A few years back, at the annual meeting of Maritime Conference, there was an Open Space Technology session one afternoon. For those of you who don’t know what that was, and I hadn’t heard of before either, it is a way of meeting without an initial agenda, the agenda is created by whomever is present. And people were invited to name something that was important to them and that they wanted to have conversation about.
I can’t remember how many different options were offered that afternoon, but with a bit of trepidation, I went to the microphone and said I would like to gather people around the topic of Sharing Faith. After all the topics were named, the rest of the gathering, was invited to go to the topic that interested them.
I was assigned a place at towards the back of the arena and I gathered some chairs together and waited… and waited… and waited… Let me tell you… it felt like forever… and I remember thinking… if nobody in the church wants to have conversation about sharing faith, then there is little hope left. And then, one person arrived… and another… and another… we wound up with 24 people who wanted to talk about this! A small group of people continued the discussion for a few years, we even started to use the word EVANGELISM!
One of that group, my friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. Ross Bartlett, even wrote a book about it, it’s called Holy Ground: You and Your Faith Story.
He wrote: “…you have a faith story that is important. You may never have been told that before. Nonetheless it is true. There’s a good chance that you’ve never been shown how to tell that story. You may feel intimidated or turned off by folk who “share faith” in easy, self-confident and sometimes glib ways. Perhaps you imagine that your life is not important enough or dramatic enough to be the basis for a story anyone cares about.
Your silence does no one any good: not you, or your neighbour or friend, or God.
It’s not true to who you are. As the ancient Christian wrote: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you – but do so with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
That last sentence comes from 1 Peter 3: 13-16. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. What is the feeling you get you hear the word evangelism? Is it a positive feeling or a negative one? What is your first thought? Someone knocking on doors? Scamming Televangelists? Screaming hatred towards everyone who is not white, middle class and straight?
Why on earth would anyone want to be associated with that kind of Christianity? I wouldn’t want to be connected with that. But what if we were to imagine a different kind of evangelism? The kind that wants, in fact needs, to share the stories of God’s love for the world. There was a time we didn’t need to do this. There was a time that for all intents and purposes, our society was a Christian country. We didn’t need to share faith stories, because almost everyone we knew was Christian! We could rely on the surrounding culture to actively promote Christianity in some ways, such as no Sunday shopping, Christmas displays on government property, prayer and religion classes in school and so on. Most people attended church… and in many communities, church was at the centre of community life. Some of you, perhaps many of you, can remember that kind of world. I can remember that. We’ve lived with that image and memory for so long that we have forgotten that world in which Christianity was born was nothing like that. There is no scriptural basis for that kind of world.
In fact, the world in which Christianity developed was more like our present world.
It was a multi-cultured one and the spread of Christianity came about through a number of people, who experienced something profound in the person of Jesus, or who experienced something profound in the communities which arose after his death.
They experienced something so profound that they couldn’t keep it to themselves. Paul and others, early evangelists, traveled extensively, proclaiming their faith, sometimes at great risk! We don’t face that same risk… probably the greatest risk is embarrassment.
I can appreciate that… Christianity is no longer popular… and I am not saying it is easy… we have our own baggage to overcome… Even I have my own baggage to overcome… but I have been convinced that those of us who believe in a God of love and compassion, of one of who accepts all … we must speak up… we must speak out… Otherwise, we let the narrow minded, exclusive, condemning rhetoric of some denominations be the public image of Christianity. And I refuse to let that be the case.
Each one of us has a story of Jesus. How his life and ministry has impacted us. Even if we don’t share it with others very often. Or at least not outside of a church setting.
Does the E word make you uncomfortable? Do you know who is good at evangelism?
Berwick Campers are! You talk about this camp with passion and zeal! And perhaps just a little cult like devotion! 😉
One of the things I have heard over the years from people of all ages is that our actions speak louder than our words. They subscribe to these words from James 2: 14-16: What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[a] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
And that’s true, faith in words only, is empty faith, but works without words is simply the Golden Rule, not following Jesus. Words matter! And our words and our actions must be congruent, words matter! How many of you know people who are doing what they can to create a world full of love and justice, but have no connection to the story of Jesus or any other faith? I know quite a few… and without words, people of faith are invisible. Words matter!
The reading from 1 Peter speaks about ‘giving an account of the hope that is within you’ and do it with gentleness and respect. Nowhere does it say that we are supposed to impose our belief system on anybody. But we are instructed and encouraged to share the hope that is within us. Some people have thought that this is the work of the profession clergy… and while it is my work… it is not mine to the exclusion of yours.
In fact, your words of faith to friends, neighbours and co-workers are more likely to have an impact on them than any words coming from someone who is in paid accountable ministry. For us as clergy, there is an expectation that we will talk of faith, but like the woman at the well, your words will be for more powerful. Listen to these words from the gospel of John in the fourth chapter: John 4 – Selected Verses A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.
That woman at the well, a virtual outcast in her own community, in a time when men didn’t speak to women outside of family units, has an encounter with Jesus, who accepts her, has conversation with her and basically tells her that God’s living water is for all people. She is so moved that she can’t keep silent about this man she thinks is the Messiah… And it is written in scripture, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Many will believe because of your testimony.
So what prevents us? These are some of the answers I have heard over the years:
• We are shy and don’t have the language of faith.
• In a society that values certainty, we are a church that encourages questioning,
• We are afraid of being seen as Bible thumpers and sounding like nuts,
• We have treated faith as a very personal and private matter.
And then we asked how we can counter those fears. How can we share our faith? And these were some of the answers:
• We can practice… practice with each other.
• We can connect our faith with the issues that are facing us in the community – speaking about why we do something.
• We can ask a simple question: What kind of spiritual experience have you had?
• We can share personal stories.
And like any skill… it gets easier the more we practice… trust me!
Words matter, Jesus matters, you matter.
There is a time for everything… a time to speak and a time for silence… I am suggesting that now is the time to speak… Speak of God who is loving and expansive.
Speak of Jesus who challenges oppressive structures and whose life enable you to do the same. Speak of the Holy Spirit… that persistent presence that is both comforting and annoying. Words matter!
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of sharing our faith. Amen.
© Catherine MacDonald 2019
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
1 Peter 3: 13-16
John 4 – Selected Verses
August 3, 2019 – Berwick Camp