It is always a puzzle to me that people find them predominantly comforting. They are comforting, of course, in certain circumstances, say, if you are mourning the loss of a loved one. But as a description of a way of life I find them challenging, even frightening. Hear them this way: Jesus is saying that you are blessed by God if you are

  • poor or weak in spirit,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry and thirsty for doing good,
  • merciful,
  • pure in heart,
  • peacemakers,
  • persecuted because you do good,
  • hated because of your relationship with God.

“Rejoice and be glad!” he says. I defy any of you to tell me that these ways of being are valued by the world around us. Rejoice and be glad? Better to get ready to be classified as one of life’s losers.

Jesus is describing a way of life that is perhaps inspiring to many, but practiced by few, and I am not sure that I can include myself among those practitioners. I do not do meekness very well at all. I will do almost anything not to appear poor in spirit. And I may profess a belief in peace and non-violence (and I sincerely mean it), but my first impulse when challenged is to fight.

So how is this good news for me? My experience is that when I do try to do these things, as I struggle to do them against my best instincts, my life is transformed. What this way of life Jesus offers me does, if I practice it, is give me access to that joy of which I spoke last week. It gives me access to that joy—or to real inner peace—because it strips away all the distractions that keep me from resting, from finding my true self, in the love of God.

Now one last thing, so that you do not get the impression that living into this way of Micah and the Beatitudes is a massive exercise in pulling myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps, we have Paul this morning. One of Paul’s most basic messages is that we cannot depend on our own human strength or wisdom to transform our lives. We have to begin, rather, with the foolishness of God.

That foolishness is symbolized, but more than that, it is enacted, by the cross of Christ. It was foolishness of God to allow himself to be crucified, being put in the place of human vulnerability and weakness and death. But it was the only way to show us not to be afraid of those things. Those things that seem to be threats to life end up, in the power and wisdom of God, to be the source of life.

So if you’re ready to say, “I’m going to do these things. I’m going to be a better person. I’m going to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” forget it. Right impulse. Wrong method.

What’s the right method? Let go of yourself. Stop feeding your need to be better. Accept God’s love for you that you didn’t do anything to deserve and let God feed you with food that will strengthen you for the journey of humbly walking.

It begins right here, of course. The food you need is served week by week at this very Table. It isn’t very much. But the point is not its abundance, but that you receive it with your brothers and your sisters, because the one thing that is true about this journey of humble walking is that it is never done alone.

This is the good news we are called to proclaim. God doesn’t want or need spiritual super heroes. God wants us to walk humbly together, letting go of what is holding us back, enabling us to keep faith with God and do justice in the world.

1 comment:

SOON said...

Dear Rev Michael W 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