Pentecost 7, July 19, 2009

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This past Friday night my wife’s office had a party. Over dessert I found myself talking with our hostess, a fascinating woman who was raised in the Congregational Church and converted to Judaism after her marriage to a Jewish man. She is the first convert to serve as president of her synagogue, a position of great honor.

Our talk turned to our children: were they continuing to practice the faith in which they had been raised? We agreed that this depended to a large extent on who they ended up marrying or living with. “Mixed marriages” – a Christian and a Jew for instance or, most commonly these days, a person with a religious background and a partner without – usually end up doing nothing about religious faith, for themselves or their children.

In twenty-some years, my hostess told me, their synagogue has had only one marriage, because even Reform Jewish rabbis usually will not officiate at mixed marriages – and all the other marriages of children of this synagogue in those twenty years had been to non-Jews. “This can’t continue,” Carol said, “or we will all die out. In this day and age, religions have to learn to reach out and engage with other religions or with people of no religion. They can’t just keep to themselves. They have to open up and change.” (Or at least that’s what I heard her saying!)

Which statement I want to use as a way into this morning’s topic, which is about the formation of Christians in a secular society — something that is called evangelization, a Greek word meaning the sharing of the Good News of God. Evangelization is of the very essence of Christianity. We exist as a religion because a tiny group of women and men, St. Peter, St. Paul and the other apostles (a word meaning “sent out”), went forth to spread the Good News they had encountered in Jesus Christ.

They did not go only to their fellow Jews. This was the first great decision they had to make, since at first it was argued that only Jews could receive the Gospel. And as they began to engage Gentiles (non-Jews), they discovered that they had to modify some of their Jewish understandings of God and religion so that their message would reach this new audience. Circumcision, the dietary laws, many of the other observances that had seemed the essence of being faithful to God, they rather quickly abandoned. We read all about this in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul.

The way these writings describe the process, this was not so much a strategic decision – “hey, guys, we have to drop this circumcision rule or we’re not going to make any headway.” It was more in the nature of what was being disclosed or revealed to them by God. In talking with people different from themselves, they began to sort out what was essential and what was nonessential in their tradition. In doing so, they gained a new understanding of God, and even of what Jesus had been talking about and pointing to when he was alive. Indeed, these first Jewish Christians also came to see their own Jewish heritage in a new light – which is what is going on when they keep going back and quoting the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate that they “foresaw” Jesus. Call it the Holy Spirit at work.

Now I want to suggest that this very process is what must go on in evangelization today – in reaching out to those who are not “of the faith” or of any faith. And again I want to suggest that this is not a matter of calculation or strategy – a cheapening or dumbing down of our traditions. No, it is of the essence of our traditions – through the centuries of Christianity and the New Testament, and behind these the centuries of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures.

You see, our God is not a God of just a particular place, a particular people, a particular church or religion or way of doing things. That was the great revelation to the Jews: that there is One God, creator of everything and Lord of all. When we cling too tightly to any set of traditions, any way of looking at God and God’s action in the world, we are being idolatrous – idolatry being the root sin, worshiping something less than God. The reason evangelization – reaching out to the “unchurched,” as we condescendingly call them – is of the essence of Christianity, is that it is what keeps us from idolatry, the worship essentially of ourselves. We need to evangelize for ourselves, not just for others.

That truth is behind the readings this morning. The unfaithful shepherd to which Jeremiah is referring, were the priests and prophets and rulers of Israel who refused to honor the larger picture of God and instead used their religion to protect their own narrow views and self-interest. The reason people flocked to Jesus to hear him and be healed by him was that the official religion of their day had become also a closed system, looking to itself and its so-called purity and ignoring the grand charter given to it by its true God. Jesus came not to establish a new religion, but to open up and reform the religion of his day. And that task is never ending, for every religion, because human beings in their sin and fearfulness always tend to close in and shut down rather than opening up and reaching out – always tend to be about themselves, not about God.

Our own Anglican tradition loves to say that it does not claim to be the only Church, the only true religion. It loves to talk about ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. And indeed, especially compared to some other branches of Christianity, it has some reason to boast about these things. But where, I think, we have particular trouble being effective evangelists is in our prideful love of our liturgical traditions. (The thing closest to your heart is usually the thing you need to let go of.) In our hearts, we all (or at least people like me) have this ideal of an English cathedral in the nineteenth century: splendid music, immaculate appointments, soothing clergy, “all things bright and beautiful.”

Folks, that ain’t the Good News Jesus came to give us, the Good News of a living God. We can keep trying to play that golden oldie, but fewer and fewer people are listening and eventually if we just keep doing this we’re going to die. How much better, like Jesus and the first apostles, to reach out in the Name of the God who is truly Lord of all – to heal and to be healed.

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