2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Good morning! I am delighted that we are worshiping again in the church yard. There was a memorial service in the church yesterday—right before the heavens opened up with that big rain shower—and it was a steam bath in there. The temperatures and the humidity have gone down a bit today, but even so, I am certain it is more comfortable out here than in there. But of course, that is not the only reason we are worshiping out here; we are also out here to shine a spotlight on the beauty of this building and garden.
And worshiping out here reminds us of our work as a congregation, which includes preserving and promoting this important monument to the love of God right here in the center of Stockbridge. It is expensive to keep all this up, and it’s a lot of hard work; but we support this church financially and with our labor because we want to preserve this place; we want to be good stewards of these treasures, both of building and natural beauty, that are ours to care for in this generation.
And we are also worshiping outside because we want people to see us at worship. We want to become more open, more welcoming to those who might visit and even become part of the St. Paul’s Community. We know that this is a special place, and we want more people to discover it! We hope worshiping out here will be a visible sign of our openness to the community.
You know that old hymn – “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord?” I have been reminded many times recently that this is that kind of place.
There is truly a spirit of openness here – as well as a spirit of grace –a spirit of love. I know that when I see the hospitality we extend to people in our community through events like yesterday’s funeral, held for a family that has long been part of Stockbridge, but not really a part of St. Paul’s. I see that spirit in the eagerness with which you have taken on our alternative evangelism events like the recent Arbor Day celebration, the community concerts, and the upcoming Ice Cream Social (more about that in the announcements). Through those events we are working to be sure the community feels welcome here even if they don’t worship with us. And I have felt that generous spirit personally over and over again in the ways you support me as your pastor. Only a few weeks ago Jane and I had a conversation about what a supportive place this is to work as a clergyperson.
But the question I’m wrestling with today is what do we do with that sweet spirit? The harvest here is indeed plentiful; are we gathering all its fruits? The followers of Jesus in this morning’s gospel knew they had something special in Jesus. Today’s reading from Luke is at the beginning of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem to meet his death—you may remember that last week’s gospel passage began, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He knows that he will soon die, and so he begins to widen the circle of those who will spread the Word.
This ever-widening circle of evangelists is a central theme of Luke: first it is John the Baptist, then Jesus who deliver the Good News; then the twelve disciples are chosen; and now the seventy are commissioned to take the message to every “place where he himself intended to go.”
That number—seventy—is no accident: Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy. So these seventy are probably symbolic of all of humanity being called to tell the story of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is a foreshadowing of the universality of God’s gift—a gift given to all, and that all can give as agents of God’s grace. Today’s reading anticipates the Book of Acts, Luke’s sequel to his gospel, where the Word will be given to the whole world.
It is interesting to note that Jesus does not promote this new job that he bestows on the seventy very well: first, he doesn’t promise to make the work easy for them; he says, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Nor does he promise that they will be taken well care of: “eat and drink whatever they provide,” he says. And finally, he does not assure their success; in fact, he makes it clear that will face rejection.
Further, we know nothing about the qualifications of those seventy—who they were or why they were chosen. And that, my friends, should be understood as a welcome omission. Who they were doesn’t seem to be important; what they were to do is what mattered. It is the message, not the messenger, that is Jesus’ focus. We glean from this passage that we are worthy to be God’s messengers—certainly not because of anything we have done. God needs us to be messengers, and can and does use each of us, often in ways we might never anticipate.
And because we bring good news, we need never fear whether we are worthy—the good news is all we need. By now I hope you’ve figured out that I am talking about the dreaded “E” word: Evangelism. If you’ve hung around the Episcopal Church very long, you know that evangelism is not our strong point.
In fact, I have read that it is estimated that the average Episcopalian invites an acquaintance to church once every 27 years. Of course that is why we undertook the Revival last fall, when Presiding Bishop Michael Curry came to Berkshire County to preach; we are trying to get better at evangelism!
My friends, evangelism matters—and not just because we want more people in the pews, or more money in the plate. I have mentioned before a slim volume entitled A Shy Person’s Guide to Evangelism, published several years ago by the Diocese of Massachusetts. It starts from a very simple premise: “Evangelism is not a marketing strategy for a declining institution; it is a great work of hope.”
It goes on to explain that evangelism is about relationship—inviting others into relationship with us and the Church, in order that they might build a more fruitful relationship with God.
And the world is hungry for the news we bring. You may have heard that the fastest growing religious affiliation in America today are the “nones” – that N-O-N-E-S nones. And often these are the “spiritual, not religious” types. They are often folks who have come up with their own religious views, not willing simply to accept what others believe.
I have told you before about the young nurse Sheila who was quoted in a book on Evangelism a few years back. She said, “I believe in God. [But] I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s ‘Sheilaism.’ Just my own little voice … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. And, you know, I guess, take care of each other. I think [God] would want us to take care of each other.” “Sheilaism” is shorthand for that kind of religiosity, a rather do-it-yourself well-meaning mish-mash of religious views, often from strands of many religions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to God—it sounds to me like Sheila is on the right track. But what she and the rest of the Nones have forgotten is the meaning, and the support, and the strength, and the joy, and the delight, of community.
Jesus gathers the seventy together to hear his word, and then he sends them out in pairs. It’s all relational. It’s all community. A big takeaway from the model Jesus introduces in this morning’s gospel is that we must do it together: We strengthen one other to do the work of Christ. Together we can act as Christ’s hands and feet and heart for the world; together we can spread the Good News of Christ, inviting others into relationship with God and the Church; together we can reap the harvest that God has prepared.
And we who are the people of St. Paul’s have an amazing legacy undergirding us. But just as with this magnificent building and grounds, we must continually renovate and remake ourselves, so that we can best serve the world today. And we must dare to go outside of our comfort zones and share the good things we have found in this place with those outside who are hungry for the nourishment that we all enjoy.
Each of us must do the work of evangelism. It will require learning how to tell your story: How you came to know God; how God has acted in our life; how you have found God in this community. It will also require a willingness to share the good things in your life with others. Dare to see yourself as an evangelist, and figure out what it will take to make you ready and willing to share the bounty you have received by bringing others to the love of God.
There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. Let’s share it with the world! Amen.