Episcopal Evangelism: The Jesus Movement Needs Fishers for People

My first year in seminary, I took an elective course that scared the bejesus out of me. It wasn’t a class on the deep questions of theology, debating the nature of God. The course was called “Evangelism: Practicum.” The word “evangelism” makes many Episcopalians nervous. We are the polite, civilized Christians. We would never do something so vulgar as to tell our neighbors about Jesus. Christians like us tend to treat Jesus as if the name is a dirty word. We don’t use the name in public. The class was Evangelism practicum, so it wasn’t even theoretical. We weren’t there to talk about the whether or why of evangelism, we were there to do it, to practice.

We were sent out into the city of Washington DC to have conversations. Our assignment was simple: talk to people, about Jesus, random strangers, people we didn’t know. We were to take notes on the conversations, and then come back to class to report our progress. Not only did we have to talk with strangers about faith, about God, about Jesus. We had to let our classmates critique our conversations.

The assignment made me uncomfortable, but not quite as uncomfortable as some of my fellow seminarians. Despite the professor’s repeated reminders that our conversations were to happen outside the seminary community, every week someone submitted a report of a chat they had with another future priest. “How is that evangelism?” the professor would ask.

I decided to lean into my discomfort, and to try and chat with strangers on the Metro (DC’s subway), at a bar, and waiting in line for a coffeeshop downtown. I knew my discomfort was a problem. If priests-to-be were so uncomfortable talking about faith that they could only do so on the safe grounds of the seminary or inside the walls of the church, our denomination didn’t have a prayer for reaching the unchurched. How could we inspire our congregations to speak about Jesus, if we were so uncomfortable?

I did not walk away from the class a master evangelist. I still get uncomfortable talking about faith, especially we I do not know the convictions of the person with whom I am speaking. But, that semester of leaning in, taking the assignment seriously, talking to people, random people, about faith reshaped my own sense Jesus the teacher, and what he expected of his disciples.

Today’s Gospel is a story of call,

perhaps one of the most famous, and a story that might make you nervous. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Some of you may still hear the old words of the King James translation “I will make you become fishers of men.” Let’s pause for a second with Jesus’ well-known image. “Fishers for people.” Jesus proposes to thoroughly change the life of these young men. He wants them to leave what they know, to leave behind their family, and an honest living, to come an follow him, and to help him grow a movement.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, speaks of our church using that language “movement: We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” he likes to say. Bishop Curry is our first black Presiding Bishop, and his way of talking about Jesus challenges some Episcopalians. As much as he is an Episcopalian, he is also a product of the black church. His sermons sometimes go on for 20-30 minutes. But more than the length, it is the content that challenges. If we are part of a movement, like Andrew, like Simon, like James and John, the movement’s growth depends on us. We are invited to be fishers for people.

I confess to you all, that I still have a hard time identifying with those early followers of Jesus, those early women and men that built a movement that continues to our day. Evangelism to strangers, gathering in crowds of new Christians, that makes me a little skittish. But today’s lessons also give us a counter example. If I am a little nervous about trying to be like Andrew or John, maybe I can be motivated, maybe I can motivate you simply:

“Don’t be like Jonah.”

Jonah is a whole different kind of fish story. God wants to get word to the city of Nineveh, and he calls Jonah, but Jonah does not want to go there. He tries to run away, even to escape across the sea to Tarshish. God intervenes with a storm. Jonah is thrown overboard, and he’s swallowed by the whale, all because he does not want to talk to the people of the city about God. There in the belly of the whale, Jonah resolves to do what God commands, so the whale spits Jonah out, and the preacher heads to Nineveh, to proclaim the message of the Lord.

Don’t be like Jonah. Don’t avoid talking about God, especially if you have a sense that you might be called to do so. If you have a hunch that a friend, a neighbor, a family member might be struggling with faith, with doubt, with loneliness, don’t run away. God relies on human beings to speak with one another, to talk about the hard things. God does not want us to leave one another alone. God sometimes speaks through faithful, loving, listening friends. You may have a word of hope your neighbor needs.

Don’t be like Jonah. Jonah isn’t just a bad example for his attempt to run away. Once in Nineveh, Jonah enjoys the work he had been avoiding. He likes telling people that they are doomed by God. But God’s word does not have the effect that Jonah hopes. Jonah sets up a little stand to watch as God’s wrath comes down on Nineveh, but the fire and brimstone never come. As we read in today’s lesson, it turns out that God is not as strict a judge as the preacher. The people in the city repent. They are saved.

