Outreach

The Struggle to Share

Romans 10:14-21 (NLT)

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
but they were disobedient and rebellious.”


Christians have to tell the Good News to those who have not heard it. If you’ve been hearing this sermon series from Romans at least semi-regularly, you should by now have a good idea of what Paul means by the gospel, the Good News.

Jesus Christ, God in flesh among us, died for our sins. He went to the cross and bore the punishment for what we have done and will do to work against God’s will. His work on the cross is effective; his resurrection from the dead proves this is true.

Believe, and restoration is ours. Death is defeated! But again, those who believe have to tell those who have not yet believed. Otherwise, those nonbelievers may never have the chance to be restored to God.

The need to spread the Good News is not a complicated idea to understand. It apparently is a difficult idea for many American Christians to live out, however. I can cite a lot of evidence as I say that—rapidly declining church attendance across the nation is the biggest exhibit I might put before you. Along with that would be the shocking number of churches, United Methodist and otherwise, that go all year without a single profession of faith in their community.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence I have. Too often in my career I have taken time to teach ways to spread the Good News, only to hear people say, “Well, pastor, that’s really not for us.”

Really? Jesus’ last instruction to us before ascending into heaven, what we call The Great Commission, isn’t for us?

All I know to do is to keep emphasizing our need to go tell others and to continue teaching ways to spread the Good News, hoping the idea will catch on with enough people who call themselves followers of Christ.

Let me try a different approach today. Let’s talk about what we might call “levels of engagement,” each a measure of how committed we are to telling the story.

Level 1: See What a Good Person I Am

I often hear people say, “My witness is in how I live my life before others.” Yes, that is a good starting point. Obviously, if you’re living a non-Christian life in front of others, you’re not helping.

Your behaviors and attitudes can change the environment around you. I discovered this in an odd and embarrassing way several years ago, while I was working in the corporate world.

I had finished a meeting in Washington, D.C., and had walked out into a blindingly sunny late afternoon. I was hungry, so I started looking for somewhere to eat.

As I walked down the street looking for a cab, I saw a sign in a window advertising a steak and potato for under $10. Quite a deal in D.C., even nearly 20 years ago! I entered what proved to be a dim and very empty establishment with a large bar in the center, and told the hostess as she seated me that I wanted the steak.

It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. I noticed there were stages in the corner; my first thought was, “Hmmm, they must have bands on the weekends.” And then I noticed something else. There were brass poles on each of the stages.

Uh-oh, I realized. I had walked into a a business serving more than steak and potatoes. When the hostess came back to the table, I also noticed her high skirt and low blouse appropriate for the venue. All I could think was, I really need to get out of here.

“Ummm, I’m sorry,” I told her, “but I didn’t realize what I was entering. I just saw the steak special. I’m going to leave,” I told her. Almost as if on cue, a pulsing, thumping music began. Obviously, the show was about to begin. I was surprised to see she looked as horrified as me.

“Oh. Oh!” she replied. “No, it’s okay. Please don’t leave! We’ve already started your meal. It’s okay, really!”

As she turned around, she did something almost reflexively that I’ll never forget. She somehow adjusted the dress on the spot, stretching the top up and the skirt down for more coverage, in what I presume was an act of embarrassment. She quickly ran to the back. The music stopped.

I should add that the steak was quite good.

Certainly, we have some impact on the world by trying to live publicly as a moral person. People may change their behavior to some degree by what they see in us. I’m going to once again be frank here, though —

It’s not enough. The people watching you have no context. The hostess had no way to know from our encounter why I wanted to leave, other than I had made a mistake that embarrassed both of us. She was reminded that there was a world different from her workplace, but no real witness regarding Christ occurred.

Level 2: Let Me Tell You About My Church

This next step is an improvement—well, sort of. At least we’re moving in the right direction. Maybe.

A lot of times when we talk about “evangelism” in a church committee, what we really mean is a church growth strategy. How do we get people in the doors? How do we get them to stay? Let’s go ahead and say it: How do we get them to give money? Staff and air conditioning are expensive!

Before too long, someone might even use the word “marketing” as part of this strategic conversation. We’ve got to let people know what we offer! This can get quite creative.

