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Evangelist: from the Greek eὐαγγελιστής, oῦ m. messenger; one who preaches the Good News.
Should be a definition that fits most self-professed Christians.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ sends out his disciples with a simple exhortation: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
The word “evangelist” isn’t there, but it certainly is implied: Go out and be messengers in the name of God and Christ, go out and preach the Good News. How else, after all, can one expect to get to the point of baptism, without the preaching of the Gospel? What else is there to teach, if not their recent experience of the incarnate and resurrected Christ?
We, therefore, who are modern-day disciples – modern-day followers of Christ – aren’t we all, necessarily, under the same exhortation to be evangelists?
Of course, we modern-day disciples run into a semantic and cultural brick wall at just about this point. “Evangelist” sounds a lot like “Evangelical”, which in its current usage implies all sorts of theological positions with which Christians are not necessarily comfortable. The word “Evangelical”, as it is currently used both by those who claim it and by those who find it uncomfortable, is very nearly synonymous with “Fundamentalist”, “biblical-literalist”, and often, “Republican”.
There are certainly those who have tried to reclaim the word for a broader spectrum of Christianity, who consider themselves evangelists of the gospel of God’s love. For the most part, such people make the distinction between small-e and big-E evangelicals, with the capital denoting a denominational or creedal affiliation. For the most part, such people are progressive Christians, who do not find our current American culture inherently antithetical to Christian faith and practice.
And then along came Mike Huckabee at the RNC.
“Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama…”
First of all, I’d love to hear that self-profession, from one who has, for the most part, kept his faith at a distance from his political position.
But what was far more intriguing to me was the use of the term “evangelical” in this case, and from this source. Mike Huckabee, Baptist pastor and former Governor of Arkansas, fits neatly into the group of those who would be understood, by the larger culture, to be Evangelicals. Who believe that the gospel that they preach – the anti-gay, anti-feminist, pro-birth, Christians-are-the-only-ones-going-to-Heaven gospel – is the one-and-only correct, God-given, capital-T Truth.
Mike Huckabee, the one prominent Republican who has gone out on a limb to defend Todd Akin in his anti-abortion pseudo-science, just lumped himself into one group with Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama happens to be a member of my denomination, the United Church of Christ. With our denominational stands on climate change, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, gender equality, poverty, and a whole host of other social issues, we in the UCC rarely find ourselves lumped in with Christians of Mr. Huckabee’s persuasion. Especially by Christians of Mr. Huckabee’s persuasion. So it was a rather startling move for the former Governor to make, especially since his next move was to distance himself from the very group – evangelical Christians – that he had just defined in such broad terms.
Now, I think that the term that Mr. Huckabee meant to use was “Protestant”; and it certainly is remarkable in this election that there is only one Protestant Christian among the four men listed on major party tickets. “Protestant” would have been a shared category, between Mr. Obama and Mr. Huckabee, that would have passed unnoticed, but for the implication that Mr. Romney, as a Mormon, is not Christian at all, which is something that the GOP is desperately trying to avoid. And so, to emphasize the impressiveness of Mr. Huckabee’s support of Mr. Romney, we find a member of the UCC described as a self-professed evangelical.
It’s a rhetorical move in a political year. But I find myself hoping that it might be more than that.
In the UCC’s Statement of Faith, we affirm that “God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world…” We affirm that we are called to evangelism, to be messengers of God’s love. We affirm that we are not exempt from the exhortation in Matthew’s Gospel, and that it is part and parcel of our commitment to discipleship.
When called an evangelical by an Evangelical, perhaps it’s time to stand up and say “Yes.” Perhaps it’s time to take the responsibility that was put on us centuries ago, and that modern semantics cannot remove. Perhaps it’s time to recognize ourselves as messengers, as mouthpieces of the Body of Christ, as speakers and do-ers of the Word by which we live: the Word that loved all people, the Word that rejected no one.
Go, therefore, and make disciples. Yes. Thank you. Amen.
I really meant to post here more often than I’ve been able to… so there’s a goal heading into the fall. Meanwhile: reflections from this past weekend.
I know a lot of people who say “I feel God most in nature”; really, I’d imagine that we all know people like that. People who would rather go for a long walk, or go canoeing, or sit out under the vastness of the stars, than ever set foot inside a place of worship. As a pastor, this position often makes me grit my teeth, but I will admit to having some sympathy with that position. I’ve gone on long hikes, stood in awe of breathtaking vistas, stared at the stars on nights so clear that the Milky Way was a thick white river of light in the sky. I can totally understand the experience of something huge-beyond-imagining being so much more present outside, in the huge spaces that nature can afford us. I can understand being more aware of God in spaces that are not of human construction.
