Sunday, September 07, 2014

Reclaiming evangelism for the Episcopal Church (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 7, 2014)

We have christened this church year the “season of evangelism.” I agree with what Father Rick said about evangelism some time ago: Episcopalians don’t like that word. It makes us uncomfortable and even scares us a little.


Evangelism is what other Christians do, especially Baptists and Pentecostals. Some of us came from churches that talked about evangelism a lot, and it’s one of the reasons that we left those churches and came to the Episcopal Church.


We associate evangelism with people standing on street corners and telling us that the world is about to come to a crashing halt and that a terrible fate awaits all those who do not believe in Jesus.


Many Episcopalians are practically allergic to evangelism. We break out in hives when we hear the word.


Well, I used to be allergic to the idea of evangelism. I am one of those Episcopalians who was formerly a Baptist and came to the Episcopal Church partly because I got tired of the way some Baptists practiced evangelism.


But I want to tell you this morning that I have changed. I have seen the light! I want to do something very Baptist this morning.


I thought about having Kathi Colman lead the choir in several verses of the hymn “Just as I am” while Dr. Hesselink plays it on the organ and then invite all those who want to give their lives to Jesus to walk the aisle.


I can see some of you already start to sink down in the pews and others begin to look toward the exits. So before the vestry announces a special meeting to reconsider my employment as your rector, I want you to relax. I’m not going to have a Billy Graham-style altar call this morning However, it might be a good idea to try it some other Sunday, so I encourage everyone to come to church more frequently so that you can watch the excitement and be a part of it!


No, the Baptist practice that I’m importing this morning is what we used to call giving my personal testimony. We have invited several of you to talk about your personal faith, your spirituality, and I want to tell you something about my own story.


But before I do that, I want to say a little more about evangelism. The word “evangelism” is derived from the Greek word evangellos, more correctly pronounced EU-angellos. The first part EU is familiar to us from words such as “euphoria” or “good feeling.” We also speak of “eulogy” or “good word,” especially a “good word” spoken about those who have passed away. Angelos also gives us the word “angel.” An angel is a messenger. So “evangelism” is “good news.”


What is the “good news” that Christians have to share? Today’s readings speak of three functions of evangelism: The first is to let people know that there are choices to make – choices that lead to health and wholeness and other choices that lead to illness and death. Another function of evangelism is to communicate a sense of urgency about these choices. And the final function of evangelism is to let people know that God is not some distant  Deity who does not love and care for us and listen to us. Rather God is close at hand, in our very midst, and loves us deeply and passionately


One part of our good news is that life presents us with choices. Some of our choices are good and healthy, and others are not.


The Bible frequently speaks of two different ways: a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. For example, the first psalm says, “Blessed are those who walk not in the way of the wicked but whose delight is in the law of the Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by streams of water. It yields it fruit in due season and its leaf does not wither. The wicked are not so. They are like the chaff which the wind drives away. The way of the wicked shall perish.”


Today’s psalm says something very similar: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end… Make me go in the path of your commandments, for that is my desire.”


The people of Israel identified the good way, the way that leads to health and wholeness, with their Torah or Law. According to the rabbis there were 613 different laws in the Torah. The apostle Paul identifies some of those laws in today’s second reading: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet" In other words, many of the laws are phrased in a negative way. They tell us what we should NOT do. Then Paul, like Jesus before him, summed up the entire law in a positive statement: the “commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… love is the fulfilling of the law.


So one function of evangelism is to let people know about this way that leads to life and health and wholeness – the way of love.


Another function of evangelism is to communicate a sense of urgency to people.


The prophet Ezekiel says that God has made him “a sentinel for the house of Israel…”, one who “warns the wicked from their ways.” In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that it is time to “wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…”


Ezekiel and Paul sound a little like those street preachers I mentioned earlier who shout at passersby about the end of the world and eternal punishment. But there is a grain of truth in that warning.  Life is short. We need to be about God’s business. We do not need to put off doing the important things, such as loving our neighbor as ourselves.


I have a confession to make: I wrote most of my sermon this morning. I got up at a very early hour. It was still dark outside. I made coffee and fixed breakfast. I checked my email and looked at the headlines in the New York Times and skimmed a few articles. And before I knew it, as Paul said, “the night was gone and day was at hand” and my sermon wasn’t quite finished.


The same is true of our lives. Those of you with children know that they grow up before you know it. Tell them today that you love them and care for them because tomorrow they will be getting married and having children of their own.


Choose today to love your neighbor as yourself, because the night is far gone and the day is at hand.


The third aspect of evangelism is the most important. It is to remind people that God is not some distant Deity up in the sky, infinitely removed from human life. Rather God is in our very midst.


This is the theme of Matthew’s gospel from beginning to end. At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the author says that the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a young woman would bear a child whose name would be Emmanuel, a name which means “God is with us.”


The very last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel should be familiar to all of us, because Jesus articulates the so-called “Great Commission” and we are striving to be a Great Commission church: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” And then he adds, “I am WITH YOU always, even to the end of the age.”


And in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Emmanuel… God with us.


I am with you always, even to the end of the age.


Where two or three are gathered, I am among them.


God is here among us. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your presence, O God?” And Jesus answers, “Nowhere.”


That is the essence of the gospel, the good news. God is not some distant Deity unconcerned with human life. God is right here.


Where people are hurting and lonely, God is there to comfort.


Where there is sickness and death, God is there to heal.


Where people are longing for meaning and purpose in their lives, God is there.


But at the beginning I promised to tell you something of my own spiritual journey, something of how I discovered the Good News for myself.


Like many of you, I grew up in a Christian family. Church was a big part of life. Frankly, as a small child, I thought there was a little more church in my life than I needed because we were there just about every time the church doors were open.


Like most Baptist kids, I was baptized by immersion. And after I learned to play the piano, I started to play for our services. Then when I was 15 or 16, something odd happened. As I sat at the piano one Sunday morning, I suddenly asked myself, “Do I believe any of this?” And the answer was , “No! I don’t believe a word of it!” And I became a teenage agnostic.


It’s something that happens to a lot of us, usually in our college years. Mine just happened a little earlier.


Then when I applied to Harvard, one of my interviewers asked me about the books I had read, and I told them about 1984 and The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird, and all the other books that high school students read. But he asked me if I had ever read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and I said that I had not. So he gave me a copy of it.


I read it, and I was stunned. No one had every explained the Christian faith to me that way. And I was convinced. I was also a little disappointed. I had thought that after I went to college I would never have to go to church again!


In spite of its reputation, I did not find Harvard godless at all. Rather I found that there was a rich diversity of spiritual life on campus. I became part of a prayer and Bible study group that included Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics. I heard intellectually challenging sermons in the university chapel. And I discovered a vocation to ordained ministry in my conversations with Dr. Gomes, the university chaplain.


I will not pretend that I do not have doubts. I think doubt is a part of every spiritual life. But I have not found anything that makes as much sense of human life as the Christian life.


That is all evangelism is: Telling people that God loves us. That God longs for us to find the way that leads to life and health, and that there is an urgency about this.


In this season of evangelism I hope that we can all rediscover those truths for ourselves and find ways to share them with the world around us. That will not only make Christ Church a healthier place and change your life– I think it might even change the world.