Now Jonah is a farce, intentionally so, and like all farces Jonah is an exaggeration of human nature. Sometimes it takes a caricature to point out a problem. I wonder how often God’s people silently judge their neighbors. I know that I sometimes do. Judgement comes in all of the old forms: my neighbor is too worldly to become a person of faith. My cousin isn’t smart enough to really understand my advanced version of Christianity. My colleague is just too bigoted to embrace the diversity my church values. I confess that I have privately thought versions of every one of those pronouncements. I’ve often also made a more subtle judgement: my friends don’t need an active relationship with God. Who does these days?

In my judgements I often behave like Jonah. Don’t behave like Jonah. What Jonah misses is how ready the people of the city are for God’s word. They are eager. They are hungry. They are even ready to repent. When we choose to hide our faith. When we don’t talk about our relationship with God, we ignore the possibility that someone near to us is hungry for God’s love, hungry for Jesus, hungry for redemption and good news.

A letter from a priest

This week I read a moving letter written by a friend from seminary, someone who wasn’t in that Evangelism class. If he had been, I’m sure I would have learned from him. The Rev. Sandy Webb wrote to the college students from his congregation, also called the Church of the Holy Communion, in Memphis, after the tragic death of one of their former youth group members, a college freshmen, in a motorcycle accident this week. He wrote to comfort the young man’s friends. Among other words of advice he said this:

[we] all need to stay connected with a community of faith. When I arrived at Jackson’s house on Saturday morning, the driveway was filled with friends scraping ice and the kitchen was filled with people bringing food; many were from church. In death, Jesus promises us that he will prepare a place for us in his father’s own house. In life, he promises us that we will never have to be alone. Many young people take a break from their church experience during their college years, and then come back to it when they are ready to settle down or establish their families. I encourage you to chart another course. By stitching yourselves into a community of faith when times are good, you make an investment in having a community to support you when times are bad.

How many of the people around us could use a good and faithful community? How many people could use the love, the support, the prayers? For how many people has the community of faith ceased to be a support? I wrote in our weekly email about a strange paradox we face in American society. Sociologists point to two strangely contradictory trends. As a people we are more committed than ever. We have more appointments, more hours of work, more social engagements than ever. Simultaneously people report feeling alone more than at any point before in history. We are over busy, and we lack real human connection.

Sartre said famously “hell is other people,” and it can feel that way when you are surrounded by people who do not know you, do not help you know that you are loved, cared for, that you matter. I believe Jesus’ movement offers a different relationship with “other people.” Follow me. I will make you fishers of people. The Jesus movement needs “people persons.” The Jesus movement needs leaders who will reach out, build community, help to stitch people into the kind of relationships where they can hear the words: “you are valued, you matter, you are loved.” That message is truly the good news God has.

The word “evangelism,” makes some of us refined Episcopalians nervous. For the sake of our neighbors, can we dare to set aside our nerves? There are people in this city who are lonely, who feel unloved. There are so many people in this city who have never heard a word of good news from the church. There are so many who have been told by religion that they are less than, sinful, and broken. Where is the good news?

In those weeks on assignment talking with strangers, I was surprised again and again. I was most surprised when I stopped trying to stumble on my words and I asked questions about the faith of the people I met. When I asked about a stranger’s experience, about their life, about their faith and doubts, I was often amazed. Almost no one I spoke with was offended when I mentioned my faith. In the moments when I was able to say something articulate about how I believed God loves people, all people, how my church was trying its best to push back against injustice, to heal hurt, people didn’t resist. I was surprised again and again by how eager folks were to talk about a faith that was humble, generous, and loving, a faith that included queer people and worked for racial reconciliation, valued women’s leadership and so on. I was surprised by the hunger our world has for our kind of faith, our branch of the Jesus’ movement.

Evangelism is risky.

When we choose to listen, to really listen to the stories of our neighbors, and when choose to speak about how we’ve known God’s love in our own lives, we we risk opening ourselves up. We risk vulnerability. We risk holding out words of hope and of faith. Those risks are worth taking. We might stumble upon the Good News God has for us, and for our neighbor. We might even end up together in a movement, a movement that has the power to change our world, a movement that has the power to change our lives.

Jesus said to them, “Follow me.”

 

 

Prophetic Words Will Never Fall to the Ground: Remembering Dr. King

“Where do Human Rights come from?”

That was the question that greeted our group of weary pilgrims. In June of last year, a group of 12 of us arrived in El Salvador pretty tired. We’d come for a conference on Human Rights, an immersion with our new partner organization Cristosal in the country. In order to make our connecting flight in Houston, our group gathered at Lambert at 4:15am, and Noah, the executive director of Cristosal greeted us with a profoundly philosophical question. “Where do human rights come from?”

