The E Word
February 10, 2013
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Pastor Mary Blessing,
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Scotts Valley, CA
Today is the Last Sunday of the Epiphany. Normally we would be reading about Jesus’ “transfiguration”, a glorious moment when Jesus, Peter, James and John climb up the mountain to talk with God. I apologize to those of you who are fans of assigned readings, but I chose the readings we heard today in observation of the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany. To me it is more effective to consider Luke’s story of Jesus meeting Peter, James and John while they were doing their everyday job—fishing--rather than jumping to the end of Jesus’ ministry for a mountain top experience.
I pray my words will encourage you to prepare yourself for Lent, which begins this week with Ash Wednesday. During our 40 day journey I am interested in having us explore how we encounter God in our everyday lives, not those rare, glorious “peak” experiences. How do we encounter God right where we are, and what are we to do in response?
To do so, I want to discuss the “E” word—you know the one, the one that makes most of us squirm,… wait for it…EVANGELISM. I do this today because I want to remind us of goals that were set over 6 years ago, prior to the calling of your new Vicar. The congregation at that time was asked to take a survey in which they gleaned their top 4 goals for the next phase of St. Philip’s: 1) become a Parish (Check); 2) hire a Youth Minister (Check); 3) Spiritual Development for Adults (we’ve made an excellent start here, and will go even further in 2013); and 4) EVANGELISM. Yes, the survey results included a desire on the part of St. Philip’s congregation to do more Evangelism. And when I read those goals and considered the gifts God gave me in ministry, my heart leapt with joy—as there are not many Episcopal Churches that will put it down in black and white that they want Evangelism.
But, lest I get carried away and lose my audience, I want you to know that I checked in with one of our parishioners (Laura Gonzalez) to get a better understanding of how the person in the pew may hear my words. Most people probably don’t like the word EVANGELISM. Immediately we are afraid we’ll be asked to go knocking on doors. Can you remember a time when you were in an awkward moment of EVANGELISM? Maybe you were on the receiving end…or maybe it was awkward because you were the one attempting to evangelize. Or maybe you associate it with people who argue that their belief is more “right” than someone else’s. Or maybe you get uncomfortable because you feel a little guilty, as if you’re expected to proselytize the Gospel, and there is no way on Earth you’ll ever do that.
Now there may be one or two of you who have had a positive experience with EVANGELISM. I have been told by some current members that 25 years ago when St. Philip’s was forming, just at a time when they most needed to find a spiritual home, the then Vicar literally came knocking on their door to invite them to the new church. One couple had just moved here, had a toddler they wanted to have baptized, but had not yet found a church. The warm invitation from a man who clearly knew the power of Christ’s love was a welcome sight on their front porch. For another person it was the phone call that brought good news.
So there may be some of you who deeply value this gift of EVANGELISM. You may be thrilled to hear me preach on it. But I am guessing that most of you find yourselves getting uncomfortable every time I mention it. Please, before you tune me out and start imagining your grocery list in your head, won’t you give me a chance to dispel some of your anxiety? Remember, to evangelize is simply to proclaim a message. If someone had not at some time told something of the message of Jesus Christ, you would not be here.
The first step of Evangelism is to recognize that in order to have a message about God, one must first have an encounter with God. What do our scriptures say about how God comes to us?
Simon Peter encounters God while doing something very ordinary. He was simply doing his job. After fishing all night, to no avail, he was probably tired and frustrated. Then, while cleaning up, along comes Jesus, first just to borrow his boat. Jesus asks Peter to go back out on the lake, to speak to the crowds, and then to fish some more. To Peter’s surprise, when he obeys Jesus’ command, he encounters God. As his nets practically burst, and the boat nearly sinks with abundant fish, Peter realizes this Jesus is a man of God. To a first century Jewish fisherman from Galilee this abundant catch of fish was a miracle as significant as Moses’ receiving Manna from Heaven— this was clear sign that Jesus was as significant a prophet as Moses or Elijah, who fed many with little human resources.
Peter may have known about Jesus prior to this fishing expedition, but an ordinary day of fishing rapidly became extraordinary as Peter encountered the true power of Jesus. Peter’s natural response to the enormity of that encounter was to stop what he was doing, and give great thanks. It was only a simple next step for Peter to accept Jesus’ invitation to come along with him to “catch people”. Jesus took an ordinary fisherman, touched his life profoundly, and turned him into an evangelist, a witness to the power of God’s merciful love.
