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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Evangelism: Far From The Shallow

A Sermon preached for Epiphany V - February 10, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

“Do not be afraid.”

Have you noticed how often that sentence is said – especially in the Gospel stories? An angel said those very words to the mother of Jesus before she was told she was pregnant. 

And now, as he is about to launch his ministry, forming his disciples from the placental waters of Lake Gennesaret, Jesus says the same thing to Simon, the one he would come to call Peter, after he had been born again by the Spirit as ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus would build his church.

“Do not be afraid.” Peter and John and James, his partners in a small fishing business, had been working all night and had not caught any fish. They are exhausted and bone tired. But, here comes this Jesus, not even a local fisherman but the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, and he’s telling them how to fish.

And yet, they do what he says. And, wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.” I imagine Simon Peter must have felt a mixture of gratitude and awe, along with a touch of embarrassment and unworthiness, confusion and fear. He fell down before Jesus saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

And Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid.” And then he told him that his vocation was going to change. 

Instead of catching fish, Simon Peter was going to be “catching people.” And after he and James and John brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.  

This morning, all over Western Christendom, preachers will use this opportunity to talk about evangelism this Sunday.   

Or, not. Especially in Episcopal churches. 

The only ‘e’ word we seem to be able to use is “Episcopal”. We also talk about ‘the economy’. Some of us love to talk about Queen Elizabeth I, who led us skillfully through the Reformation and laid the foundation for the Anglican Communion from which The Episcopal Church was birthed.

But, ‘evangelism” is a word that is abhorrent to some of us. I used to have a New Yorker cartoon pinned above my desk. It was from the ‘70s when The Episcopal Church was going through lots of ‘changes’. 

The scene is the church steps, and the tall and dashingly handsome and dignified “Father What-A-Waste” is greeting some Upper East Side Blue Haired Dowagers on the steps of the church. Behind him is a sign announcing today’s Sermon: “Evangelism”. 

In the cartoon caption, one of the women is saying to the priest, “But, Father, everyone one who needs to be an Episcopalian, already is.”

Those of you who have been Episcopalians for a long while know exactly what I’m talking about. Presbyterians may have originally been known as “God’s Frozen Chosen,” but everyone knows that there was a special place in hell for Episcopalians who can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork.

Some Episcopalians have been known to break out in a full-blown rash upon merely hearing the word “evangelism” spoken. Remember that scene in The Princess Bride where Vizzini keeps saying, “Inconceivable!”? 

And Inigo Montoya says, You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

I think that’s true about Episcopalians and evangelism.
For five years, I worked as Canon Missioner to Bishop Jack Spong. Those were tough years - long hours, lots of travel - but some of the best of my ordained ministry. I learned so much from him - mostly because he said such provocative things – sometimes, maddeningly challenging things – that it made me question just what it is I really believe. 

Which meant, I had to put some work into my faith. Often, it was enough to make me sweat. But, my faith was always stronger at the end of one of Jack’s spiritual workouts.

Jack Spong said, 
“The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.”
In that case, I’m a real evangelist for my religion because I think that’s exactly what Jesus did. I think, if we practiced that kind of evangelism, people might not flock to our churches and fill our pews so our collection plates would be filled to overflowing, but that’s not what Jesus said. 

He said, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Okay, you know me well enough by now to have seen this coming. It’s story time, folks. It’s about how I got caught trying to catch someone else and we both got caught because we moved away from the shallow and put out into deep water.

I was a very green, very wet-behind-the-ears newbie priest. You know, the kind who think they know everything just because they’ve been to seminary? Yup, that was me. 

I was that newbie priest who just knew in my bones that the reason the world was in such a mess was due to the fact that what they needed was . . . . ME!

See? I was ordained to save the world. Problem was, in spite of all my fancy (and expensive) education, I had forgotten that Jesus had already taken the job title of “Savior”.

At the time, I was Assistant to the Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church on Bolton Hill in Baltimore, MD. Part of my portfolio was to visit the folks over at the newly built church housing for the elderly, appropriately named “Memorial House.” I would preside and preach at a noonday Eucharist every Tuesday and then visit with the folks in the dining hall.

One of the residents asked me to see a woman who was new to the community. Her husband had been a fairly well known and loved pastor in the Black Baptist community. He had died suddenly and their five children, concerned about her being lonely, had convinced their mother to sell their magnificent old five story Brownstone and move into Memorial House where she’d be with “people her own age” and “make new friends” and “be happy.”

She wasn’t. Happy. At all. In fact, she was quite miserable. She had taken to staying in her room – even taking all of her meals there and not engaging in any of the many offered activities. So, I went to see her. Of course, I went to see her. I was going to save the world, wasn’t I? Why yes, yes of course, I was. One broken hearted woman at a time, if necessary.

