Why NOT Do Evangelism?

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/09-19-10.MP3] Why not do evangelism?

Last week I spent some time on the topic “Why do evangelism?” The title comes from one of the chapters in Unbinding Your Heart, our congregation-wide book study. It is not too late to jump into one of the groups, or to get a copy of the book yourself and follow along. If you missed it, here’s the elevator ride summary: evangelism is rooted in relationship. And that relationship is rooted in love, not judgment or arrogance.

Today, I've got a different spin on the question from last week. And this one might be easier to answer for many of us: “Why not do evangelism?” I’m reminded of a couple of friends who were visiting the Holy Land and stopped at one of the churches in the Galilee built as a monument to Jesus’ ministry. They were sitting there, soaking in the atmosphere, deeply moved by the whole experience. After a few moments, a woman who was cleaning the church came up to them and pointed at their legs, which had been crossed. She then reached down and slapped them, because such relaxed behavior was considered inappropriate before the dignity and majesty of God. Apparently, though, slapping someone in church is just fine.

Or there’s the story I’ve heard of the visitor who came to a church wearing a large cowboy hat. After being greeted and given a bulletin, the visitor walked down the aisle and sat toward the front, leaving his hat on. The buzz was intense. The ushers were whispering back and forth. Finally, one of them went up to the man and said, “Hi. I’m John. It’s nice to have you here.”

“Oh, hey, John. I’m Phil.”

“Phil, welcome. Um, would you mind removing your hat? It would be most appropriate for this worship space.”

“Thanks for the tip, John. I appreciate it.”

John walked away, satisfied that the message was received. But the visitor kept the hat on. Time to escalate this emergency. The ushers notified the elders, who began talking about what to do. Eventually, the Clerk of Session walked over. “Hi, Phil, is it? I’m Judy, I’m the Clerk of Session here.”

“Hi, Judy. Nice to meet you.”

“Yes. Of course. Uh, listen. I know John spoke to you a few minutes ago. We sure would appreciate you taking the hat off.”

“Message received, Judy. Thank you.”

Nothing. So the elders informed the pastor. She walked over. “Hi, I’m Laura. I’m the pastor here. I’m sure you know that your hat has created quite a stir. Would you mind removing it?”

“No problem at all, Laura. Thank you.” And with that, Phil took the hat off.

At the end of the service, Pastor Laura was greeting everyone as they exited the sanctuary. As Phil came through, she said, “Thank you for taking your hat off. I sure appreciate it. And I hope you won’t bring it next time you come.”

“Oh, I won’t need to,” said Phil. “I’ve been visiting for two months, and this is the first time anyone has spoken to me.”

Why would we want to evangelize people when this is the kind of welcome they might get? Why would we want others to have a relationship with God when people so often can get in the way of that relationship? We know that God wouldn’t greet someone by ignoring them or by smacking them. So why would we take the chance of exposing people to the imperfections of God’s people?

Disney, arguably the most effective customer service corporation in the world, has studied customer experience, and they’ve come up with this little factoid: people remember a good experience for 13 months. Do you know how long they remember a bad experience? 28 ½ years. A little, unfortunately, goes a long way!

And we know that these imperfections run much larger than a couple of cute stories. Whether it’s actions on the fringe or in the mainstream, Christians have a lot for which we need to own up. You rarely need to look far to see the latest news on scandals in the Catholic Church, or the popular televangelists and their peccadilloes. And many of us have had our own personal negative experiences of church or hypocritical Christians. It could be the sibling that is sure you’re not the right kind of Christian to get into heaven, or the guy who comes to your door with a pamphlet with clip art of flames and the devil. Let’s be honest, here. The church gets some bad press. And it’s not undeserved.

And this is nothing new. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, relays the story of the Conquistador Pizarro’s victory over the Incan Emperor Atahualpa in 1532. As a prelude to the battle, Pizarro’s personal priest went to Atahualpa carrying a cross and a Bible. “I am here,” he said, “on behalf of King Charles I of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is his will that you submit to him and turn from your pagan ways. This is the holy book that I teach. It teaches the holy way of our God.” With that, he handed the Bible to Atahualpa, who had never seen a book before. The priest showed him how to open it, which he did. Of course, never having seen a book, the lines were complete nonsense to the Incan. He tossed the Bible aside. With that, the priest’s rage grew, and he called to the Spaniards: “You have seen what he has done! He has desecrated God’s holy word! Do what you must do to teach these dogs that our God is not to be trifled with!” And with that, the Spanish troops began a slaughter of the Incans and captured Atahualpa.

Feeling good? Or do you feel the collective weight of history and experience on your shoulders? I hope it goes without saying that I see the church as a much more complex reality than all of this. I would not be standing before you if I saw the church as an unrelenting source of evil and incapable of acts of mercy. The reality is that bad experiences linger, and linger, and linger. And many of us know these stories and histories all too well. If we were to invite someone to church, how would we answer them when they remind us of these dark passages of Christian history?

