By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 513-16
Perhaps you have heard the quote, “The Church is the only organization that exists for non-members.” Most businesses and organizations exist to benefit their clients and shareholders; those we’d label as “insiders.” But, the Church exists to benefit those who are not yet a part of us. Even so, in a capitalist culture, it’s easy to observe that most businesses are far more concerned with moving people from outsiders to insiders than is the Church. Let that sink in for a moment. In 21st century America, there are far, far more “testimonials” for everything from teeth-whiteners to cell phone companies than there are testimonials for Jesus. Take a second to consider: when was the last time someone you know and trust told you about a product or service they like – anything from their mechanic or dentist to their favorite cold brew coffee? Now consider, outside of fellow Trinity members, when was the last time someone you know and trust told you about their experience with Jesus or the Church?
Since the middle of last month, we’ve been engaged in a sermon series entitled “This Little Light of Mine”; a series about evangelism. To be an evangelist simply means “to proclaim good news” and, as I mentioned last Sunday, these days, people could really use some good news.
For many of us, the word “evangelism” carries negative connotations. We tend to associate it with people who are pushy, who try to shove religion down our throats and lead us in the “sinner’s prayer”; people that pass out tracts on a street corner or annoyingly ring our doorbell at dinnertime. But, I hope this sermon series has helped us think a bit differently about evangelism. Evangelism ought, rather, to be the sharing of good news through words and deeds springing from the context of healthy relationships with Christ and with others. Let me say that again: evangelism is the sharing of the good news of Jesus through words and deeds grounded in the context of healthy relationships with Jesus and with others.
So, evangelism begins with hospitality: welcoming others into our space, our hearts, and our lives. The word “hospitality” means “a love of strangers.” So, as we welcome people, we move them stranger to friend. And the kind of “friend” people discover in us, ought to be people of integrity – trustworthy and consistent. Then, out of the context of that genuine relationship, we are able to share the good news of Jesus in ways that feel natural, more like letting our friend with car troubles know about our favorite mechanic and less like being a salesman in a pyramid scheme.
Each of our biblical gospels has a primary focus and the focus of Matthew is righteousness. I’m hoping that, because of the number of times I’ve said it, some of you might remember the definition of righteousness: righteousness is simply “right-ness” in our relationships with God and with others. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes to proclaim righteousness. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is focused on righteousness; a righteousness that is not about following religious rules but about this right-ness in relationships.
You may also be interested to discover that Matthew is the only gospel that uses the word “church.” We do not find the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) in any other gospel. The gospel of Matthew clearly communicates that there is no such thing as “individualized” or “private” religion. Wherever we go, whatever we do, for better or worse, we represent the Church. And perhaps no verses communicate that better than the verses I shared this morning; these familiar verses comparing us – the Church – to salt and light and a city on a hill.
I think my favorite part of Christmas Eve worship is the candlelight as we sing Silent Night. Little by little, the candlelight spreads to fill the sanctuary. The origin of our individual candlelight is the Christ candle, reminiscent of those words from John’s gospel “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” But consider: we do not all light our candle from the Christ candle. Rather, our candle is lit by the person next to us. We become lights that kindle one another. That is what happens, literally, every Christmas Eve. But that is what ought to be happening figuratively throughout the year. Continually, people ought to be catching the light that is Jesus from us; it ought to be passing from us to them.
Likewise, we are a bit like a delicious vegetable soup. Some salt is dropped into the pot and it spreads throughout the soup. It doesn’t just permeate the carrots. It doesn’t just permeate the potatoes. It spreads throughout the soup, perfectly seasoning every bite. Jesus tells us that if we take his message of righteousness seriously, we become – collectively – like a city on a hill. We cannot help but be noticed. We stand out.
But, here’s something interesting: in this same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also tells us to “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order [or for the purpose of] being seen by them.” Jesus further expounds, saying that our charitable giving, our prayers, and our fasting ought to all be done discreetly, not in order to call attention to ourselves. So how can it be that Jesus, within the same sermon, from one chapter to the next, wants us to draw attention AND doesn’t want us to draw attention? Well, the answer is found in the concluding verse of this morning’s gospel passage: in order that others “may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” We should never be discreet or reticent about acting in ways that honor God. The caution is in behaving piously in order to draw attention strictly to ourselves and earn honor for ourselves.
In this regard, light really is the perfect symbol or metaphor because light doesn’t exist to draw attention to itself. Light illumines what is around it. We ought to move about in the world in ways that “shed light” on Jesus; that cast the spotlight on Jesus.
And we do that collectively, Matthew tells us, as the Church. The impetus for this sermon series was an article by Priscilla Pope-Levinson, a professor at United Methodist Perkins School of Theology. She recently published a book on evangelism in which she identifies essential qualities for effective evangelism. The final one is something she calls “church rootedness.” She acknowledges that the Church has taken a real hit in our wider culture. Even before the pandemic, church attendance was dropping like a lead balloon all over the United States. Many people, in surveys, express negative impressions of the Church. Yet, most are also drawn to Jesus. And that tells us that, it’s not the gospel, or the message, that people are rejecting; it’s us and our presentation of the message. People aren’t put off by the gospel message. But, many people are put off by the message bearers because we have misinterpreted and mis-lived – one might say – the actual meaning of righteousness. Far too often, we turn righteousness into rules and purity standards, just as some of the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not implying that moral standards are insignificant. But when we turn Christianity into rules and standards, rather than recognizing that it is about righteousness, being in right relationship with God and others, our light goes out, so to speak, and we’re absorbed into the world’s darkness. Religion isn’t about rules. Religion is about relationships.
So, I want to close this morning with two final things. The first is this: it matters who we are, not just as individual Christians, but as a church. How Trinity – all of us collectively – engage with this community matters a great deal. And my question for you is: do you know how Trinity engages with our community? We ought to ALL be able to talk to others about how our church lives out our faith in this community. Right now, for example, we’re collecting for Food Finders in order to feed those who are hungry right here in our community. Here at Trinity we have an LGBTQ friendly youth ministry because far too many young people, when they recognize their sexual orientation or identity, are either told or assume that God can no longer love them as they are. But we reach out to those young people and let them know that God – and our church – love and welcome them as they are. Here at Trinity, we have Fusion; an alternative experience in Christian community so that people who aren’t comfortable in a typical worship format – but want a way to connect with God and others – have the opportunity to do so.
Our ministries at Trinity aren’t really about “doing”; they’re about “being.” Our ministries reflect who we are in relationship with Christ and others. And we ALL ought to be able to talk with people in our community about what’s going on here. It’s essential. So, read your Eblast, read your newsletter. Try out the new things Trinity is doing, like Fusion and Trinity Connect. They might not be your favorite way to grow your relationship with God and others. But you just might meet someone else who is seeking something like Fusion or Trinity Connect and you need to be ready to share that good news with them.
Finally, this morning, I have good news for you related to this morning’s sermon title: adventitious roots. Do you know what they are? Adventitious roots, in a nutshell, are roots that develop in a plant from non-root tissue most often under conditions of stress that allow the plant to flourish even under these adverse conditions.
Friends: it will never be 1950 or even 1970 again. Many traditional ministry approaches have died and they cannot be revived. But the Church is alive and, through the power of the Spirit, we have the capacity to develop adventitious roots. We can spread out and move in different directions and in different ways than we have before in response to the stress of our culture. We don’t lack the capacity to adapt. We can adapt. We can live and flourish. We can spread out our roots in places they’ve never been before. We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are a vital plant with adventitious roots, spreading out and covering more ground, to spread the good news of Jesus.
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