It is also true that, for most of us, a creedal faith isn’t enough anymore – to say, merely, “I believe” does not come anywhere close to the experience of God that I think we all long for – not just my generation, as scholars of religion too often seem to think. It seems to me that we are all seeking an experience of awe, of hugeness,of intricacy, that tends to be far more present in the breadth of wilderness, or the expanse of stars, than in the wordy formulations of worship with which we are so often familiar from religious services.
So I would never suggest that one cannot experience the divine outside of the structures that humans have created for worship – far from it. Indeed, if those long walks in the woods lead one to a time of quiet discernment of the divine, then I’m all for them.
Just don’t tell me that those experiences are enough for you.
As important as experience is, in our faith, experience is not the end-result that we’re looking for, is it? When people tell me about their hikes or their stargazing or the breathtaking sunset over a perfectly calm lake, my question is always the same: how has that experience of presence changed you?
Because worship, and discipleship, are not just about recognition of a huge, overarching presence. A worshiping experience of God is inevitably about relationship; not only how we experience God, but how that experience forms and molds us. It is relationship when we can look at nature and determine to be stewards of Creation. It is relationship when we look at hugeness of stars and recognize that if the God who created the vastness of the universe loves us, parasitic specks on the face of a small planet of a small star – specks upon specks upon specks -then who should we be loving? noticing? helping? It is relationship when we can look at Earth from space, and realize the fragility, the inequality, that affects each and every one of us who must share the limited resources of this vulnerable planet.
What we get out there, in our experience of God in nature, is a feeling. When we can commit ourselves to the God of experience, when we can come away from a moment in God’s presence with a determination to do the work that we are called to by faith, then we will know an abiding presence. We will be in relationship with God.
Let us commit ourselves, not just to the invocation of presence, but to the God who is more than feeling. Let us open ourselves to the vast and powerful God who is willing to abide within our human hearts and human dwellings. Let us invoke God here, in this moment, and in every moment of all our days.
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:53b-56)
That, at least, is the general consensus when such a passage is read aloud within a mainline Protestant church service. Although most Protestants (in my experience) have a somewhat-more-than-passing familiarity with the Bible, and with Jesus’ tendency to speak in allegory, metaphor and parable, this one (pardon the expression) tends to stick in people’s throats. It just smacks a little too much of cannibalism, it’s just a little too graphic. Especially when this reading is followed by a service of Holy Communion, this is a reading that tends to give people the willies.
Now, I come from a tradition in which we’re not even talking about consubstantiation, let alone trans-substantiation. We are so low-church as to regard the sacrament of Communion as a merely symbolic gesture, totally metaphorical, totally removed from the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. Bread and grape juice, thank you very much, we’re nice, normal, politically-correct, social-justice-oriented, twenty-first-century Christians. No mysticism here, please. No flesh-eating, no blood-drinking. No chewing on Jesus’ body. Because, really, yuck.
This shouldn’t surprise me. These are the same people, after all, who sit quietly in semi-uncomfortable wooden pews, speaking only when spoken to, listening politely and attentively with well-bred decorum. This is the Congregational tradition, brought into this nation by the early Puritan settlers, people who placed great emphasis on the training of the mind; somewhat less emphasis on the training of the soul… and who ignored, to the best of their ability, the needs of the body. These were people to whom the two Protestant sacraments – Baptism and Communion – were seen as spiritual nourishment, only peripherally embodied.
Which does us a rather large disservice, if you think about it.
Because Jesus wasn’t a Puritan. Jesus loved bodies.
Jesus fed bodies. Five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. He allowed his disciples to pluck and eat on the Sabbath. He took the time, on the last night of his life, to sit and eat with his disciples.
Jesus touched bodies: dirty, poor, aching bodies. Sick, contagious, bloody bodies. Jesus gave himself, his own body clad only in a towel, to the intimate act of washing the feet of each of his disciples. Jesus touched the untouchables, the dehumanized, the unclean: bodies that had not been touched by another human being in days, weeks, months, years.
Have you ever gone a day without being touched by another human? How long do you think you would survive?
On Christmas, we celebrate the embodiedness of Jesus: the fact that he was born, as we all were: emerging from a human body, contained within a human body. We are reminded that Jesus was as human as the rest of us. Indeed, this is central to our understandings of presence, of justice, of suffering: we are the servants of one who has served, of one who has experienced our embodied life, our human pains and sorrows. We are followers of a God who can empathize, who has literally walked as one of us. We worship one who had a body, who loved bodies, whose teachings consistently emphasized that our relationship to God is relational: body to body.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” -Matthew 25:35-36, 40b
In our Congregational – Puritan, Calvinist – system, the preaching of the Word is elevated above all sacramental worship practices. Go into any old New England church, and check out the height of the pulpit: many will quite likely give you a nosebleed. But in good human fashion, we neglect to remember that the word that we preach is only the merest echo of the original Word. In good Puritan fashion, we decline to recognize that the Word put on flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).
