24 January 2012

First Sermon on Evangelism

This is the first evangelism sermon I've ever preached. I'm grateful to David Gortner here at VTS and to so many of my classmates for their help shaping my heart for this ministry.

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Our hearts have to go out to Jonah. He’s a tough prophet to admire, but an easy one to love. Who in the Bible can we better relate to than someone one who, a couple chapters earlier, receives “the word of the LORD” …and promptly runs away.1 You may remember that he hops on a boat headed for Tarshish, which means he’s fleeing west when God had sent him east.2 I can think of a few times I’ve tried a similar move. Here too is a prophet who knows what it’s like to have a bad day. Shortly after boarding that westbound ship, he gets thrown from it by a cowardly but discerning crew who want nothing to do with someone trying to flee from the presence of God Almighty. And as you know, that’s where the story truly takes a turn for the bizarre: Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish. But he doesn’t rail against God or pout about this most recent indignity. No, instead, he undergoes what has to be the most distinctive conversion story in the entire Bible: he sings a psalm of thanksgiving “from the belly of the fish,”3 praising God’s name for delivering him from the depths of the sea. And after the fish vomits him out on dry land, the story picks up as we heard it a few moments ago: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’’’4

What he finds at his destination is “an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across,”5 and we are told he walks a whole days’ worth into it. Keep in mind that he spent his whole trip preaching—not in quiet confines like these but out in the streets. As he walks, he cries out “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! ”6 And then the most remarkable thing of all happens, remarkable at least if we consider the success rate of the biblical prophets. Unlike with so many of his colleagues the people actually listen to Jonah! The citizens of Nineveh declare a fast, put on the garments of mourning, “turn from their evil ways,” and are delivered as God decides not to bring disaster upon them.7

Three chapters, three nights in a fish, and a city three days’ walk across is saved from destruction. I wondered this week about how Jonah could have strength for his assigned task because now we are called to go about ours. The gospel lesson we heard calls it leaving our nets.8 Indeed, as we prayed in this morning’s collect, this week’s readings are about “answer[ing] readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim[ing] to all people the good news of his salvation.”9 Because the Greek for good news is euaggelion (yu-an-ge’-le-on), we call this proclamation, in English, evangelism.

Now, Jonah wasn’t proclaiming the euaggelion of Jesus Christ; he wasn’t an evangelist as we use that word. But as I said at the start, he is a highly relateable prophet, at least for me, and our work as evangelists shares much in common with his prophetic office and his example of service to God.

For starters, the story of Jonah reminds us that we do not need to be perfect to speak the word that God has put in our hearts. Like me, and perhaps like some of you some of the time, Jonah is whiney, self-satisfied, inconsistent, overly dramatic, and seldom sufficiently grateful for what he has been given. Yes, he bravely and tirelessly preaches repentance to a vast and ultimately responsive metropolis. But then he resents their good fortune at being spared and tells God, a few verses after our passage, it would be “better for me to die than to live.”10 So too, then, should we be comfortable being imperfect bearers of the good news. We don’t need to be super-Christians to be good evangelists. Jonah manages to do his God-given work despite a host of flaws and frailties. Talking about our faith, giving an account of our hope in Christ—this task is about honestly naming what we think God is doing in our lives, not about convincing others that we have everything figured out.

If anything, it’s the telling of our faith story that helps us figure things out. I believe this is part of what Episcopal evangelism expert David Gortner is getting at in his book Transforming Evangelism. Early on, he writes,

Evangelism is a spiritual practice: active—and receptive. Just as in prayer, study, and acts of compassion, in evangelism you experience a sense of your movement not being entirely your own. Receptive to the Holy Spirit’s activity within you—and trusting that the Spirit is active in others all around you—you move into action as the Spirit’s partner.11

So just like in prayer, study, or service, in witnessing to Jesus Christ we are gradually transformed by our consistent practice. We become better evangelists each time we seize an opportunity to say, “Hey, that reminds me of something I realized when talking to my spiritual director,” or “Actually, I’m here serving at the shelter because I believe we meet Christ when we serve people in need.” There are any number of ways we show others, and remind ourselves, about the meaning God gives to our lives, about how the Spirit has been moving. So we don’t need to be “advanced in the faith,” to be evangelists. On the contrary, evangelism is one of the practices that helps our faith to grow.

