This morning I had the privilege of preaching at the First Presbyterian Church in Livermore. Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve had the joy of getting to know Steve Wilde, the senior pastor at FPCL. Also, in my process of transferring to the Presbytery of San Francisco, I became a member of FPCL and am currently under care of this congregation. They were really supportive of us when we lost Micah and Judah, and there has been a group of folks who have consistently come to the Theology Pub I started here in town. So it was great to finally attend worship and be able to preach at this church. The texts were Psalm 40:1-11 and John 1:29-42. The text for the sermon is below.
I want to tell you a story this morning about Bible Jim. Bible Jim is someone who strongly believes everyone should hear the Good News of the gospel and that this news truly is important news – really life or death news for everyone in the world. But Bible Jim is also known throughout the West Coast as the crazy guy who shows up on university campuses wearing sandwich boards telling everyone that they’re going to hell. I first encountered Bible Jim when I was visiting a friend of mine at the University of Washington in Seattle. And there he was, right in the middle of Red Square wearing his sandwich board that listed all of the people who were going to hell, including gamblers and Nascar fans.
Now if you’ve ever come across someone like this – you know there is really no point in trying to engage them. But, I was in high school at the time, and figured it was up to me to make sure everyone knew that Bible Jim wasn’t like all Christians.
I don’t really remember what I said, but it was something like “Hey Bible Jim – I’m a Christian too – and I don’t agree with the way you’re going about trying to tell people about the Christian faith.” Immediately, Bible Jim’s wife came over to me with an open Bible and started reading to me from Philippians: “Some certainly preach Christ with jealous motives…they preach Christ because of their selfish ambition, they are insincere. What do I think about this? Just this, since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.” As she quoted from Paul, she basically told me that I had no room to question Bible Jim’s motives; Bible Jim was spreading the gospel, bearing witness to his faith, and so it didn’t matter how he did it.
I’m guessing for many of you, when you hear the word “evangelism” – images might come into your mind of people kind of like Bible Jim. And I think that may be the case for many today who belong to churches in the mainline denominations – we have a problem with the “e-word” – evangelism. We know that it’s probably in the Bible somewhere…it may even be something that Jesus instructed us to do…but, do we really want to be doing evangelism? And does it mean we have to go door-to-door, or hand out tracts or go down to Office Max and purchase some foam boards so we can wear them around town or to work?
I don’t think so. But I do think we use our discomfort with evangelism and our stereotypes of it as excuses so that we can get out of it. And I think there’s another way. Maybe evangelism carries with it too much baggage…but as we look at our passages today, I think the idea of bearing witness could be a helpful alternative for us.
The Psalmist writes in our first text for the morning, “The LORD inclined to me and heard my cry. The LORD drew me up from the desolate pit…making my steps secure.” The Psalmist was clearly in a rough situation…in a desolate pit…and yet God was able to deliver them from that situation. And so it makes sense for the Psalmist to want to share that good news with people. The Psalmist goes on to write, “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; I have not restrained my lips. I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”
I don’t know what the desolate pit has been in your life. Perhaps it’s been some form of addiction, or feelings of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps the pit was actually a direction your life was going that you were unhappy with and you knew it wasn’t going to end well. Maybe your desolate pit was a bad relationship, unhealthy thoughts about yourself or depression. We’ve all experienced some form of a desolate pit and we know the feeling of liberation, and freedom…and salvation…when God brings us through those circumstances and we experience love and healing and wholeness.
And so it makes sense to us that the Psalmist would not conceal God’s love and faithfulness. I’m reminded of the leper who Jesus healed…and even though he was given clear instructions NOT to tell anyone….I mean, come on, really? How could he NOT share the amazing news of healing in his life? When we experience rescue, saving help, deliverance…we want to share those stories. How many of us are just waiting for the first book to come out from one of the Chilean miners? We want to hear those stories…
And yet, we find evangelism so hard. We still find bearing witness to our faith, bearing witness to our experience of God, so difficult.
When I started seminary, a lot of my friends were thinking of getting new computers, and having recently switched to a Mac myself, I became an extremely intense Mac evangelist. Getting my Mac was, in many ways, a type of deliverance from my own desolate pit of the world of PCs and from the “blue screen of death” that PC users are all too familiar with. So I shared the story of why I thought Macs were the best – and it worked. Everyone got new Macs.
I’m still what many would call an “Apple Fanboy” – and if you talk to me after the service, I can tell you all of the reasons I LOVE this iPad that I’m preaching from. But really…it’s just a piece of technology. It will be obsolete in a couple years – maybe even by April – and while I’ll have enjoyed it for a little while, it hasn’t changed my life. It’s not going to bring me peace or wholeness or comfort…there actually isn’t an app for that.
