Sunday, September 2, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 22
Proverbs 25:6-7 or Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Put not thyself forward in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men: for better is it that it be said unto thee, Come up hither, than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince, whom thine eyes have seen.

What does the evangelism committee or team at your church do? What is their purpose? What are the activities that keep them busy? What are they doing to bring new people to the Church? For many churches, the point of the evangelism committee is to bring new people to the church building in which they worship. The most important task is often to ensure that there are enough signs to the church and the ads are up to date. Church websites often fall under the evangelism committee, but the websites are focused on information and language that would meet the needs of people who are already Christian.

To many churches, evangelism means getting new people sitting in the pews. The purpose of the committee is to fill up the church and enlarge the rolls of members. There is little concern for the spiritual wellbeing of the new member – where they are in faith, why they have chosen to come, what it is they are seeking – what matters most is that they add to the numbers. In some cases there is even a subtle rivalry between churches, Christians trying to convince their Christian friends that their church is better or more spiritual or more holy.

There is good reason to advertise. People who move to a new place need some way to find the right church home. Signs point visitors in the right direction. Websites keep members and visitors informed of worship times and special events. Despite the importance of forgiveness in the church, the body of Christ is made of imperfect humans and there are times when the conflicts in a particular church are irreconcilable. It is sometimes best for Christians to find a new place of worship. People and circumstances change so it is necessary to find a new church to meet changing needs. It is wonderful to invite other Christians to share in worship and service in our community of faith.

Evangelism is far more than getting people in the pews, however. If the evangelism committee at the church focuses solely on signs and advertisements, then something is missing. We forget that the biblical understanding of evangelism is about sharing the message of salvation with the world. When we have a “Bring a friend” Sunday and all our visitors are Christians from other churches, then we have failed at giving our members the courage to share Gospel with the world.

There are churches that are trying to invite non-believers into their midst. Programs are being developed that help introduce Christianity to those who are seeking to know and understand what it means. These courses are started with gusto and are often embraced by members. I have been involved with that type of program and it is exciting and inspiring. Most of the time those programs begin small, with members as the first students so that they can then be involved with later classes. These programs are specifically designed for the seeker, but members often get so much out of them as they grow in faith and knowledge.

Typically the program goes well for the first few sessions as members share the benefits with other members. Unfortunately, the programs get advertised as a way for Christians to become renewed and revitalized in their faith, when they are really meant to share the most basic aspects of faith – the things that Christians should already embrace. Instead of serving as a safe place for non-believers to find Jesus, the meetings become a place for Christians to debate their ideas about faith. Eventually the programs die away because the members have not learned how to invite those who need to hear the good news. Rather than taking on speed and reaching out once the members are trained, once there are no more members to invite, the meetings stop.

Granted, all Christians need reminders about faith and what it means to our daily lives; these classes fill a very real need in the church. They are a chance for long-term Christians to remember their baptism, to remember the passion they had for God when they were first born again and to remember the foundations of their Christian life. Yet, we have to wonder whether Christians should need to go back to the beginning. Those evangelistic classes are designed to teach seekers, non-Christians, about Christianity. They are designed for those who are hungering for information, but are not yet believers. The faithful grow through worship and Bible Study, not through a class designed for those outside the faith. But we aren’t willing to take the risk to invite the atheists and agnostics, the cynical or those who have rejected God because we do not wish to offend or destroy the relationship

It is interesting that many Christians invite their Christian friends of other denominations to these evangelistic experiences. They do not seek out those who are starving for the Word of Truth, for faith or for salvation, but for those who have already eaten the Bread of Life. They would rather give the food to someone who is rich but who ‘eat’ differently, trying to change the type of food. The feast, whether it is taken through one type of church or another, is the same feast. It is the feast of faith in Jesus Christ, membership in the Kingdom of God.

