1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Collect: Almighty God, whose Son our savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
A number of years ago I attended a conference focused on exploring new and creative ways of being church in the world. There were sessions on various methods of church planting and revitalization, the ways in which the church was engaging critical issues in the social sphere such as racism and poverty, and just overall a really neat network of people to explore these kinds of questions with.
But the thing that I remember the most from that weekend is actually a sermon—which is saying something for me because I never remember sermons—even ones I love. Even my own! The dean of the cathedral where we were meeting pointed out the painting that hung over the main doors to the nave—a painting which depicted the Hebrews just after having been rescued from Pharoah’s army by the parting of the sea, and just before they embarked on their journey into the wilderness—and he asked us pointedly, saying “there’s a reason that’s hung over the doors to the church”: “what if the most important part of our Sunday liturgy is not communion, not the sermon, and not the prayers . . .but the dismissal?” The dismissal—this itty bitty piece of the liturgy that might at times feel like an afterthought? The dismissal—this phrase that can feel like one of the more rote moments on a Sunday morning? What if, in fact, this is the most important thing?
In each confirmation or Journey class I’ve taught I’ve asked the group what their favorite parts of the liturgy are. Kneeling at the altar rail is a popular response, and the Prayer After Communion comes up a lot, too. Now, I know I haven’t been doing this a super long time, but the dismissal has yet to come up as someone’s favorite part of the liturgy. And while important and favorite are not the same thing, I wonder if maybe we have overlooked this small but mighty part of the liturgy?
Just as that painting over the doors of the cathedral depicted the Hebrews at a pivotal threshold moment, so does our reading from Isaiah this morning. The passage comes from near the end of the book and scholars believe it to be speaking to the moment just before or just after the exiles return to Jerusalem from Babylon. Utterly defeated in war, stripped from their homes and the places that gave them meaning for several generations, they now stand in their own threshold moment of returning to a place that will be both familiar and alien at the same time. It is their land, their home, the place where God dwells, but it will look nothing like what it did before. The temple is gone, their homes are gone, and there are new peoples dwelling in the land.
And what does the prophet say? He says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest . . .”
I will not keep silent. . .
So, one of the other topics at that aforementioned conference was evangelism. And I have to admit as a former evangelical, that word still sometimes makes me squirm. And for a long time it wasn’t “sometimes” but all the time. And I know this isn’t just an issue for former evangelicals either—nothing gets Episcopalians squirming quite like talking about evangelism.
And I think for some good reasons. On a macro level, evangelism has been the articulated motivation for all manner of horrendous things, not least of which is the Doctrine of Discovery—which is a legacy we are still living under today—and the ensuing genocide and subjugation of innumerable peoples in the Americas and around the world. It’s easy to see why evangelism would leave a sour taste in your mouth.
And on a personal-level, too: I’ll admit that when I think of evangelism the first things I think of are condescension, arrogance, self-righteousness and unkindness. I think of people standing on street corners spewing hatred. I think of my camp counselors telling me as a child that my parents were going to go to Hell because they weren’t “saved.”
I reached a point though, in my own journey (and it may have coincided with the realization that it was looking more and more likely that I might actually become a priest and would likely need to have a better response to this topic than mere avoidance), when I decided that rather than continuing to avoid the E-word, I needed to engage it. Wrestle with it. Reckon with it. And see where I came out on the other side.
Because, see, I realized that I didn’t want that story—that story that I had heard, that story that I knew, that story that I had experienced—to be the only story. Evangelism literally means “to tell good news.” The tradition in which I was formed told me the good news was that Jesus saved people from hell if they repented and recited the sinner’s prayer. When my theology around how the salvation of God works shifted, that old story no longer felt like good news. And rather than shifting my definition of Good News to go along with my new thinking, I just threw the whole notion of Good News out.
But the thing is—I do believe there is Good News. It’s just not the good news that I was taught.
The prophet in our reading this morning says, “I will not keep silent” because he has good news to share! What is that good news? That a people heavy with war and exile, broken, outcast, forsaken . . . are seen by God. That they will be a crown of beauty in the hand of God, that rather than being called “Forsaken” they will receive a new name: “My delight is in you” and that God will pledge and commit to this heartbroken people. And this delight, this commitment, this restoration and healing will cause the people to shine out like the dawn as a sign to the world around them.
I will not keep silent. There is good news here.
This is the good news Rachel spoke about last week—that God loves us each of us so deeply and yearns for our wholeness. When I look at our world, and the loneliness and sense of unworthiness that plagues so many, I am convicted that this is good news people need to hear. (Do I want to add something in this paragraph about justice?)
Does that mean trying to coerce people? No. Does that mean believing we’re the only ones who have it right and so we should go out and try to convince everyone to do what we’re doing? I don’t believe it means that either. But I do believe that when we experience beauty and hope, the natural thing is to want to share that. (concert story?) And I hope that we don’t stifle that inclination because our kin in the faith have twisted that and messed it. Because if we do—then their story becomes the only one that people hear. And that, my friends, would not be good news.
There’s a popular quote out there attributed (correctly or not) to St. Francis: “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” There are many ways to share the good news, and hopefully our whole lives bear witness to the work and presence of God in the world. But, invariably, at some point we will likely need to use words to communicate our hope and that’s okay. That’s good. It is possible to do without disparaging others—and might even be a comfort to them.
So I encourage you to explore the question: What is the good news? What has been good news for you in your life? There is something that pulls you back here week after week.
Like the Hebrews in that painting, and the exiles from our reading this morning, we too stand on a threshold. The world is in a period of rapid change—politically, economically, socially, climatically—and what the future holds won’t look like what came before. There is profound suffering. And each week we return to this place to be reminded of a God who gives their people new names like “delight.” To be reminded of a God who loves their people so much that they chose to move into the neighborhood, to pitch their tent among the people and tether their lot to the rest of us. We are united and nourished at this table. And then, in what might be the most important part of the liturgy, we are sent back out across that threshold each week to “love and serve the Lord.” Thanks be to God.