The Word put on flesh. Even the Word had a body.
Jesus loved bodies, and cared for bodies, but he gave up his own. Not because bodies are irrelevant, but because they are central to our faith and practice. Otherwise, it would have been no sacrifice. Jesus laid bare his own flesh, his own brokenness, precisely so that we might be fed, so that we might be made whole. Precisely so that we may feast upon the abundance of God; so that we may sink our teeth into something rich and precious and nourishing.
Take and eat: incorporate the God incarnate into your own flesh.
Take and eat: be made whole in body, as well as mind and spirit.
Take and eat, that the living Christ might work within you and through you, that you might break bread, and say to another; “Here. Take this and eat.”
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 12, 2012
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
So as many of you will have gathered by this point, having heard a few of my sermons, by now, I am just a little bit of a news junkie. And that’s an understatement. But something’s kind of happened recently, and it’s been strange; I’ve become a little bit wary of turning on the news, whether it’s turning on the radio or going online and looking at the headlines – which are my two primary sources of news. Because recently, I have begun to feel sort of bombarded with hate every time the news comes on. Whether it’s the Westboro Baptist Church, and I use the term “church” very loosely here, picketing yet another military funeral; whether it is Bryan Fischer, the Director of Issues Analysis at the American Family Association, who actually called this week for the children of same-sex parents to be kidnapped and be stolen away by underground railroad so that they wouldn’t be harmed any further – which seems a little bit to me like incitement, but apparently it’s not, and apparently neither is all of the music that Wade Page listened to, before he opened fire in a Sikh temple: the songs about white power and supremacy, the songs about violence and murder. And, of course, then, you know, what was it, two weeks ago now, there was this whole huge Chik-Fil-A mess? And the worst of that was the huge long lines of people waiting to buy a decent – not better than that – chicken sandwich, not necessarilyeven because they agreed with the owner’s views, not certainly because they actually knew where his money went, but because they were standing up for the right to free speech. It was all over the news.
You know, in a world where someone’s right to speak becomes more powerful, inherently, than the words that they actually use, I’m not sure it’s any wonder that I hesitate now before I turn on the radio or scan the headlines.
We’ve been reading Kate Braestrup’s book about bringing prayer into life during our Tuesday morning Bible Study/prayer group study. In the chapter we read this week, she talked about something that I totally and completely get: she talked about being a word geek. She said that when you’ve got a writer, a preacher and a theologian – she falls into all three categories and, let’s face it, so do I – you are bound to have a word geek on your hands. And so she says, and I’m right there with her most of the time, she says her prayers take the form of words. She has to put her prayers into words, write them down, have them in some tangible form. Which, I suppose, also made it handier to write a book on prayer, let’s be honest. But I was reading that section again this week after we discussed it on Tuesday, and I think it speaks to something deeper within all of us, this need for words. Even if you’re not a writer, and preacher, and theologian, at some level words relate us one to another. Words are essential for how we relate in and to this world. Language inevitably mediates our perception, it colors how we see, how we think, how we worship. Language is our primary form of communication, after all, I’m up here talking to you. It’s our primary form of communication, it’s our primary form of community-building, of relationship-building, among ourselves and with God.
Words have, in our hearts and in our minds, tremendous power. Which is, I think, a lesson we all learned early. We all heard the rhyme, when we were kids, and probably because we all needed to hear the rhyme. Go ahead, say it with me: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” There wasn’t a single person here that didn’t know that rhyme. A couple of you even knew where I was going before I started, which is just a little bit frightening. Now: the real question is not how old were you when you learned it, but how old were you when you learned it really wasn’t true? How old were you when you realized that the names you were called on the playground by some bratty little five-year-old would have so much power over you? Would leave the scars that would last so much longer than the pebbles that they threw at your head, for instance? How much older were you when you realized that it was the words that they used that really left a mark?
I did a little internet poll this week, and came up with just the most innocuous of them here: fat; dumb; useless; shrimp; teacher’s pet; queer; mama’s boy; ugly… I got that in the first minute. That’s what facebook does, folks. How many more can you think of? I bet there’s a fair few. These are the words that cut us more deeply than any of us can ever really realize. And whether we like it or not, these are the words that make us who we are. These are the words that, when they are spoken, bring us back to the little five-year-old body, and the little five-year-old hurt, and they make us curl up and whimper.
