Hands: Sending Hands
Rev. Louis Timberlake
April 8, 2018
We all know what a street corner preacher is, right? I remember the first time I really encountered one. I was at the Bele Chere festival in Asheville and I guess these guys decided that the city of Asheville needed some salvation, because they were everywhere. Yelling about how sinful everyone was, about eternal torment, and that the only hope was Jesus Christ. It was pretty aggressive. Or, maybe you’ve encountered the people in the parking lot with pamphlets, who corner you while you’re loading groceries and ask, if you died tonight, how certain you are that you’d go to heaven? You have to wonder about the effectiveness of these strategies.
Actually, I know the effectiveness, because once upon a time I was that guy with the pamphlets. For a time in high school I was a borderline-fundamentalist and was convicted that the more important work I had was to convince people to become Christians. I spent hours debating, trying to convince people of their guilt, of the dangers of not trusting in Christ. And, in case you were wondering, it wasn’t effective.
We have a word for sharing the faith. Evangelism. But, it feels like a dirty word to many of us. Because, when we think of an evangelist, the image we get is of the guy on the street corner telling people that they’re going to hell. We know it’s not effective. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to impose our beliefs on others. We don’t want to be associated with the guy on the street corner. And, ultimately, talking about your faith is a vulnerable experience and we don’t do well with rejection.
So, we avoid the pitfalls by simply not doing it. Of course, there are consequences to this. Most growth in mainline churches--Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc--isn’t from new people coming to faith. It’s primarily people growing up in the church or people moving from another church when they decide they don’t like the preacher at the current church. I like the way that Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopalian Bishop, put it: “In the Great Commission the Lord has called us to be--like Peter--fishers of men. We've turned the commission around so that we have become merely keepers of the aquarium. Occasionally I take some fish out of your fishbowl and put them into mine, and you do the same with my bowl. But we're all tending the same fish.”
I wonder if we’ve lost a vision for good evangelism? For sharing our faith, the story of what God has done in our lives and our world, in a way that is graceful and compelling?
A good bit of my spiritual journey since high school has been a reaction against that pamphlet-wielding, borderline-fundamentalist that I was. But, having lived in that world, there’s something that crowd has that we may need a little more of, at times. Urgency and Responsibility.
There’s an urgency of, this is the most important message that someone could hear. It is the story of what God, the Creator of the Universe, has done and is doing. And, there’s a sense of responsibility. If I don’t share this message, who will? How will the the world be made better, how will people’s lives be changed by me choosing to embrace this responsibility? And, consequently, what will be lost by me rejecting it?
I’m not interested in the fire and brimstone. I’m not interested in the guilt and fear. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve seen those messages do far too much harm and give people the wrong impression of God.
But, there’s something to be said for urgency and responsibility.
Did you see the Country Music Awards back in 2015 when Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake knocked it out of the park with their duet? Go find it on youtube, if not. Incredible. Chris Stapleton is a once in a generation talent and Justin, well, he’s family. Cousin Justin. You have to cheer for family, right?
Well, fortunately for those of us about fifty rungs down on the talent ladder, they did another one together. “Say Something” is out right now as a single. And I love it, because it’s about this internal struggle between feeling a responsibility to speak out about things of importance, but also not wanting to say the wrong thing or alienate people. Now, for someone like Cousin Justin, who can dominate an entire news cycle with a single tweet, this is a serious struggle. When do you speak out and when do you hold your tongue?
But, it’s something we all struggle with, right? When to speak, when to listen, when to act, when to wait. We’ve talked about this in our Tuesdays on Tap young adult group lately. When do we have a responsibility to be prophetic, to speak out about things that we believe are contrary to God’s hope for the world? And, when do we have a responsibility to be peacemakers, to bring people together and heal divisions?
The truth is, whether the message of the church is about addressing injustice or fostering peace, the church always has a message. The one option not available is silence.
I’m struck by what Howard Hendricks, who was a seminary professor and the chaplain of the Dallas Cowboys, said about his frustrations with the church: “In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.”
