(This was a sermon I preached a few weeks ago at the local congregation while I'm doing Clinical Pastoral Education up in Missouri. It has been an intense summer so far, and I apologize for not being active in posting. I hope you are having a blessed summer!)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Amos, What do you see? Or, to use the language of King James, Amos, what seest thou? This passage was a key point of inspiration for Bishop John Hines, former presiding bishop and founder of my seminary, the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. In the seminary chapel there is a metal sculpture of a modern city skyline with a plumb line suspended above it. The plumb bob dwarfs the one dimensional buildings that it hovers over. In front of this sculpture is a Bible, perpetually open to this very passage of judgment in Amos as a reminder that all ages, both ancient and modern, are measured by God’s plumb line.
Before the trees outside the seminary chapel grew, one could see the skyline of downtown Austin through the clear glass windows to the south: one could see the buildings of the University of Texas, the state Capitol building, the banks and commercial centers. The chapel even has its cross outside – the cross is on the other side of the stained glass, not inside. The juxtaposition must have been powerful for the first classes at the seminary, and served as a reminder that Christ was crucified out on a hill, not inside the Temple.
In his vision for the seminary, Bishop Hines saw a need for clergy to be trained for the world outside the seminary walls. The formation that goes on in seminary, in class and in chapel, must always be oriented toward the outside. Bishop Hines saw that vividly during his tenure as Bishop of Texas and as Presiding Bishop as the Episcopal Church faced the issue of race and racism within our congregations and within American society during the 50s and 60s. When people were being attacked and rejected for the color of their skin, he refused to let the church stand idle. His actions infuriated many people who wanted the church to be an oasis from these issues, to be a refuge from social storms. He was accused of injecting politics into the church. Some of the modern arguments in the Episcopal Church about social issues bear the legacy of those turbulent times of social injustice.
How can the Church stand idly by when the world outside is in such turmoil and pain? The instinct to make the church a refuge is not wrong; in the confusing, alienating world we inhabit, who doesn’t want to have a safe place to go, where the wars and fighting and hatred of the world fall away to be replaced the holy silence, the majestic music, the sacred prayer of the Church? Who doesn’t want to have a safe ship in the storm, guided by the light of good teaching? This instinct is a good one. The world needs the Church. The world needs the prayer, wisdom, and servanthood of the Church because the world is a confusing place.
This instinct, though good in desire, ultimately fails. It fails because the world does not come into the Church but rather the Church goes out into the world. At the end of the Holy Eucharist, the deacon dismisses the congregation with the words, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord”; those words are a solemn charge! GO! Get out there, in other words. As you have eaten at the table of God and been refreshed for the journey, now go out into a world that needs to hear the proclamation of the Gospel in thought and word and deed. The world is a confusing place, and it needs you.
The world needs you as the Body of Christ and it needs you as a member of the Body of Christ to care for it and guide it, but the world is not going to beat down the church’s door no matter what slogan or advertising we do, no matter what awesome program we put on, no matter what changes we make to the liturgy. The world is not coming here looking for the answers to the questions about meaning and hope and God that they don’t even know they’re asking. The world continues on in confusion, doubt and pain because it can only recognize the Gospel when you share it.
The Gospel is known through experience. Look back on times in your life when someone was there for you and walked with you in a time of pain. Maybe a time when you mourned the death of someone near to you. Maybe a time when you felt guilt over something you did that hurt someone. Who was there at your side? Who embodied the love of God for you, who became your neighbor, to use the image from the Gospel reading today? The nourishing and transforming love of God is known through people.
When the lawyer stood up to test Jesus, he asked him a good question: “What do I do?” And the lawyer gave the right information: “Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” You’ve got to love God, and you have to love your neighbor, and that includes loving yourself. In fact, love of God and love of neighbor feed and enrich each other. As you love God with your whole heart, then love dwells more deeply in you and flows out to your neighbor. As you love your neighbor, then you feel the immense love of God for the entire world. God loves this neighbor, this child of God, with all their gifts and flaws, just as God loves you with all your gifts and flaws.
Since you have found the transforming love of God in this community of Christ Episcopal Church, is it not an act of love to share it with your neighbor? How has being a member of this community of believers helped you grow in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, and how have you been renewed through the power of the Holy Spirit? How would you share this experience with someone else? How would you share this transforming love of God with someone who is curious? With someone who thinks Christianity is about judging the world and wanting to control it? With someone who has been hurt by us, by the Body of Christ? The world out there desires the transformative love of God, and God has appointed you, yes, you, to take it outside of these walls to them.
This is a sermon on evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Evangelism is not about filling pews and financial support of the church but about taking the healing love of God that we know in the Gospel out into the world. Sometimes you aren’t even taking anything; sometimes you’re pointing out where you see the love of God already is, and this is a powerful gift of love for your neighbor (or your fellow parishioner or for yourself)! Do not be afraid of evangelism.
Is there fear that people will see us as quirky for our religion? We kind of are a quirky bunch, with our Book of Common Prayer and our blend of Protestant theology and Catholic tradition. Is there fear that people will see us as judgmental people? That is hard if we spend our time loving instead of judging. Is there fear that we have secret motives, such as filling a church building or getting more money to be pledged during stewardship season? That might be something we need to be honest with ourselves about. Is there fear that people will reject us? Some will, yet being honest about ourselves and our needs, fears, and stories will invite other people to turn to God for refuge from the confusion out in the world when we show how we have experienced the transforming power and love of God. Invite people to partake of the love of God that dwells in your heart.
The Church is not this building. These four walls, these windows of colored glass, this altar, these things do not make the church. You do. You are the Body of Christ, you are the Church. The love of God dwelling in you can be a place of refuge for the world.
To return to our plumb line, do you see the cross? That is our plumb line, our way of measuring. God did not wait for us to come to him; God came to us. God created us, God sees our every need. God the Son is incarnate from the Blessed Virgin Mary to be so very near to us. God makes himself our neighbor that we might become closer to God. Make yourself a neighbor to the world and, in everything you do, share the Good News that God loves us all, no exceptions. Amen.