There are the church coffee bars and bookstores, of course, designed to create that commercial “Starbucks” feel we’ve all learned to love. I once heard of a church that went to the trouble of installing a giant slide from its upstairs children’s program down to the main level. When it was time to go home, the kids would dive down the slide to meet their parents. I’ll bet the children were packing that place, at least for awhile!

The danger in all of this is a church can spend a lot of money and energy to create what is essentially a social club for adults or a giant playpen for children. Certainly, nice facilities can be a huge help as we try to do the work of the kingdom, particularly in a community lacking such spaces. They have to exist for the right reason, however. As we discussed last week, everything needs to be “on mission.”

Level 3: Let Me Offer You a Relationship

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re also getting personal, making Level 3 a little scary. Additionally, Level 3 almost certainly will happen outside church.

I once spent some time doing what I now call “sushi evangelism.” The young man who made my rolls at a local sushi bar one day noticed the Methodist cross embroidered on my shirt. He asked me if I was a minister.

I did not have to steer the conversation much after that. (Sharing the Good News often is simply a matter of answering questions in an established friendship.) He had fallen away from church as a child and was full of questions, some so complicated they strained my theological thinking.

For a couple of months, I spent a lot of my lunch money on sushi to keep that relationship going. It continued until he moved to another state for a job, where I pray new relationships help him continue to grow in his understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Measure Your Efforts

Christians, I’m going to give you a way to measure how you’re doing in all of this. Here’s a two-question test you can give yourself any time.

Question 1: Who was the last person I helped draw into a relationship with Christ? I’m not saying you had to be the one who was there when the person dropped down and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. But you know when you’ve helped a nonbeliever make progress—who was it, and how long ago was it?

Question 2: Who am I sharing the Good News with right now? There must be someone around you who needs the love of Jesus Christ. There must be someone needing hope and restoration.

If you cannot think of someone, you really need to broaden your circles. Stop hanging around other Christians so much!

Living out Level 3 is not easy. It takes a loving, Holy Spirit-filled heart to commit to a nonbeliever in a way that is genuine. You have to commit to friendship with the person you want to reach regardless of whether the person ever becomes a Christian.

Know this, however. You do not have to figure out how to spread the Good News on your own. In a healthy church, we support one another and train together as we witness to a hurting world.

Let’s do it. For the sake of the lost around us, let’s share the Good News about Jesus Christ!


The featured image is “St. Francis Preaches the Faith,” Jan Michiel Coxie, 17th Century.

Clinging to the Gunwales

Matthew 14:22-33

We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.

Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.

Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.

Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.

In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.

In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.

In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”

Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?

What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?

I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.

What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!

Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.

As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.

Farewell

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

————–

This has happened to me before. About the time I think the occasion is special, and that I’ll probably have to deviate from the standard lectionary texts for the week, one of the prescribed readings provides us with exactly what we need.

On my last Sunday in the pulpit at Cassidy UMC, the lectionary practically begs me to use Paul’s benediction in his second recorded letter to the church at Corinth. I’m no Paul, but I’m certainly comfortable using the same words to say goodbye to the people of Cassidy that Paul used to close his letter.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.

This actually is the most difficult part to translate. A lot of other translations say “rejoice” rather than “farewell.” I’ll just go ahead and conflate the two possibilities today, even if it’s not good use of the Greek. This is farewell, but we also should rejoice.

Yes, we’re experiencing changes, but we are a people who can go through such transitions without fear. We gather in worship and in service because we know God is with us in all we do. His Holy Spirit is upon us, and that constant knowledge gives us constant joy, even when a less familiar future stands before us.

The Holy Spirit is in the people of Luminary UMC and in me and my family, so I know I can rejoice in where I am going. God’s work will be done. The Holy Spirit is in you and is in Pastor Tom Hancock and his family, and I know God’s work will continue to be done here.

Put things in order.

You have put things in order, and will continue to do so, I am sure. Despite the struggles we’ve had in recent years, struggles tied to personal losses and a decline in giving, we have managed the situation well. The debt is gone. Church revenue and spending are about equal, leaving our reserve intact. You are well-positioned to make sound ministry choices in coming years.

Listen to my appeal.