Rightly so, we’ve pushed back against the bible-beating, spittle-spewing, street corner preachers. But, the world still needs to hear some good news. The world is craving a message of justice, of hope, of love. The world is craving what Jesus offers. So, the challenge for us is figuring out how to share the message of Jesus in a way that is full of grace, while also deeply compelling and relevant to the current world.
When you start digging into this story of the Great Commission, it’s a fascinating story. It’s an event in scripture that is captured in countless pieces of art. The Risen Christ, his divinity on full display, delivering this powerful message of victory and inspiration, as he sends them to the corners of the earth.
But it’s a little absurd.
Think about these people. Almost half of them are fishermen--middle class fishermen, but still fishermen--not scholars, not politicians, not people with a platform. One’s a zealot, which means he was a part of a radical group trying to incite rebellion against the government, another is a government employee. I bet they had some interesting conversations. Even the disciples weren’t on the same side of the political spectrum.
Some are religious skeptics, whereas others are so assured of their convictions that they tend to act without thinking. And, all of them fled as soon as Jesus was arrested. Peter, who is basically second in command, denied even knowing Jesus, he was so worried about being arrested himself. And, a few of them couldn’t stay awake to stand watch while the soldiers were actively hunting Jesus. I mean, Jesus really knows how to pick ‘em.
And, even after all of these failures, Jesus charges them with the most important message in the world. It doesn’t make a lot of strategic sense. And then you realize, “gosh, that sounds a lot like the church.” A group of eclectic, imperfect people. People who wouldn’t necessarily associate with each other if not for Jesus. And yet, now they’re family. Imperfect, eclectic people sent by Jesus to transform the world.
There’s something else here. I intentionally included the section before the Great Commission, because I think it illustrates something important. As soon as the religious and political leaders hear about the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, they try to cover it up. They grease some palms, make up some stories, and try to make the whole thing go away.
So, when you think about it, this ragtag group of Jesus followers is expected to succeed in its mission in the face of complete political and religious opposition. The Romans are against them. The Jewish leaders are against them. They have no leverage. It’s not even an underdog story. It is just plan irrational to think that they could be successful.
Except for one small fact. They know that the story is true. And that this mission is worth everything.
It’s hard for us to imagine their position, in a world where being a Christian is so commonplace. But, when you really think about it, the gospel is irrational. It doesn’t make sense. And yet, it causes people to move mountains, to face giants, and to lay down their lives in the name of hope and love. We are sent into the world with a hope that is absurdly irrational, and yet deeply powerful. It connects with our lives and our reality on a level beyond the rational, ordered facade to which we cling.
We aren’t the most qualified people. We aren’t the most perfect people. But we are the people that Jesus has sent with a message of irrational, transformational hope. What a responsibility.
We were off this past Monday, recovering from the busyness of Holy Weekend and Easter, so I got to do something I’ve been wanting to do for three weeks. I got to see Black Panther, the latest Marvel movie. And, wow, it did not disappoint. The best superhero movie I’ve seen yet, but it was so much more than a superhero movie. I won’t spoil it for you, but the movie is about the African nation of Wakanda, which, unknown to the rest of the world, is tremendously advanced, with technology far beyond anything else in the world and no major social discord. And, at the core of the film is this struggle of what responsibility does this extremely blessed nation have to the rest of the world? Is it better to hide from the world and take care of Wakanda or is it better to share those blessings with the outside world, even if it comes with risks?
It’s a difficult struggle. A relatable struggle, as people who have been deeply blessed. But, I love the speech that the leader of Wakanda, T’Challa, gives to the United Nations at the end of the movie.
“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this Earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe."
The church isn’t much different. We are a sent people. A people with a significant responsibility. We have been given this message of irrational, transformational hope. And it doesn’t matter that we are eclectic, imperfect people. God seems to prefer that kind. The world needs thoughtful, grace-filled followers of Jesus to find their voices and share the good news that violence does not win, hatred does not win, and death does not win. Peace wins. Love wins. God wins. And, because God wins, we have a hope that surpasses all understanding. May we be those people. A people of urgency and responsibility.