And then, on top of it all, here comes this truly strange parable today. You have a master, whose manager has been acting badly. We’re not sure what it is – it could be simple incompetence or an outright fleecing of people, but he’s gotten called onto the carpet. And in an act of last minute self-preservation, he goes around sowing seeds of good will: you owe 100 jars of oil? Make it 50. You owe 100 barrels of wheat? Make it 80. The reason he does this is so that when he’s thrown out on his ear, he’ll have a place to go. These folks to whom he’s been kind will take him in.

And then the parable twists. What does the master do when he hears of this? He commends the dishonest manager! Duplicity is honored, the manager is spared, and we are left to scratch our heads.

What if I invite someone to church and this is the parable? What if they ask me to explain it to them? Or what if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to, like, “If God is all-powerful, then can God make a rock so big that God can’t lift it?” I can’t even name the books of the Bible. How am I supposed to explain the Trinity to them?

This all comes in the midst of our own cultural understanding of faith as a private matter. As a reaction to those Christians who come across as “pushy”, we don’t want to push at all. Let people make up their own minds. There are plenty of religions. It’s a free country. If they want to be Christian, great. If not, that’s there choice. Who am I to say that they’re wrong?

Here’s the truth: we have relied on “being American” to teach people what it means to “be Christian.” Those days are gone. As Martha Grace Reese points out in Unbinding Your Heart:

Today, people who have never attended a church populate our neighborhoods and work places. The next decades will see millions more. They won't have memories of a Christian grandmother, father or next-door neighbor. The thought of "going back to church" when they're in trouble will not occur to them, because they have never been inside a church building in the first place.

How does that sit with you? If you’re anything like me, you’re probably saying something to the effect of, “So what can I do to counteract all of this? There’s the weight of history, and personal experience, and media attention, and my own short-comings as a Christian. What can I do as one person to reverse the course of history?”

Well, the truth is, you can’t do anything. And the truth is that God can!

We collectively bristle at the stories above, not because we think of them as embarrassing, but accurate, portrayals of God and God’s character. We react the way we do because they run so counter to the God whom we know in Christ. Here in this community, so many of you have had such powerful experiences of faith and support and nurture that you just want to scream at the top of your lungs, “That’s not right! I don’t know what Ted Haggard or Pope Benedict or Pizarro were thinking. But that’s not the God that I know.”

And you’re right. Maybe we are too quick to dismiss the parable, though. We may have to journey back to the time of Jesus to understand it, but maybe there’s something there for us anyway. In the parable, of course, God is represented by the master. And that makes us the managers. In the economics of Jesus’ time, the manager represented the master to those with whom he dealt. In this case, the manager has represented the master poorly. We don’t know exactly what he has done, but it was all too common for a manager in such a situation to charge exorbitant interest, a practice that was contrary to Jewish law. Based on the manager’s actions of chopping debt, we might guess that he was doing just that. And in settling these accounts, he was cutting out his own fees. But more importantly, he was representing his master in a better light.

So when the master commends the manager for his behavior, it’s not the dishonesty that is being applauded. It’s this turning of the corner in his managerial misbehavior. The motives might not be pure, but what ends up happening is that the manager’s mercy toward debt becomes the master’s mercy toward debt.

That’s really all that God asks of us, is to strive to reflect God’s true character to the world. We believe in a God who welcomes all. So we do the same, whether they cross their legs or wear a hat. We believe in a God who values integrity in relationships and behavior. And so we try to demonstrate that same integrity and behavior in our own lives. We believe in a God who forgives debts and shows mercy to the world. And so we do the same – not just in word, but in deed.

Let me put the question to you this way: What difference does being a Christian make in your life? Can you think of a time when faith has played a key role in the way things have turned out? For some of us, who left church and came back, or who came to faith late in life, the question might be easier to answer. And for some of us, who grew up in the church and have known no other reality, this may be an impossible question to answer. We’ve never known what it was like to not have faith. So for us, the question might be better stated, what difference would not having faith have made in your life?

If there’s truly no difference, if there has never been a moment that faith has been the source of hope in the midst of darkness, if you’ve never seen God at work in surprising and wondrous ways, then we need to talk. And this book, Unbinding Your Heart, was written with you in mind. It contains an easy guide to daily prayer. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you can answer that question, if you can recognize how God has sustained you in moments of anguish or has given you blessings beyond all measure, a second-chance at life or love or joy, then consider yourself in the place of that manager. What would the master want you to do? Should you hoard it to yourself? Or should you share it with those whom you love and whom the master loves?

There are plenty of examples of how not to share the good news of being beloved of God. Can we be examples of how to share it? May it be so. Amen.