Monday, January 27, 2020

The E-Word

'From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.'
--Matthew 4: 17-22

It seems that quite a few people want me to join their church.  It happens a lot more than you might thin, and it doesn’t even matter if I tell them, “Sorry, I’m taken,” they just go right along with their pitch; in fact, just a few days ago, when I got home after being in the office, a church van was parked on our street, and several folks were going door to door to talk to people.  I like these conversation, so I walked out to meet the two who were coming up our driveway.  They asked if I had a church.  I pointed to my collar and said, “Actually, I’m the priest at the Episcopal church in town.”  Clearly, they hadn’t rehearsed what to say next because they stumbled, and one finally said, “Oh, well, uh, we’re inviting folks to church, and uh, we’d love to have you.”  Then they gave me a card and scampered away, but not before I gave them one of mine.

This is what evangelism sadly ends up looking like most of the time.  No one is really interested in having a conversation, getting to know people, finding out who God is for them or where they see God, no, it’s just about, as Cardinal Glick once put it:  fill those pews, people!  

His Eminence, Cardinal Glick.

Cardinal Glick, it must be noted, is a character from the wonderfully irreverent theological comedy Dogma,  played by the late, great philosopher George Carlin.  We resort to a host of tactics, from scaring people with the prospect of hellfire and damnation to enticing them with promises of the perfect children and youth programs and the best—that is, shortest—sermons.  No conversation, no genuine interest in people’s journeys.  We're just selling a product for people to buy. Evangelism, a word that comes from the Greek evangelion, meaning "gospel" or "good news", has, for many, become something of a curse word.  The e-word. We are so put off by it that most of us just stay in our comfy churches and never really talk to others about God, often because we’re afraid of what will happen if we do.  Will others try to accost us?  Will they themselves feel accosted if we try to share our story with them?  What are we to do with the dreaded e-word?

Evangelism, it must be said, is not about filling those pews or saving souls from hellfire.  At its core, evangelism is about relationship; after all, this is what the evangelion, good news of Jesus Christ, is all about, and it’s why our friends in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to reclaim the e-word when their denomination was formed in 1988.  

These folks get it.

To practice evangelism doesn’t mean that everyone needs to leave their houses of worship on Sunday with pamphlets in their hands to give away at the grocery store, brunch outing, or golf course where they frequent in the afternoons.  More power to you if you want to do that, but odds are good that you'll come off a little desperate, like you're trying to just sell your product, much like those folks I met in my driveway. But what if we thought of evangelism as something else?  What if we looked at the brand of evangelism practiced by Jesus? 

The early pages of our Gospels give us two different models for ministry:  John the Baptizer and Jesus.  John’s message consisted of him loudly calling out those in positions of power, and he did it all without ever leaving his station near the Jordan River.  You don’t hear stories of John walking the countryside and going to people’s houses for dinner, do you?  He remains where he is, whereas Jesus is a wanderer who searches people out and meets them where they are.  John waited for people to come to him to receive good news.  Jesus took good news to people.

And when he did, he didn’t do so with any threats, unrealistic promises, or products to sell.  Last week we heard the story of  Andrew and Simon Peter joining Jesus as it’s told in the Gospel of John, but we get a different version in Matthew’s Gospel.  In the Fourth Gospel the two of them are disciples of John the Baptizer who Jesus after John points him out in a crowd. In Matthew's version, as also in Mark and Luke, Andrew and Simon are fishermen, it’s how they make their living, and while out on a job they see Jesus, who invites them into a relationship:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” or in the poetry of the King James Version, “I will make you fishers of men.”  For the life of me I will always wonder what it was about Jesus that made them leave everything—their jobs, their families, their security—to follow him.  Maybe they had already heard of him, or maybe this was the first time they encountered him.  Maybe it was his voice, his presence.  We may never know, but what we do know is that he invited them into a relationship, and that changed their lives.  

The calling of Andrew and Simon

I have an app on my phone of Orthodox prayers, which I regularly use when praying the Daily Office, and the one for the third hour—that is between 9 am and noon—says this: 

“You are blessed, O Christ our God, who made the fishermen wise by sending down your Holy Spirit.  Through them you have captured the world into their nets.” 

 It’s a lovely prayer, as is the bidding from Jesus to make Simon and Andrew—and by extension everyone who follows Jesus—fishers of people, but I can’t help but think:  what about the fish?  Consider this:  most of us have gone fishing, right?  It’s a pretty painless endeavor, but not for the fish!  So if the analogy is that the followers of Jesus are the fishers and others are the fish, I’m not sure I’m super comfortable with that.  I don’t want to hook someone or capture anyone into my net or the net of my parish.  And yet, this is what evangelism feels like to so many: a hook or a net to grab folks so they don’t get away from us.  