I came back to Noah’s question this week as I thought about Dr. King. On April 4 this year we will mark 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow the civil rights leader would have celebrated his 89th birthday. In his last Sunday sermon, preached at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King talked about the work of Civil rights as a revolution. He said our country was experiencing a triple revolution:

“that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.”

He talked about his moment in history as a “Human Rights Revolution” and a “freedom explosion.” If he were alive today, I wonder how Brother Martin would characterize our moment? Is the explosion still going on? Are we still experiencing a Revolution of Human Rights?

I am a bit self conscious asking these questions because speaking of Dr. King, let alone speaking for Dr. King, can be a problematic proposition. We like to put Dr. King in a particular box. Many of the history textbook chapters and physical monuments to to the leader, many of the ways Dr. King is now talked about by media and politicians, ignore how unpopular the preacher was in his own day. King was controversial, even to those who supported civil rights for black folk. After President Johnson signed the voting rights act, he thought his struggles with Dr. King were over. Then brother Martin announced his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He also announced his plans to organize a “Poor People’s Campaign,” tying the work for racial justice to work for economic justice.

To further complicate matters: these days in the Episcopal Church we consider Martin Luther King to be a martyr and a saint, but that hasn’t always been the case. Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail was written, in part, to the Episcopal Bishops of Alabama. Bishop Carpenter and his elected successor George Murray (along with Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, and Baptist colleagues) had published “A Call For Unity.” They called Dr. King an outsider, and asked him to leave the state. They called his demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” I don’t bring up our Bishops’ statement for the sake of drama, but to name that history is often more complicated than we would like. We all like to imagine, if he were alive today, that we would be marching in the streets with Dr. King. But our legacy as a church complicates the question. We do not have an unblemished history of Human Rights.

It can be tempting to think of people like Dr. King as such heroes, such saints, that they become unapproachable. But in all truth, Brother Martin struggled. He wrestled with his call. In his book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” the theologian James Cone describes Martin up at night, worrying for his family. It was the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the young pastor received a telephone call threatening to blow up his house, his wife and his young child. That night, King recalled how his fear “drove him from bed to the kitchen where he prayed, ‘out loud,’ ; pleading ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord I must confess…that I’m losing my courage.'”

He recalled the words he’d heard earlier from an “elderly unlettered woman, who was ‘affectionately called Mother Pollard.’” Like a wise matriarch, she saw through Dr. King’s confident speech that night. She came up to him, confronted him, said, “you can’t fool me…I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” Before he could respond she said, “I don told you we is with you all the way…But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.”

Even saints need their saints.

That night, Dr. King needed Mother Pollard. He needed that word of blessed assurance. As we read in the first book of Samuel today. God’s voice often sounds like the voices of our friends and mentors. Young Samuel hears God and three times he thinks Eli is speaking. There’s a truth in this humorous story of mistaken identity. Samuel hears the voice of God and he recognizes that voice as the voice of a mentor, a friend.

Where have you heard God’s voice? Who has been God’s voice for you? Who has put words to God’s call for you? Who has been God’s voice encouraging you to do the work?

I would venture that it is dangerous to speak for brother Martin because his words have become such a clarion call for so many of us, for our nation, for our world, as we consider Human Rights. We recognize that in America before Dr. King, like in Israel before Samuel, “the voice of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread.” And God sent a prophet. God sent a vision, a dream. Dr. King’s words still matter. His sermons are still relevant. His dream is still on the horizon. His words are still prophetic, still challenging for our time.

For so many of us Dr. King’s words have become a measuring stick, and in recent months, in recent days, the meter has been running dangerously low. The words that have been used by leaders in Washington, by our president, are frightening, are reprehensible, and are too vulgar to say from the pulpit. So today I want to venture two brief reflections on our current state of affairs. I won’t claim to speak for Dr. King, I could never do so, but I will say reading his words alongside our Scripture for this week has shaped my response to our strange times.

My first reflection is based on penultimate line from our reading from the prophet Samuel.:

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”

The words of a prophet are prophetic because they have a life bigger than the speaker. The name a reality and they name a way out. Prophetic words matter because they do not belong to the prophet, they belong to God. Prophetic words endure. But if that is true, than the converse must also be true: it is better to let some words fall to the ground. Some words don’t deserve to endure.

Maybe I have reached a point of “outrage fatigue,” but this week after the reports came out about the president’s description of immigrants from African and Caribbean countries, I could barely muster an eye roll. I wonder how much his use of twitter, how much his choice of outrageous words, is a calculated distraction. Did you notice that after he used his vulgar words, we stopped talking about the 200,000 Salvadorans who stand to lose their immigration status? So far his choice of outrageous words does not always correlate directly with an abuse of human rights. There is a bit of a screen going on. So can we, at least in some cases, take up the invitation of Scripture and let his words fall to the ground? Can we let go of the outrage, disarm the distraction? If these words are attention seeking, can we deny that attention?