In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus reminds us that when we invite people to our meals, it would be better to invite the poor and feed the hungry than to have a dinner that will benefit our power and position. In this case Jesus is talking about a dinner party, but it can also refer to our spiritual life. We put so much of our evangelistic effort into filling the pews of our churches instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those who have not yet heard. Instead of inviting those who are already rich in faith, perhaps our efforts and our resources would be better used if focused on inviting the poor, the lame, the hurting, the unforgiving – those who need to hear the message of salvation and be saved. We may not always agree with the way people are living out their faith, or their understanding of the Word, however if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ they are saved. We are called to seek those who truly need to be invited to the feast, so that they too might be blessed with a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

The scriptures for this week cause us to look at our hearts and ask what our Christian faith really means in our lives and to the world. We can’t possibly guess at what is happening in the hearts of our neighbors, but what do we see when we are looking inside. Are we Christian because we truly believe in the grace and hope of God and want to glorify Him, or is there some other motive? When we go to church is it because we want to worship the Lord, or do we see some benefit to ourselves?

In 1957, Ingrid Bergman starred in a film called “Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” This film was the Hollywood version of the real life story of an English woman named Gladys Aylward. Gladys was quite embarrassed by the movie and the fame it brought to her life. The story was inaccurate and she felt the love scenes ruined her reputation. Even more so, Gladys did not need, nor want, such fame. She was a simple woman who served God with her whole self.

Gladys was born in 1903, the daughter of a mailman. She left school early because of a learning disability and became a parlor maid in rich west end London manors. She grew up in the Anglican Church, but one day she attended a revival and rededicated her life to the Lord. She learned of the need for missionaries to China so she applied to the board of the China Inland Mission. She failed the test and was rejected. However, she learned that there was an aging missionary, Mrs. Lawson, who was looking for a younger woman to continue her work. Gladys wrote to Mrs. Lawson who responded in agreement if she could find her own way to China.

Gladys took her purse and emptied it onto her bed. Two pennies fell onto her Bible. She said, “O God, here’s my Bible! Here’s my money! Here’s me! Use me, God!” She was rejected and poor, but at the lowest moment of her life she was still willing to serve God.

She worked hard to save her money and eventually had enough to take a train to China. It was a hazardous way to travel because of an undeclared war between Russia and China, yet Gladys did not care. She was so determined to accomplish her mission that she traveled on train, boat, foot, bus and mule to the inland city of Yangchen and her mentor Mrs. Lawson. The locals refused to listen to the two women because they did not trust foreigners. They decided the best way to reach out to the people would be to open an inn for the mule traders that passed by frequently. The set up the inn and waited for the first caravan to pass. Gladys ran to the lead mule, grabbed the reigns and led the train into the courtyard. The mules followed willingly, knowing that it meant food and drink and the muleteers had no choice. Gladys and Mrs. Lawson fed the animals and offered hospitality to the men. They fed their bodies and their souls as they preached the Gospel to their captive audience. In the days and weeks to come, they did not need to force anyone into their home; the stories of their graciousness and the affordable inn spread. Though their preaching did not convert all to Christianity, the stories they told were shared by all those who visited.

When Mrs. Lawson died, Gladys continued the inn for a time. In 1936, she became a Chinese citizen and found herself in the position to preach the Gospel to more people. She was a frequent visitor to the palace of the Mandarin, and was given a very important position in the government. She settled a prison riot by offering suggestions for prison reform. She adopted several children. She lived frugally, dressing like the natives, which made her far more effective. When war broke out between China and Japan, Gladys helped one hundred orphans escape to Sian. After a bout of sickness, she established a Christian church in Sian and continued her work throughout China. Finally, her war wounds were too much and she returned home to England in 1947. She died in 1970, one of the most famous missionaries of the twentieth century.

Gladys was given the name Ai-weh-deh, which means ‘the virtuous one’ in Chinese. She was known for her brokenness, her humility and her willingness to serve God. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done in China. There was somebody else… I don’t know who it was – God’s first choice. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing… And God looked down… and saw Gladys Aylward.”

No matter how humble, we all have resources that can be used for God’s glory. Is that what we are doing? Are we acting in His behalf? Are we working for His purpose? Are we humbling ourselves for the sake of others? If we do so, we’ll find treasures waiting for us in heaven. However, if we spend our time, talents and resources for the sake of our own honor and glory, we might just find that our buildings will come tumbling down. Jesus reminds us that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled and all those who are humble will be exalted. For God is longing to bring those who live by faith and who glorify Him to the place of honor at His banqueting table in eternity.