How do I boil down three years of appeals from the pulpit to a sentence or two? How about this:

Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again; I should have said it this directly earlier. Instead, start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The lost also might at first glance judge the people inside the building to be too old or out of touch. But Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and you’ll understand the need to go off site to reach people. Your soul will work like a lost person detector, and with time and prayer the Holy Spirit will guide you to reach the lost with your actions and words.

Invite people to know Jesus Christ, and the part about people coming to church will take care of itself. Some of your new friends in Christ will naturally want to be with you on Sunday.

Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

I don’t know if I have much to add to Paul’s words here. It is the ideal state for any church. It is my prayer you exist always in such a state. Last week, we talked about the power of the Holy Spirit falling on the church at Pentecost. Deep prayer and the study of Scripture tune us into God’s will, and a willingness to obey what we hear brings peace.

As for the holy kiss part—well, that’s an act from a different time and culture. Instead, do those things we do now to show we’re in communion with each other. Look your brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes, touch hands, touch shoulders, and say, “I love you.” Offer forgiveness when mistakes are made and personal hurts occur. Lord knows, the world needs such love.

All the saints greet you.

Remember, we are one church, regardless of what buildings we may enter on Sunday. We are one in Christ for all eternity. This includes the saints who have passed into the full presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you at Cassidy, now and forever. Amen.

 

Leftovers

Matthew 25:34-40

I spent a lot of time talking about food in the context of feasting last week, and a lot of folks said they left church really hungry, so I don’t want to belabor a food metaphor. But the Sunday after Thanksgiving certainly is a time when we have leftovers on our minds, isn’t it?

Jesus always has leftovers on his mind. Our Scripture reminds us today that Jesus’ primary concern is how we as his followers treat people who feel like society’s leftovers, put aside as marginally useful or destined for the scrap heap.

This text is something of a theological puzzle. We know from a broader understanding of the Bible that our salvation is dependent not on our works, but on our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We look to the cross, believe that what happened there is effective, and we are saved.

And yet, when Jesus gave us images of the judgment to come, he described it as being based on what we do for others, in particular those people who from a worldly perspective don’t play a major role in society. Somehow, the idea of God’s unmerited grace and the idea of good works aimed at society’s least have to be reconciled.

As I consider all of this, I have to rely largely on what I’ve learned from trying to follow Jesus’ dictates in Matthew 25. I’ve not always done these acts of service well, but experience has been a good teacher.

Let’s look first at helping the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. I group them together because I once was able to volunteer regularly in a rural community relief center that focused on helping people meet these very basic needs for sustenance and dignity. I know many of you have worked in such places, too.

What stays with you after working with people who are so poor they cannot get enough food or proper clothing? For me, it’s the look so many of them have in their eyes, a mixture of desperation and shame. People’s sense of worth can drop to almost nothing when they no longer can acquire what they need to keep themselves and their families alive.

I wish I could to tell you a simple, happy story where people get food or clothing and the transformation in their eyes is instantaneous. That story seldom happens, however. People volunteering for the first time in such relief efforts are often surprised by the lack of gratitude they see from the people receiving help. The desperation may be temporarily alleviated, but the shame remains.

If you stick with such work, however, you occasionally get the opportunity to form a relationship—maybe even a genuine friendship. When that happens, the look in the poor person’s eyes will change. Food is important, and clothes are important, but you begin to realize that relationships are deeply important. People need to know they remain worthy of love regardless of what they have.

The idea of reaching out to the stranger works in a similar way. In the Old Testament and on into Jesus’ day, people traveling or trying to live in a place where they had no relationships were in constant danger. Who would stand up for them when they were attacked or cheated in some way? A culture where people deliberately reach out to strangers is a culture that makes people safer.

As a pastor, I also have had a lot of opportunities to spend time with the sick. The sick need much, but if I had to sum up their needs in one word, I would have to choose “restoration.”

They usually want to be restored physically, of course. Sometimes physical healing happens in unexpected ways, and that’s always wonderful to see. But even without physical restoration, remarkable events can happen when someone is sick.

Often, sickness becomes a path to restoration with God, and the presence of other people can become a very important part of that restoration. I’ve seen people work through their fears and find tremendous peace before dying simply because others were there to pray with them, to comfort them, and to make them feel loved.