Oh, I had no idea what I was in for. Did I mention that I was very young and inexperienced? She was older and wiser and a pastor’s wife. She had seen more and done more than I could ever think of or imagine. She was very stiff, very formal and it was clear that she thought me an idiot. 

A lovely idiot. A well-meaning idiot. But, an idiot nonetheless. She was absolutely right.

At the end of our first visit, I offered to pray, which actually brought a smile to her face. She seemed pleased at the prospect. Until I reached for my Book of Common Prayer. “What are you doing?” she asked, clearly displeased. 

“I’m … I’m… why… I’m going to pray,” said I.

“With THAT?” she demanded, pointing to my book. 

I haltingly nodded yes, beginning to understand how Dorothy might have felt standing before The Wizard.

“You mean,” she sniffed, “you don’t know how to PRAY? All that fancy education and you can’t PRAY without opening a BOOK?”

Right. She was Baptist. I, an Episcopalian. She was Black. I am White, but I turned several shades of red, I’m sure. I stammered out an apology, opened my BCP, cleared my throat, and said, “Let us prayer.” 

In the silence I had been carefully taught to leave after those words, I heard her take a huge sigh.

Our visits went on like that for several months. About 15-20 minutes of awkward conversation, followed by an even more awkward time of prayer out of the BCP. Until one day, I decided to take the plunge. I decided to try to pray spontaneously, and from my heart. 

I thought, well, you know, what’s the worse thing that could happen? She’d laugh at me? Well, maybe, but maybe then she’d understand why I had to use my BCP for prayer.

So, when it came time, I said, “Would you like to pray?” 

She nodded her head and I asked if I could hold her hand. “Why, how will you hold your book?” she scoffed. 

Too afraid to say anything else, I just took her hand in mine, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tried to search my heart for a place of truth from which to speak.

I have absolutely no idea what I said, or how long I spoke. All I know is that when I opened my eyes and looked at her face, her eyes were brimming with tears which were streaming down her face. 

I panicked! “Oh dear!” I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Did I say something to offend you?”

She smiled kindly and gently took my face in her hands. “Oh, no, child. No. Do not be afraid. You did a fine job."

"It’s just that, when we get to this point in our visit, even when you are using your prayer book, I know it’s time for you to leave."

"And this time, when you were praying just now, I realized how fond I have become of you. And, I realized that I miss you after you leave. And then, like just now, I realize just how lonely I really am.”

I put my hands on top of her hands and said, “So, why don’t we talk about that loneliness?” 

Which we did, for the next hour, and for many hours after that. 

She would tell me stories about her husband and her children and their life together. And their church. And, her faith. And, I told her my stories.

That's not necessarily what many would call evangelism. I do. I was changed and transformed and would never be the same b/c of that conversation. 

My faith in God and love for Jesus and trust in the Holy Spirit have been strong ever since. 

I didn’t become a Baptist. She didn’t become an Episcopalian. No one’s church membership role increased. No collection plate got fuller.

But, I do believe that we were both changed and transformed and our faith deepened. As that song goes from the newest version of A Star is Born, We were “far from the shallow.” 

We’re all tired of trying to fill the void that comes from feeling safe in the shallow end. Some of us need more. Some of us know that it’s “hard keeping it so hardcore.”

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: I have learned that people really want – what people really need – is the words of that old Negro spiritual, “A Balm in Gilead”.

The old slaves used to sing: “If you can not preach like Peter, if you can not pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all. Oh, there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole! There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

We are – every one of us: male, female, old, young, rich, poor, gay, straight, bi, black, white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, every single human being walking the face of the earth, every single last one of us– in desperate need of human kindness, human understanding, human contact.

No one knows what burdens we are carrying around. No one really stops to think how lonely it can be in a world filled with people who walk around with their heads down, their eyes fixed on a ‘smart phone’. 

Communicating not with human voice but by texting. 

Letting emojis express their feelings. 

But, never really connecting beyond the shallow.

Here’s my nickel’s worth of unsolicited advice about evangelism: 

Reach way down deep and find the Christ in you and dare to be that Balm in Gilead for someone.

Take a real risk and reach way down deep to find the Christ in others and let someone be that Balm in Gilead for you. 

No one will call that ‘evangelism’ but I will tell you that it is the sort of evangelism that will make Jesus smile.

Move far from the shallow. Put out into deep water and lower your nets.

And, as Jesus says, do not be afraid.    



Colette said...

Beautiful story!

Melody said...

Beautifully said. I love it. ♥

Riley said...

Elizabeth balm for the soul. You are the best storyteller I know. It's been awhile since I've visited your blog and I certainly have some binge reading to do. Thank you for the beautiful post. It was very touching! ❤

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Riley. It has been a while, girl! Good to hear from you again.