Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Get your butt in church"

Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.” St. Luke 10:5-6

Sally[1] was our most effective evangelist at a parish where I once served.  She would warn me ahead of time when she was bringing another one with her.   I’d walk into the chancel Sunday morning and look back at her pew, on the aisle halfway down the right side, and see a new face.  The newcomer might be slightly puzzled, a little uncertain; but also glad to be right next to someone who obviously knew what she was doing.  Most every time the bishop came, Sally would present a candidate or two for confirmation, someone she’d walked alongside in the journey to faith, another person who had found peace with God and the gift of new life. 

Sally had no advanced degrees in theology.  I couldn’t even get her to come to Bible study.  She was a humble woman, without great wealth or social power.  She had what I secretly regarded as one of the most unpromising opening lines in the history of evangelism.  I heard her use it at least twice, and winced a bit both times.  She would look people right in the eye, sigh a bit, and simply say, “you need to get your butt in church.”  You should know that this phrase is not from the New Testament, and I’m sure it’s not recommended by the Episcopal Church’s canon for evangelism.  But over and over again, through the unseen work of the Holy Spirit, Sally said it and it worked. 

Sally had more than her share of opportunities to use that line in her job.  For much of my time as her rector, she was a waitress at Frank’s,[2] a diner much loved by locals, because it was about the only restaurant in our tourist town that stayed open all year round.  When you suffer through an upstate New York winter, it’s not hard to become very loyal to the one place that serves bacon cheeseburgers the second week of February. 

Waitresses see people in all sorts of situations.  They overhear, and learn to observe.   When waitresses are warm and generous, as Sally was, they are often deeply trusted.  People talked with Sally about their problems.  They asked her for advice as she came to refill their coffee cups.  Because they knew she was religious, they asked her for her prayers.  And mostly Sally just listened and nodded.  But sometimes, she would trot out that unpromising opening line, “you need to get your butt in church.”

To Sally’s mind, there were few existential crises that couldn’t be helped by an hour spent at the 8:00 Service on Sunday morning.  Sally was sharing what worked for her, passing on a little of the peace she had received.  “Whatever house you enter,” Jesus told the seventy, “first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.”

That’s what Sally meant by “you need to get your butt in church.”  She had found so much there in that pew halfway back the aisle: a sense of God’s loving presence, guidance from the Scriptures for her own struggles, the renewing power of the Sacrament, the comfort of a caring community.  Sally had met the One who, as our Psalm says “holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip.”  Who wouldn’t want to share that kind of discovery with a person in trouble?

Jesus entrusts the life-changing message of the Gospel to the hands of ordinary people.  Evangelism is for amateurs.  That’s one of the main themes of today’s Gospel lesson, the sending of the seventy.  Saint Luke records that Jesus sent out two different groups of missionaries in his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.  First, in chapter 9, He sends the apostles—his inner circle, the people who had been trained carefully and commissioned with supernatural power.  And then a little further down the road, He sent out seventy more witnesses, the B team, people like you and me and Sally.

Saint Luke records at least part of the instructions that Jesus gave the seventy before they set out.  It’s interesting that His instructions focus more closely on what the seventy should avoid than what they should actually do.  Ancient Palestine was a world filled with wandering religious teachers, rabbis, and the seventy are specifically directed not to pretend to be rabbis.  They are not to wear special clothing.  Nor are they to carry a bag for collecting contributions from the pious.  They are to depend on the hospitality of their hearers, but not to pass judgment on the foods presented to them.  In other words, they’re supposed to look and sound like the amateurs they really are.

Jesus tells them that they are to announce to the people, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.”  I don’t think he was telling the seventy to recite a bare formula.  Jesus was saying they should talk about what they had discovered in Him, how they had come to believe that He was the long-promised redeemer, how meeting Jesus had changed their lives.  They are to pray for the sick, keeping an eye out for the reality of suffering in the lives of those around them.  And God, Jesus promised, would take care of the rest. 

The key passage, I think, is this one: “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.”  Tell them about what you have discovered, He means, and leave the rest of it to God. No gimmicks, no fancy rhetoric, no tricks.  In the memorable words of the great Indian mission theologian D. T. Niles: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”[3] 

Evangelism is God’s work.  We’re just the messengers, the ones who speak the word that God is preparing others to hear and receive with faith.  That’s true when the speaker is learned, experienced and polished.  But we see it even more clearly in the words of ordinary people, spoken out of their own experience.

God was already at work in the lives of those Palestinian villagers long before the seventy reached them.  God was already stirring up questions and longings in people’s hearts. The fields are white for harvest, Jesus says—planted and tended by God’s hand.   “Indeed we also work,” wrote Saint Augustine, “but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified: for without him we can do nothing[4]

And of course, what a harvest God has gone ahead to prepare for them.  The seventy return rejoicing.  The sick have been healed, the possessed have been delivered.  Their message has been greeted with faith.  They share in the joy of the harvest.  Jesus looks to the distant horizon.  “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” He says.  What God is doing here, in ordinary people who take the risk of sharing what they know, it marks a turn in the great epic struggle.  As the Psalmist says, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”[5] 

So did everyone believe?  Were the seventy received graciously in every village?  I doubt it.  Jesus gives plenty of warnings about how this call will be resisted.  Human beings are made for relationship with God.  The Gospel is the answer to humanity’s deepest questions.   God opens doors in the heart that we cannot fathom.  But He gives room for human freedom.  People can say no, and they will say no.  As Jane reminded us in her sermon last week, the stakes are too high for faith to come easily to everyone. 

But there’s a mystery in the way people respond to the message as well.  We don’t always see what will come of the words we say.  The truth may sleep unseen in the heart for decades, only to spring to life at the most unexpected moment.  One of the great wonders of the life of the world to come will be to see how God has used the little things we’ve said, the little kindnesses we’ve done; how He’s used them to change lives in ways we could never even imagine.

You already know enough to be a faithful witness.  That’s not to say you couldn’t learn more, or that you shouldn’t try to consider a person’s situation carefully before you speak with them about Jesus.  But I’m sure there’s someone in your life right now who is deeply longing for the kind of peace you know now in your life in Christ.  I’m sure you know someone who would be blessed to be part of a loving community of faith like the one that gathers here every Sunday.  There are people in your life that God wants to welcome into His kingdom through your faulty words, the story He has given you and you only to tell.

I guess you could just look them in the eye like Sally and say, “you need to get your butt in church.”  It does work. I’ve seen the evidence.  But I think you can probably do a little better than that.  Commend your words to God, speak from the heart and just wait and see the harvest He has prepared. 

[1] Not her real name.
[2] Not its real name.
[3] New York Times, May 11, 1986
[4] De natura et gratia, 31.
[5] Ps. 118:23.

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