It seems to me that churches that rely on such methods are more afraid of losing people—that is, losing butts in the pews and bucks in the plate—than they are eager to form relationships that are authentic and life-changing.  Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, once said, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”  That is evangelism! That is what it means to spread the good news and show others that, yes, the kingdom of God/heaven has, indeed come near.  Jesus “fished” by seeking people out, by loving them where they were, by showing them more than just telling them, and by embodying the self-emptying love of God through his own self-sacrifice on the cross.  Writing to the fractured church in Corinth, the apostle Paul said that the cross is foolishness to some, and surely that is the case even still.  Self-emptying love is pretty foolish in this day and age, wouldn’t you say?  All the more reason we need it!  If the kingdom has, in fact, come near, then this is our kingdom work:  evangelism that is self-emptying, rooted in relationship-building the same way Jesus’ own ministry was grounded in relationships like the ones he established with those fishermen, relationships that changed not only their lives but ours.  

The leadership of my parish met for their annual retreat this past weekend and spent a solid chunk of time talking about our we as a congregation can establish those relationships, how we can invite others to experience the love of God in our midst, how we can welcome every person even more authentically when they come through our doors, and how we can connect them not necessarily to programs but to people.  Yes, this is work that we will do as a community of faith, but truly this is kingdom work for every person who seeks to know Christ and make him known in the world. We do this work not for our own gain, not to hook or capture anyone, and not out of fear of losing anybody, but in order that we may show the world that loveliest of lights. It’s what defined Jesus’ own evangelical ministry, a ministry that was concerned first and foremost with people, with letting them know the kingdom is right here, and encouraging them to find out what that really means for them.  There is a world out there longing for relationship, folks frightened by religion, folks who have been told by preachers they’re unlovable, and folks for whom the e-word is truly terrifying, and for good reason.  The world needs more evangelists, more folks who will show the self-emptying love of Jesus, who will meet people where they are, and who will show us that the kingdom of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God has, indeed, come near.  

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Faithfulness of God

Where are we going on our honeymoon?  I can’t tell you how many times my wife Kristen and I asked this question of each other leading up to our wedding two summers ago.  After throwing out places that I had been—like the Holy Land—and that she had been—like Rome—we settled on Greece, a place neither of us had ever been.  Many of you have likely seen many of the pictures and heard the stories from that trip, but if you haven't and would like to check them out you can visit our vacation and co-ministry blog, As the Kroe Flies.  One place we visited was Corinth, where we walked around the ancient city, took part in a Portuguese mass, and picked up a gorgeous icon of the theotokos that hangs in our oratory at home.  But one of the things that struck us as we read the placards around ancient Corinth was the declaration that the apostle Paul had preached the Christian gospel there…unsuccessfully.  How was that possible?  We have these two letters he wrote to the churches there, and today the city is synonymous with Christian pilgrimage, which hardly sounds like a failure.  But it was a divisive community, which is why Paul had to write them multiple times, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as George Costanza might say, it didn’t take.  So how did Paul do it?  How did he keep writing, keep preaching, to a community that didn’t seem too interested in listening to him?

The ancient city of Corinth, where Paul was less than successful.

Paul’s story is not uncommon.  Whether they find themselves in the midst of religious or political persecution, social constraints, or constant in-fighting, those called to publicly proclaim the love and mercy of God have faced innumerable challenges.  This week we heard from Paul, as well as the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer, all of whom faced the uphill struggle of ministering to God’s people in trying times. How did they all do it?  I suspect because they knew, to borrow Paul’s own words to the Church in Corinth, that God is faithful (I Corinthians 1: 9).  No matter what, no matter where.  That faithfulness was never going to fade, even if the circumstances under which they preached were fearful, even deadly. God, they knew, is faithful, which allowed them to be faithful, and a huge piece of that faithfulness lay in the fact that none of them did what they did for their own sake, but instead pointed others to this loving, liberating, and life-giving God.  

'Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,

to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,

for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength--

he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”'
--Isaiah 49: 1-6

Our pericope from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah comes from the 49th chapter, in the midst of the exile in Babylon. We hear the prophet speak about a servant whom God had called before they were even born.  Who is the servant?  The text doesn’t explicitly say.  Maybe it’s the author, maybe it’s the listener.  This servant’s labor, it seems, has been in vain, trying to preach during captivity, during a time when all futures seemed foreclosed to the people of God.  Nevertheless, through God’s own faithfulness, the servant proclaims that the scattered children of Israel will be brought home, but then the prophet’s words, speaking for God, go beyond this, as the Lord says that to only bring the children of Israel home would be "too light a thing," and so the servant will be given as a light to all nations, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.  The servant’s message is not for their own glory, nor is it even for their own people, but it is meant to point every person to the love and mercy of God.  And to think the servant’s message is given in such a bleak and seemingly hopeless time!  Such is the power of the faithfulness of God.