Peddling in outrage hardly ever pays off. For his own day President Johnson, the president who worked with and criticized King, was considered pretty crass. He was frank and spoke off the cuff. He made fun of political opponents. So I dare you: take a piece of paper and write out all of the quotes you can remember from President Johnson. Then add another column, and just off the top of your head list the quotes you can remember of Dr. King. God does sometimes let the words of presidents fall to the ground. So could we react a little less, knowing that all the sound and fury might not be worth our time? I offer this first reflection, because I think some of our response to our day could be deeper. We could do with less distraction.

My second reflection on our state of affairs relies on the first:

Could we let go of some of the distracting outrage so that we can make room for hope?

In the Gospel this morning Jesus calls Nathanael, but first Nathanael profiles Jesus. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He asks. Bias is as old as the Bible. Older even. But notice, notice, Jesus lets his words fall. He keeps after Nathanael. He calls the man to follow him. Notice how quickly Nathanael turns. Nathanael encounters Jesus with bias, yet Jesus encounters Nathanael with grace. When this “Israelite in whom there is no deceit” encounters Jesus, he recognizes the divine spark. Don’t forget, this is a story of call. Suddenly Nathanael’s life, Nathanael’s story is tied to the story of this man from Nazareth, this hated other. The joke is on Nathanael. We remember his name because he threw his lot in with Jesus.

That is reason to hope. Even those of us who are unconsciously biased, even those of us who think we have all the answers and shoot off our mouths, we too are able to be changed by an encounter. God’s work in this world is so compelling, so revolutionary, that even the hardest of hearts can be turned. Even the most self-assured can become a disciple.

When we arrived in El Salvador Our bleary eyed pilgrims encountered a question: “Where do human rights come from?” For Christians, following Dr. King, following Jesus, the answer is simple and profound. Human rights come from God. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Governments do not create human rights. And so governments cannot take human rights away. That is not within the power of any leader, of any politician. Governments simply have the power to recognize human rights. When they fail, it becomes the duty of God’s people to organize, to vote, to compel the government to recognize God-given rights. Revolution becomes a real and hopeful possibility.

Until Dr. King’s “Revolution of Human Rights” is complete, we live in hope, and we listen for a vision, even in a time when visions are rare. Keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep moving forward. We shall overcome. God still has a word, and prophetic words will never fall to the ground. In the midst of it all “God’s gonna take care of you.”

The Mystery of Love: Where does this Story Take Place?

May I be the first to officially wish you a Merry Christmas. Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this evening, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to hear them sing in the choir. Some of you are here because it is Christmas, and you are wandering, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. Whatever your emotional state, whether you are here ready to sing “Joy to the World,” or whether the quiet of “Silent Night” is more your tune; You are welcome. Whatever brought you here tonight, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Merry Christmas.

We know this story so well. Mary, Joseph, the Angels and Shepherds. Versions of the nativity have been painted on the windows of shops for weeks. Grandma’s creche might have been carefully unwrapped from ancient tissue paper before being set up on the mantel. Earlier tonight a diverse array of children presented our annual Christmas pageant, telling the story once more. We’ve heard and held, we’ve acted this story. We’ve sung the story. We know this story. This night I want to ask one question to all you experts on the Nativity. “Where?”

Where does this story take place?

I think the answer to that question has the power to unlock the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of Love come among us.

Where does this story take place?

Tonight I want to examine just two facets of that question, the socio-geographical and the personal.

The Social Geography of Christmas

Of course the immediate geographic answer is right there in the text: “in Bethlehem of Judea,” the city of David, the house of bread. We could point to the place on a map. But since we know this story. I want to push the question a little more. The strata of this location and its meaning, the layers, run deep.

Bethlehem today is a sort of Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, walled off from Israel, guarded by checkpoints and high walls, razor wire. In the time of Jesus Bethlehem was a farming and ranching community outside the provincial capital. An easy day’s journey from the seat of power, it was at the edges, not the center of society.

In the story we’ll read in a couple of weeks, at the end of the Christmas season, the supposedly wise men get lost on their way to Bethlehem. They’re looking for a king, and so they turn right when they see the palaces and temples in Jerusalem. They wouldn’t think to look among the little houses and huts of Bethlehem.

