13 Pentecost, September 3, 2017 Exodus 3: 1-15
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Romans 12: 9-21
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 16: 21-28
Open my lips O Lord and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen.
I’ve been to Texas twice in my life. The first time was when I was part of a mission trip to Galveston, Texas. Together, with the youth of our Episcopal church and the youth of the United Church of Christ, we traveled to a non-denominational church in Galveston. Their church provided us with a place to eat, sleep, and worship. They also connected us with local people who were still in need of help, after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, even three years later.
I’ve been on mission trips many times after a disaster: there was a trip to South Carolina; a trip to Ohio, a trip to Mississippi, to New York, and then once to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Having endured 8 days of lost power in Connecticut, once after a blizzard in the winter, and then another time after a tornado-like micro-burst in the summer, I remember being so very grateful for people’s help during those difficult and dangerous times. Our parish was less affected by these storms than some of us, and so we opened our Church for people to get water, to get warm, and check in with one another. Today, we pray throughout our country for those who have been affected by hurricane Harvey, and for those who have responded in many and various ways to their distress.
The second time that I traveled to Texas was this past November. As part of my continuing education, I decided to attend a conference in Dallas entitled Evangelism Matters, which was being held for Episcopalians from all over our country. To be among so many people
interested in evangelism was truly inspiring. Now in our baptismal covenant, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; but if you are anything like me, I would much rather pick up a paint brush, hammer a nail, or serve a meal than talk about Jesus. Someone might just think I’m a Jesus-freak.
But, truth be told, I am! I love Jesus, except, unfortunately, I would prefer to keep Jesus in my closet. Or on my bumper sticker. Or around my neck, and then let others make some assumptions about me and my relationship to Jesus. Hopefully, they will think that I am like those Christians that St. Paul is describing in his letter to the Romans. Perhaps they’ll see me and think, isn’t she a good Christian because she’s doing all that good work. I suspect some might think that I’m on a fool’s errand or that my cross is just a meaningless symbol. I’ve learned that assumptions are never helpful, especially based upon outward appearances.
As baptized Christians, we promise to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in our words, and not just by our actions and symbols, as important as they are. Evangelism, in part, is about telling our faith stories because we want to share the life-giving, liberating love of God that we have experienced in our own lives, and we want others to hear that good news too. The Black Seed writers’ group is a case in point. I wanted to become a better evangelist, which is why I went to Texas.
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, and once a missionary and evangelist right here at our Cathedral, claims that evangelism has to be rooted in our congregations, regardless of our size or location, and not in individuals. Evangelism is everybody’s call from God, just as God called Moses in the burning bush. As Christians, we must be a community of people who are willing to share our faith stories of how we came to know God in the person of Jesus. And this Jesus can’t just be “the nicest guy ever”, or a political revolutionary, or a prophetic witness, or a great teacher, as much as he was all of those.
We proclaim that Jesus is our savior, and the savior of the world, which has nothing to do with our human efforts or beliefs, but rather about Jesus’s efforts and about God’s power. This Jesus is the one that Peter confessed to be the messiah, the one who reconciled us to God and to each other by giving up his own power and surrendering to the will of God. This is the Jesus who was raised from the dead, and people couldn’t stop talking about him afterwards. What happens when we think about Jesus like that?
Proclaiming the good news of God in Christ takes practice. It means getting over our fears of being rejected, looking tacky, being vulnerable, and getting hurt. It means giving up ourselves and losing our lives for God’s sake, no less than Jesus did. It means picking up the crosses which burden us and weigh us down, and then telling stories about how God’s amazing grace and unfailing companionship set us free. How God led us through every terrain and territory of our lives in all sorts of weather conditions. It means knowing that God is with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and will carry us home.
I came to understand the God of all creation through Jesus because he was human like me. Jesus taught me how to forgive. Jesus taught me how to love. Jesus healed me and gave me hope, and showed me that I have nothing to fear, not even death itself. With that blessed assurance, I no longer try to save myself, or prove myself, or even earn my own salvation. I just ask Jesus for help.
Stephanie taught us an easy way to share our faith stories with others. It’s called “Cardboard Testimonials.” On one side of a card, you write (in only a few words) about a struggle, or a challenge, or a valley that you have experienced in your own life. You need not bare your soul, or tell your deepest, darkest secret. Your words could be as simple as a time in your life when you were sick, or scared, or lonely, or just wrestling with a problem or a decision. Then on the other side of the card, in only a few words again, you write down how you believe God responded to you.
For example, on my way to work this week, I was wrestling with a problem and asking God to give me a sign like the burning bush. Suddenly, a family that I had known from my parish in Connecticut appeared. After a brief conversation, I told them that they were my burning bush, that they were a sign to me that God was present. They didn’t solve my problem, nor did I solve theirs, but we assured each other that God shows up, not only in bushes but also in the people who show up in our lives. Now I’m not suggesting that God always responds to us so quickly or in such easily identifiable ways, but I am suggesting that we need to pay attention. We can call these appearances as nothing more than a coincidence, or we can share them with others as a God moment in our lives. That’s when we become evangelists.
Here are 3 examples from our conference in Texas. I was paralyzed by fear; I was freed by faith. Guilty as sin, I knew I was forgiven. I hated myself, I knew God loved me. And my cardboard testimonial from 4 years ago: I left parish ministry; God gave me a new call: to be a missionary and evangelist, without borders.
During the silence that follows my sermon, I invite you to create your own cardboard testimonial. If you want, you can share it during our coffee hour, or put it in the offering plate, or take it home with you as a reminder. Today we are all practicing how we can become better evangelists.
Shawnthea Monroe, a UCC minister, once wrote, “The worst haircut I ever received was a $7 special at a local salon. I was in my thirties and my hair was thick and curly, the kind of hair that could hide a multitude of styling sins - but not after the $7 special. It was short in back and uneven in front, with tufts sticking out in random places. I looked like I had mange.”
“No one at church said a word until Linda, a dear woman in the choir, came up to me after worship. Lifting a misshapen curl from my face, she said kindly, “You need to see Nan.” When Linda saw my disastrous haircut, she didn’t tell me about the benefits of finding the right stylist or hand me a leaflet featuring haircuts; she sent me to Nan. While it may be easier to spot someone who’s having a bad hair day than someone whose soul is in turmoil, there are people all around us who are hungering for a word they can take to heart. We must be ready and willing to speak the word: “You need to see Jesus.” Amen.
(Christian Century, July 26, 2011, p. 23)