They’re just words. But while sticks and stones breaking bones is grounds for assault, name calling? that’s free speech.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths”, says Paul. I know Paul was familiar with hate speech, it was rampant throughout the epistles, we hear him arguing back against it, against what those churches must have been saying to each other and about each other, and about themselves. Paul argued with the churches in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Rome, in Galatia, for that exact reason, because Paul recognized that there are consequences to what we say to each other . He recognized that speech, in any society and in any context, cannot really be free. We may be able to say whatever we want – and you know we can, and that’s the amazing thing – but there are going to be ramifications, no matter what. There will be consequences: the breaking down of trust, the breaking down of community, and inevitably, the breaking down of the Body of Christ. And this is Paul’s recurring theme, in every major letter, that there is nothing – NOTHING – more valuable than the unity that we can find in Christ. So is it any wonder that he argues so vehemently, so often, so passionately, against the breaking of trust, the breaking down of communities, the erection of barriers the individualism and sectarianism that plagued the ancient church – that plagues the church still! – because it is damaging. It is breaking and tearing apart the body of Christ. The words that we speak, these words divide us. They have the power to tear us one from another, to do again what the Roman soldiers did: as we speak we are, as surely as they were, driving nails into Christ’s body. Except that this time, we are hurting ourselves in the process. This time, we are both crucifier and crucified.
You know, as a I sat there last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, and I wrote those words, and I looked at them, and I thought. I thought about taking those words back. I thought about not saying that we are complicit in the crucifixion. But I can’t. Because I don’t think it’s saying too much. I think that when you can get a four year old to sing in a North Carolina church – and please excuse the words, this is a quote: “God don’t love no homo”, and have the whole church laughing, and thinking it’s cute; when you can have a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby, in a “White Power” onesie at a skinhead rally, you can’t tell me that we’re not doing some damage with our words. You can’t tell me that we are not tearing apart both those who participate and those who bear witness. We can’t disguise hatred with love, and expect our love to go untarnished.[i] We cannot witness hatred in silence and expect our love to go untarnished.
Everywhere, recently, there have been incessant examples of the power of words to isolate, to wound, to kill. You just have to look at the rash of teen suicides to see that one. Worse still, though, is the power of these very words to divert us from their very power, to dull our senses and become innocuous. To make us believe that indeed, our speech might ever, actually, be free. Paul knew better. Jesus knew better. It is not enough to be free of hate. It is not enough to not speak hate. Because there is a second part to Paul’s directive. It doesn’t end where I ended it a moment ago. It is not just “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths”. No, Paul goes on. He says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” It’s not enough not to be Dan Cathy, the owner of Chik-Fil-A. It’s not enough not to be Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association. It’s not enough not to be Wade Page, with his white supremacist music, and his horrible acts of violence. Because Jesus didn’t actually say “Don’t hate your enemy”, did he? The injunction is deeper and it is far more powerful and the implications are far, far stronger. Because Jesus said what any good word geek would say. Jesus chose his words as every bit carefully as any good writer, preacher, or theologian, of which he was at least two, out of three, I don’t know about the first. Jesus said “Love.” He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart”, and he said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is the test. Not hate. Because even seemingly harmless words can be tremendously damaging, can split us apart at our very core. The words that we use to label people, as though people were objects. The words that we use to keep from actually having to see someone else’s pain and suffering in this world, from actually having to see their humanity. My other internet poll on this took about as long as the first one did, and came up with words like Crazy, Homeless, Gay, Welfare Mother, Drunk, Muslim, Disabled, Addict. The people who may be, you know, “not actually worthy”, because that’s all they are. The people who don’t really exist. Because those words, let’s face it, they’re not hateful. They’re not hate speech. They might even be true, to some extent. But when they’re labels, when they’re excuses, where is the love, and where is the Body of Christ?
We have the right to speak. But that does not make what we say inherently right. We have this freedom. But we are not free. We are not free from one another, we are not free from the commitment that we have made to being disciples in Christ Jesus. We are not free from the consequences of our words, nor shall we ever be. And we are not free, my friends, from the damage that we consistently, all of us, inflict upon the entire Body of Christ. If we are free, it is only to the extent that the entire body is. It is only to the extent that all of us, who are called to unarmed truth, and unconditional love[ii], may beloved in return. Alleluia. Amen
Sermonizing: v. 1) to prepare and research a sermon; 2) the act of preaching; 3) grappling, mulling, and wrestling with texts, current events, and lived experience in the context of the Gospel of Christ; 4) creating a blog that touches on all these processes.
Preaching is not a solo performance. Although in our mainline protestant tradition, the preacher’s voice is usually the only one filling an otherwise silent church, the participation of the active listeners is necessary, both in the preparation and the delivery of the sermon. At some level, this happens as a result of the preacher knowing her audience; knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing what words to choose, knowing how far she can push before her listeners shut down. Knowing when to exhort and when to console.
But the active participation of those who receive a sermon is also present during the worship service, in the bodies of the congregation, in the laughter, tears, or silence of those present. And it is present as well in the conversations that should always emerge from the sermon time – conversations in which those who listened get a chance to speak, and those who spoke can return the favor of active and attentive listening.
So this is a forum for my musings on the lectionary texts, for the transcripts or manuscripts of sermons, and for a continuing conversation around the call that we all, as Christians, share: the call to discipleship.