I think there’s a second lesson we should take from the story of Jonah. I believe this short book tells us something really vital about where all our best service to God will come from. Recall that Jonah is most obedient and effective in that moment following his unlikely psalm of thanksgiving. When he accepts the work God has put before him, his decision comes from a place of joy and gratitude. Of course, we will sometimes treat prayer, or study, or evangelism like a duty or divine command—and we will sometimes run away from that command. But these practices are transformed when we find ways to delight in them. Dr. Gortner continues,

Energized by your active and practiced gratitude for all that you have received as gift from God, you enter your public life daily with a readiness to share your gratitude and wonder with others—and to hear their own experiences of God’s abundant goodness. This kind of evangelism, the giving of your delight, returns to you abundantly as you are nurtured and strengthened by listening for and sharing good news.12

I don’t know about you, but I first heard these words as a breath of fresh air: Evangelism can be “the giving of [our] delight.” When we view it in this way, the word evangelism loses all the connotations that many in our tradition tend to recoil against. In this light, heavy-handed attempts to scare or coerce others into Christ seem not so much misguided as sad. What a missed opportunity to celebrate the good news, to grow in one’s faith by daily giving away the love that is “drained in making [others] full” and “bound in setting others free.”13

Now, this has all been a little abstract. What does it look like to, as Gortner writes, “enter [our] public life daily with a readiness to share [our] gratitude and wonder”? If you’re looking to hear some ideas, I suggest you talk to parishioners involved in some of the more formal evangelism efforts at St. Paul’s. They’ve had some practice. Better yet, seek out a chance to hear people who live with great need talk about what God is doing in their lives.

As for my own practice of evangelism, joy and thanksgiving well up most strongly in me when I hear God’s call for compassion and promise of steadfast love. I hear it most clearly in these words by Anglican thinker F. D. Maurice:

The acknowledgment of a God who beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,—who has been long suffering with all His creatures and long-suffering with us,—[that acknowledgment] will make us tremble to deal harshly with the struggles and doubts [and especially] convictions …of our fellow human-beings.14

We should “tremble” to “deal harshly” with others’ doubts and convictions? That sounds like good news to me. So my witness to our compassionate and long-suffering God often comes in the form of a call to civility or the defense of another’s convictions. When opponents in a conflict are demonizing each other, I try to speak up and say that the Christian faith has taught me that no one is beyond the pale and that we are all called to respect the dignity of every human being. In our polarized society, there are a lot of opportunities to share this part of my gospel hope with the people I meet. That’s a lot of opportunities for evangelism, especially during election season, when it’s so easy for us to hold other people’s convictions in contempt.

So what about you? What aspect of the gospel lights a fire in you? How has the Word of God come to you and made your life richer and more joyous? How has the good news of salvation in Christ set you free from the guilt of imperfection and sent you out to share what’s in your broken but healing heart? The more we ask and answer these questions, the easier it will be for us to witness to the grace of God wherever we are—at home, at work or school, at a political debate, in the city of Nineveh, or in the belly of a providential fish sent to deposit us wherever God is calling us to minister.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation. Amen.

1Jonah 1:1–3.

2See note at 1:3. Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Jonah” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford, 2007): HB 1322




6See 3:4.


8Mark 1:18.

9BCP, 163 (The Collect of the Day).


11David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York: Church Publishing, 2008): 2.

12Gortner, 2.

13W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky” in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1985): Hymn 525.

14F. D. Maurice, Reconstructing Christian Ethics: Selected Writings, ed. Ellen K. Wondra (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 210â“211, emphasis added.

02 January 2012

A marathon, not a sprint: General Ordination Exams

Tomorrow through Saturday I will be taking General Ordination Exams administered by examining chaplains appointed by the Episcopal Church. My buddy Mike wrote a nice summary last year, comparing the test to OWLs. The comparison that springs to mind for me, though, was the Ph.D. qualifying exams I took in my first year of grad school. The scope is similarly comprehensive, though the stakes are not as high. In this case, failure in a subject area generally means a meeting with a local examining chaplain and maybe a supplementary paper. Not, you know, getting one more chance to pass it or being asked to leave with a master's degree.

In any event, I swore after that exam (for which I studied full-time for two months and managed to squeeze by on the first go, thank God) that I would never again get that worked up about a test. Some nerves that set in yesterday notwithstanding, I've managed to stick by that pledge. The only systematic review I've done is re-reading three quarters' worth of church history lectures--more than 400 pages in all. It was a bigger project than I'd first thought but also fun and probably worth it. Today I've set up my examination files and will do some light review of my notes. And then I will watch the Rose Bowl (go Badgers!).

I appreciate your prayers and good wishes for me and my classmates during what I expect will be a long, but perhaps also kinda fun, week. Catch you on the flip side.

Support me, O Lord, in my examinations; and, that I may make the most of the knowledge I possess, grant me confidence, steadiness, honesty, and a quiet mind. Amen.

(Prayer courtesy of fellow test-taker Jo Belser.)