Location mattered in the time of Jesus, more perhaps than ever before in human history. Emperor Augustus, who in our text has declared that all the world should be registered, his star has risen in Rome. Augustus was a new kind of ruler, considered the first emperor, he transformed the Roman Republic into a monarchy. Augustus also created a new form of religion: emperor worship. He was not just the king of the known world. Augustus fancied himself divine. He required worship. He raised taxes on the poor to convert his capital into a marble coated shrine to his deity. Thanks to the emperor, all the world would be oriented toward Rome.

Provincial capitals, like Jerusalem, the seats of governors and client kings, were to reflect the glory of Rome, the power of the emperor. In a province like Syria-Palestine, far from the center, the reflection might be a bit shabby, but it was clear where power resided, and in which direction the local ruler pointed. If all roads led to Rome, Bethlehem was little more than a truck stop. Notice, Jesus isn’t even born in the center of the lesser town. No, there is no room, noteven in Bethlehem.

Tuesday this past week found me in a laundromat, along with a number of volunteers from Holy Communion. Six months ago, a team from our church launched a new ministry, “Laundry Love.” Every third Tuesday, we gather to build community in the Classic Coin laundromat. We pay for laundry, provide childcare and a little food. We also hope to engage neighbors in conversation, and laughter. Anyone is welcome to volunteer, or to come do laundry. We hope to take perhaps one of the worst chores, and make it fun. We also hope to help lighten the burden a little on families making hard economic decisions in our neighborhood.

This week, as I surveyed the washers and dryers, and the crowd of volunteers, I thought, maybe this is where Jesus would have been born today. A laundromat would be a warm place to stop if there was no room at the inn. I could see Jesus laid in a laundry basket, carefully surrounded by warm towels given by grannies who have spent their last quarters on the dryer.

Where could you imagine this story taking place today? Where does God act? Often far from the halls of power, among the least likely people, at the edge of the edge. While the king would have us all worship him, while those in power build gold palaces, the King of kings is born in such an unlikely and out of the way place and is celebrated by all the wrong people.

The mystery of God’s love is not centered where human systems of power would suspect. God’s love does not emanate from Rome or Washington. God’s love does not trickle down from on high. God’s love is born among the shepherds and the vulnerable. That is the story we celebrate tonight. God’s love comes among us and lifts up the lowly, the unacknowledged, the unheard. That is where God’s love is born.

The Personal Geography of Christmas

I’ve already started leaning toward the second dimension of my question for Christmas:

Where does this story take place?

This second dimension is personal: Where does this story take place for you?

Where does this story take place for you? Maybe I could ask that question differently: Where was your “best” Christmas?

I suspect for most everyone, save maybe the angels and shepherds from tonight’s pageants, the question takes us back in time. We remember a Christmas past with fondness. I would caution that these memories have the tendency to get polished by age. We remember past Christmases better than we may have experienced them in the moment. This capacity we have to look back across years and geography, to remember the Christmases past, can produce as special kind of longing.

If you are longing this Christmas, if you are missing loved ones, or you are just longing for the Christmas spirit, as you once believe you knew the spirit, know that longing can be a blessing. Longing itself can help us search for where this story takes place.

Brother Thomas Matus of the Camaldolese has written about the nature of faith, of religion. In the diaries from his travels to visit one of his order’s monasteries in India you learn that brother Thomas isn’t the world’s most traditional monk. As a young man in California, before he became a Christian, he was initiated in an Hindu order. It’s a very Californian story: a young white man first becomes Hindu, then converts to Catholicism. But Brother Thomas eventually joined the Camaldolese Catholic monks, an order with a monastery in India. Visiting the country connected the two parts of his spiritual journey. In India he finds a question central to all religions:

Which direction should I bow?

Which direction?

All religions are directional. They all point toward God. There’s a reason we often talk about a “spiritual journey.” Faith is an orientation.

If tonight you find yourself longing, you are in a place to begin the journey, to begin walking. It brings us back to the original question: Where? Which direction?

Tonight, for followers of Christ, the shepherds know the answer: Bow to the stable. Head toward that most unlikely place where God’s love chose to dwell. Bow to the vulnerable little child entrusted to an unwed girl, still too young. Bow to that manger on the margins, off the road, outside the center, in that antic cold and frustrated night. There, where you’d least expect it, God’s presence can be found.

What if the “where” of this story is exactly the question we need this Christmas? What if all of our worries about the fate of the world, the state of our own lives, could be relieved? What if instead of looking for answers to come from the elite, the empowered, we turned down a different road? What if the power to change the world was in the hands of the most unlikely  people?

Where does this story take place? The answer is more complex and beautiful the harder you look. For in the end the story can take place only in the hearts of all those who long for God. The love of God comes among us, yes even us. The answer to the question is up to you. Where will this story take place for you this Christmas?

Amen.