'John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.'
--John 1: 29-37 

And then there is John the Baptizer.  In the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John (no relation), we see a slightly different take on Jesus’ itinerant cousin.  Here we don’t see John baptize anyone, not even Jesus.  John makes no mention of his baptizing being for the forgiveness of sins, instead he is intentionally pointing the people toward Jesus.  In the other Gospels Jesus doesn’t even take center stage until John has been arrested, but in the Fourth Gospel, he’s already there.  John preaches the message, but the people follow Jesus, and for John, that’s the point.  He is the first to call Jesus the Lamb and the Son of God, and he intentionally tells others that it is Jesus, not himself, whom they should follow. The whole point of John’s ministry in the Fourth Gospel, it would seem, is to reveal Jesus to the world, and once that happens, John’s own ministry effectively ends, as his community of disciples appear to leave him, and so he steps aside.  God had been faithful in calling John, and now John’s own faithfulness is shown in his willingness to point others to Jesus and get out of the way.  

John the Baptizer

What binds all of these texts, all of these prophetic voices, is the initiative of God in calling forth God’s servants, the communal, public character of their faith, and their message that expands far beyond themselves, even in uncertain and confusing times.  Neither Isaiah, nor Paul, nor John kept their piety private, but they stepped out boldly to speak of God’s mercy and love for all, to remind the people of God’s faith in the people themselves, and to point the people toward the One who is above all and in all.  Down through the ages, from the most well known to truly anonymous, God has issued a call, given a role, and worked through ordinary people to call the world back to God’s dream of shalom, of peace, justice, and love, for the whole of creation.  Even in the darkest moments, even when the people don’t listen, God still moves, still calls, and still uses such folks to bring us a little closer to the Kingdom.

It is fitting, then, that we hear these voices at the same time that we honor the life and legacy of a modern prophet, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Like the servant in Isaiah, he called the whole world to God’s dream of shalom.  Like Paul he reminded the people of God’s faithfulness in them, so that they would be faithful in their call to fight for justice and equality for all people.  And like John the Baptizer, he sought not his own glory but was always pointing the people to Jesus, to the very embodiment of that dream.  In his last speech before he was killed which would become known as his Mountaintop Speech,, Dr. King spoke with the fury and passion of a prophet.  Most of us remember the last lines about how he had seen the mountaintop, like Moses looking out over the promised land, and how he rejoiced though he knew there was a change the he might not get there with us.  But how many remember this part:  

“Confusion is all around.  That’s a strange statement.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you use the stars.  And I see God working in in a way to which we, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in our world.”  
--The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That was April 3, 1968, but Dr. King’s words could just as easily apply to our world today, every bit as much as the words of Isaiah, Paul, John, and Jesus do when we read them each week in our church services.  Something IS happening in our world, even as we hear Mother Nature cry out in agony in Australia, even as our country braces for an impeachment trial and the inevitable bitterness of the upcoming election cycle, even as we find ourselves more polarized and unable to communicate openly and lovingly with each other now than perhaps ever before.  Something is happening. Even as we endure deep pain, sadness, loss, and uncertainty in the ordinary, daily moments of our lives that won’t be covered in any headlines. Something is happening. God is still moving, still speaking.  God is still putting on the hearts of ordinary men and women to heed their call, to abide in the faithfulness God has already placed in them, and to point us to God’s dream.  It is not enough that we listen for these voices, but I wonder if we might very well ourselves, be those voices.

Dr. King

Isaiah faced exile.  Paul was unsuccessful in his preaching.  John lost his ministry.  Martin was assassinated.  And we face perils and fears of all kinds on a daily basis.  How can we preach, how can we keep standing, how can we listen for God in such tumultuous times?  Faithfully, that’s how.  Faith is what told them not to keep silent, to make their profession communal, for every person to hear, and faith sustained them in their troublesome hours.  God was faithful to them, and God is faithful to you too, brothers and sisters.  God has not given upon you, as God never gave up on Isaiah, Paul, John, or Martin. Let us pray that we will never give up on God. Let us pray that we will be faithful as God is faithful, that we will be faithful to the call put on each of us to spread that message of shalom, of hope in our loving, liberating, and life-giving God.