Now, not so many of you may have worked in prison ministry. The idea can be a little repulsive. I remember the first time I was volunteering in a federal prison and realized I was sitting next to someone convicted of trafficking in child pornography. It took me a few minutes to warm up to the guy. The whole time, I’m wondering, “Jesus, is this really what you meant?”

I’ve also sat with and even dined in the prison cafeteria with killers and rapists, not to mention the thieving accountants who cost people their life savings. I’ve preached to these people in worship services, I’ve taught them in small groups, and certainly, I’ve prayed with them. The only way you can become comfortable doing these things is to realize that Christ died for them, too—that their sins are just as forgiven as our sins.

And as I consider all these experiences, I begin to realize how the truth that we are saved through simple belief is so closely tied to Jesus’ expectation that we do good works for the least among us. It all goes back to grace; God loved us enough to save us even though sin had rendered us worthless, and we’re expected to model his behavior.

By going to the least, we open the door so God’s grace can better reach them. We also open another door, the one to our own hearts, and God’s grace is better able to reach us. Serving the least works very much like a sacrament, changing all involved.

That’s why it is so important to do some or all of these outreach efforts, to be there in body as the work is done. We can give money all day to support such ministries, but to experience the change, we have to be present.

Mystery of the Creeping Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34

Note: I tried something a little different Sunday, a sermon that involved more conversation with those in attendance than preaching. I’m also trying to take better advantage of forums like Facebook to be in conversation about a biblical text before I preach it. If you would like to join in those pre-sermon conversations, go the the Sermon Shorts page on Facebook. I’ll usually have basic information about the Bible text for the week posted by Tuesday or Wednesday. “Like” the page, and you’ll know when new postings are made.

When I was in second grade at Jonesborough Elementary School in Jonesborough, Tenn., we would have multiple classes on the playground during the same recess period. It was a new school, and it had a really big play area: swings, slides and other playground equipment, an outdoor basketball court and lots of green space sloping down from the building.

When it was time to go in, a teacher would gather all the kids simply by standing at the top of the hill and raising her hand. We knew we had better get in line quickly.

One day, my friend Sam said he was ready to go in. No problem, I said. I simply stood in the right spot and raised my hand. I didn’t really expect anything to happen.

Something did happen, however. What looked like a sea of second-graders washed toward me, coming from the slides, the swings, and the asphalt court at the bottom of the hill. Now I had both hands up: “No, no, I was just kidding!”

Then I looked behind me. There stood one of the teachers, her hand in the air. I’m not sure she had even seen me, or that any kid on the playground had noticed me; it simply was time to go in.

It was an early lesson for me in how we don’t always recognize the power behind us, the real cause of events in which we find ourselves. Understanding that God is behind all kingdom-building moments is the point of our Scripture today.

It’s a simple idea. Trust that God is doing the work. God even does the initial sowing, working through Jesus Christ to draw us back into a relationship. Yes, we’re invited, even commanded, to sow seed alongside God. But it is word of God’s saving grace being poured out on all creation that grows the kingdom, not our efforts.

Dialogue Time:

1) Are you sowing? If not, why not? Some of the people involved in the conversation, either in our worship services or on Facebook earlier in the week, noted a feeling of inadequacy. We talked about how discipleship is the answer. We need to know God’s word well enough to be able to tell others about it in a comfortable, relaxed way. We also have to know how to build genuine relationships that give us the right to tell another person about Christ.

2) Do you know where the field is? I noted that it’s usually not in the church building. The days when the lost actually entered the church looking for answers are over. We have to go outside, understanding our church building to be a place for worship and training. We heard some encouraging reminders of people who have learned of Christ through the simplest outreach efforts. Those stories took us to the “mustard seed” portion of our text.

I am convinced that the mustard seed parable is there to show us we will be surprised by what happens. Our expectations are rooted in what we think is possible. God tells us the results of our sowing will be rooted much more deeply, in what God says is possible.

In fact, we could be like I was on the playground in second grade, holding up both hands, so shocked at the results of our efforts that our first reaction is, “We have to stop this.” The people rushing at us may look different, or have unusual worship ideas, or have sets of problems unfamiliar to us.

But with God standing behind us, we have nothing to fear. If we’re faithful in sowing seeds, he’ll show us how to handle the crowds of people wanting Jesus in their lives.