And yet…here I am. Someone currently serving a church, and even I find it easier to try and evangelize to people about technology, than actually sharing with others life-giving good news about my experience with God and inviting them to reflect on their own spirituality and faith journeys.
So if we think bearing witness to our faith in today’s world is important…and if we think it’s something that as followers of God in the way of Jesus, we’re probably supposed to do…where does that leave us? How are we called to do this in today’s world? I think our second text may give us some clues.
In our reading from the Gospel of John, we find John the Baptist continually pointing to Jesus the Christ – pointing toward the one who would be the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world – who would, in the end, radically turn this world upside down and present us with an alternative vision for what our world could look like. He proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God!” Again he exclaimed, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God.” John the Baptist – who was a bit of a fiery, eclectic person himself – didn’t go on and on trying to convert people in this story; rather he simply points to Christ, and shares his story of his interactions with Jesus.
And so maybe that’s the key – instead of feeling the pressure to evangelize people or convert people to Christianity…perhaps we are simply called to point to Christ. Perhaps we can find opportunities to point to the type of world that Christ would want for us, to point to the ways in which hope and peace and love are manifest in the world, and to become more aware of how we can help bring about that type of new world.
One thing that is probably obvious to all of us – but bears mentioning – is that we will never be able to point to Christ if we are not looking. Many of you may have heard President Obama speak at the Tucson memorial service last Wednesday. One of the lines that has been repeated over and over was his hopeful update on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ physical state. Obama said: “Gabby opened her eyes.” Upon hearing this, the crowd erupted in cheers and hearts were filled with hope that she was making progress on her journey toward healing. We know that as of yesterday, she is now off the ventilator and is breathing on her own, and we pray for more continued good news on Gabby and the others who were wounded.
Diana Butler Bass is an author and scholar of American Religion and she wrote about Obama’s speech and about the idea of “opening our eyes” on her blog this past week. She wrote:
“When we open our eyes, we will see light and beauty. But opening our eyes, we will also see suffering and pain and violence. Open eyes see both. And in all that we see, God’s presence is somehow there. Comforting, healing: yes. But often seeing God is a call as well. A call to transform our world into God’s vision for humankind. God made manifest in the world; we must manifest God in the world.”
As people of faith, our act of bearing witness in the world today begins with opening our eyes and becoming more aware of where God is active in the world. And once we see where God is active, once we can name our experience of God, then we can simply share our stories with others.
Evangelism isn’t about getting into intensely deep theological arguments with our co-workers, or trying to save as many people as possible…it’s simply about being open to the Holy Spirit, being aware of God’s presence in the world, and listening for those times when simply sharing a story with someone might be enough.
And sometimes bearing witness may not even involve words. Tomorrow our nation honors Martin Luther King, Jr., and in speaking about bearing witness through action, I’d be remiss to not mention the life and work of Dr. King. Though he was surely eloquent in communicating about his faith and the radical societal implications of justice and equality, his actions and the actions of others, who because of their faith, could no longer stand aside and watch racism and segregation rule our nation, were just as effective as ways of bearing witness to their faith.
And so it may be that we are called to stand with someone who is oppressed, to join forces with others to combat injustice…it may be that we can bear witness to our faith by helping to bring about the world that Christ imagined for us.
Many are still reeling from the tragic events of the shootings in Arizona. Many of you may also have heard about the elderly woman and her grandson that were found shot to death this past week here in Livermore. It is during tragedies like these that we try to make some sense out of the sadness. Truth is, I don’t know where to start in thinking about how to explain why these things happen or what the best response is. But a few days ago, many of my friends on Facebook were linking to a video of one of our modern day prophets, Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, as he reflected on the shootings. He ended with this paragraph:
“Someone or something will shatter our world again. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity and the loss of these incredible people and the pain that their loved ones are going through right now, wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take that moment, to make sure that the world that we are creating now, that will ultimately be shattered again by a moment of lunacy, wouldn’t it be a shame if that world wasn’t better than the one we’d previously lost.”
And maybe that’s what we do. Maybe that’s how we are able to bear witness to our faith and to the hope of a different future for our nation and our world. We point to Christ and to the alternative way of living that he exemplified for us. We live out our faith in ways that may go against the mainstream, but are ways that we hope will lead toward a better future.
And as we are on this journey of slowly, but surely, changing the world we live in, let us tell the glad news of our deliverance in the great congregation. Let us speak of God’s vision of hope and shalom for this world. And let us live lives that are constantly bearing witness today.