The Epistle lesson from Hebrews for today is about love for others. It is about understanding the needs of those around us and reaching out into those needs. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. We may not have experienced the same things of our neighbor, but we can see reach them in their needs, not as one who is better but as one that is better but as one who also needs the love of others. This passage in the New Revised Standard Version begins, “Let mutual love continue.”

There is a list of things we can do. We should be hospitable to strangers, remember those in prison and those who have been tortured. We have a million excuses for not doing so. It isn’t safe to welcome a stranger who might be dangerous. Those in prison probably deserve to be there and they should pay the price. Most of us have never known someone who has been tortured, but if we did something about it we might face the same fate. The writer also mentions fidelity in marriage. The marriage bed has become the source for many jokes, with divorce statistics outrageously high and unfaithfulness nearly acceptable. We must never forget greed, the root of so many of our problems. We don’t realize how easily we could fall into these traps; it is natural for our imperfect and perishable flesh to follow fancies and do what is wrong. In a heartbeat it could be our own lives torn up by imprisonment, tragedy, adultery or other problems. Problems creep up on us without our realizing until they are out of control.

It would do us well to remember that we are not better than those we serve, like those in prisons. How many might think themselves holy because they do the work of prison ministry, but still (even if only inwardly) thank God that they are not in that place? Instead, empathy helps us to realize that we are in prisons of our own, whether or not they have iron bars and keys. With those who are hungry, we are reminded that we suffer from our own hungers and ultimately our greatest hunger will only be filled by God. By remembering our own prisons and hungers, we see that our strength lies in trusting God, not our ability to meet the needs of our neighbors. In THAT strength, we can and will do the good that God calls us to do in this world. In any other strength, relying on ourselves, we find ourselves doing good that ultimately serves a purpose other than glorifying God – warm fuzzies, power, authority, prestige, growth, position, fulfillment...

That’s what it is all about – trust in God. We do not need to make ourselves better, but instead rejoice in the salvation that has become ours by faith and sharing it with others. Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world.

When I worked for Toys R Us, part of our management training program included a trip to our local distribution center. We saw where the merchandise is received, sorted, divided and released very quickly. We saw how there are constantly trucks in the bays, unloading toys and games. Meanwhile, in another set of bays, we saw the trucks coming and going to take the games and toys to the stores. As the items arrive, they are sorted and immediately sent out. Most of the merchandise does not stay in the warehouse for more than a few days. At a distribution center for a company that sells food, it is even more important for a quick turnover. The food cannot sit in a warehouse for days because it will get stale or moldy and then be worthless to the company.

We are God’s distribution center. He pours blessings into our lives so that they will pour out into the world. He gives us gifts so that we will share them with others. How often do we hoard our resources, saving them for another day, for the just in case, for the opportunity that might come tomorrow? We do this not only with our resources, but also with the things that are not quite so tangible. We wait until tomorrow to tell someone about Jesus. We shelve our love for a better moment. We hide our gifts because we are afraid of losing them or having them be used and abused. Yet, our gifts are like the merchandise in the distribution center. They are useless if they are hoarded in a warehouse. They are only valuable if they are shared. We need not fear, for God’s grace is unlimited and it flows freely into the lives of those who live by faith.

The amazing thing is that when we share our gifts we see much more clearly how God does continue to bless. When the gifts are stored, they become useless and that once the warehouse is full there is no reason for God to continue sending blessings. This is not only true for the individual Christian who is called to live humbly and ready to give love and mercy to our neighbors, but also for the communities in faith in which we live. Everything we have and everything we are as the body of Christ has been given freely by the source of all our gifts. If we spend our time evangelizing to those who have already heard the Word of Life, aren’t we keeping our treasures in the warehouse rather than letting them flow freely to the world? When we live as God's distribution center, sharing the Gospel of Christ, inviting the hungry to the feast and setting the imprisoned free then God continues to bless beyond measure.

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