What else do we read today about how people encounter God then find themselves proclaiming his mercy?
Paul writes to the Corinthians of his own extremely dramatic encounter with Jesus, the Christ, the Risen Lord. Paul, then known as Saul, was also going about his daily work—which may horrify us, but which was his duty as a faithful Jewish Pharisee. Paul was knocked off his horse by the presence of Christ while he was on his way to persecute Christ’s followers. Paul admits he was unworthy of God’s grace, yet he did receive that grace and mercy, and was forgiven his crime of killing Christians. God took the well-educated, legal minded Pharisee and touched his heart so profoundly that he could not help himself—Paul’s response to encountering God meant he just HAD to become a messenger who proclaimed the power of Jesus Christ’s love and mercy.
And what about the prophet Isaiah? What motivated him to call out to God: “Here am I; send me”? What was going on in Judah more than 700 years before Jesus? The King had just died. Their independence is threatened. It is a time of confusion. In the midst of uncertainty, Isaiah claims to have seen the Lord, sitting on a throne, high and lofty. God and his attendant angels come to cleanse Isaiah of his sins, to prepare Isaiah to have the right words to tell an unstable country to put their trust in him. Isaiah is called to a specific form of evangelism centered in prophecy. He did not volunteer for this role—God placed it upon him. What we can gain from his witness is Isaiah’s trust that God will give him the words to say, even if Isaiah isn’t comfortable with the message.
Scripture tells us that everyone who encounters God finds a way to share that encounter with others. We are to become partners with God, each in our own natural way. Some with actions, like Peter, some with rhetoric, like Paul, and others with prophetic warnings, like Isaiah. And even some with song, like the Psalmist who proclaims “… I will sing your praise.”
How are we, here today, to fulfill our role as EVANGELISTS in our day and time? What are we to do here, people of St. Philip’s? How are we to encounters God in such a way that we will find ourselves naturally inviting others to come to know the power of Jesus’ love?
First and foremost you are invited to engage in ways that help you have an encounter with God in the first place, and do it in a way that is natural to you, yet will stretch you. For instance reading and reflecting on the Bible; engaging in intentional Prayer; offering acts of Service; developing Christian Fellowship; fully participating in regular Worship.
As you center of your life in the heart of God through these many disciplines and activities, you will naturally discover that people are attracted to the glow of Christ within you. In your everyday life you may find a co-worker struggling through a life transition. If you can find a way to thank God for that person, to pray for his or her well-being, you may find an opportunity to offer words of encouragement that helps them to feel the love of God. Maybe there is someone in your life who is isolated, lonely or despondent. Maybe you can take them out for a cup of coffee or a walk in the sunshine. It is in the everyday activities that people often open up the most. Or, if you are one of our parishioners who works alongside some of the community service volunteers here at St. Philip’s, you may find that the mere fact that you gave your time to work alongside them, perhaps teaching them a new skill, will be a lot like Jesus working alongside Peter to show him patience, perseverance and trust do pay off. You may not need to speak a word of Jesus or God, but your actions will reveal a loving God.
St. Francis said: “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.”
Now, for the few amongst us who truly have the gift of Evangelism…and I know who some of you are… you may feel called to take your encounters with Christ out into the world to share, openly and without fear. I applaud this, and will work with you to make plans to reach out to our neighbors, to invite and incorporate more seekers into our fellowship. When Jim and I have done this in other churches, we always had a team of prayer partners either at home or at the church backing us up with prayer, and receiving us with hot chocolate or cider, ready to hear our stories and pray some more.
While most of you may never be called to go knocking at doors to invite new neighbors to worship, you may be called to light a candle in prayer for those who are knocking on doors. You may be called to offer your gift of hospitality to those who enter our doors, or attend a newcomer meal. Others may be called to lead inquirer’s classes, or care for the children of those who attend. Others may offer acts of compassion, feeding the hungry.
Whatever the result of the encounter you have with God, I pray there are those amongst who will be open to respond with joy, “Here am I Lord, send me.”