By Pastor Monica McDougal
Scripture: Matthew 7: 21-29
I went to college at a small public university in Topeka, Kansas called Washburn. Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever visited Topeka, Kansas, but if you have then you probably know that there’s not a whole lot to do. So, when you’re a broke college student, you sometimes find “a good time” in the most unusual of places. For me and campus ministry friends it was Thursday nights at Applebee’s. Every Thursday, our local Applebee’s had half-priced desserts and appetizers and karaoke and it became a tradition for us to make our way to the Neighborhood Bar & Grill after worship every single week. It started out as just 5 or 6 of us. My campus ministry was pretty small, and the group that went out was dependent upon who had papers due the next day or had plans to head home for the weekend. But ever so slowly, our Applebee’s group grew due to people inviting friends to tag along. At one point we had 12 and had to split up over three tables.
The friends who got invited along often had no idea that we were a campus ministry group. They were usually classmates or co-workers of members who were also looking for something, anything, fun to do in Topeka, Kansas on a random Thursday night. One day, as we were sitting at the tables in between karaoke numbers, my friends and I started talking about something interesting that came up during worship that night. One of our guests, a friend of mine from another campus group I was in, turned and looked at us with a surprised look on his face. “Wait, you’re a Christian,” he asked me. “Yeah. Is that surprising,” I asked back. “Kinda,” he said. When I asked why he responded that I wasn’t like the Christians he grew up around. He mentioned several differences between me and the other Christians he knew. He and I had bonded over science and a mutual interest in learning about evolution. I didn’t seem to mind that he was gay. And, most significantly, I knew he was an Atheist and didn’t try to make him feel bad about it. At the end of his list, he summed up his thoughts with something I’ll never forget. He said, “You see me as who I am.” When I told a pastor friend about this years later, she got a wide grin on her face. I asked her why she was smiling and she replied, “That’s evangelism at its finest, my friend.”
Currently, we find ourselves in the middle of a sermon series for the season of Epiphany titled “This Little Light of Mine,” which explores connecting with those beyond our walls through hospitality, forming meaningful relationships, integrity, message bearing, and church rootedness. I was tasked with exploring integrity as a method of evangelism. Now, that word “evangelism” scares people sometimes. Evangelism, at its core, is simply about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, but we often have specific worship and preaching styles in mind that may or may not make us feel comfortable. But, let’s be clear, “evangelicalism” and “evangelism” are different things.
Pastor Tracey’s inspiration for this sermon series came from the work of theologian Priscilla Pope-Levison who explores strategies for effective Evangelism in a recent book. In conversation with Wesley Seminary, Pope-Levinson identifies “integrity” as being, “the baseline for good evangelism.” She argues that hypocrisy, or the failure to align one’s words and deeds, is tarnishing the reputation and perception of Christianity in the United States of America. This is an argument which is backed up by empirical evidence. The PEW Research Center reports that 78% of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States are people who grew up in religious environments. When asked why they no longer claim a religious identity 49% reported that they lost their beliefs due to feeling disenchanted or losing interest; another 20% reported their disaffiliation being linked to a dislike of organized religion. When asked what specifically caused their disenchatment, loss of interest, or dislike of organized religion, participants reported negative perceptions of the work of the Church-at-large due to various situations like sex-abuse scandals, the shaming of divorcing and divorced persons, specific teachings on science, evolution, and human sexuality, the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, and the Evangelical Church’s role and prominence in politics. To Pope-Levinson, this reveals the necessity of integrity in evangelism. She says, “There needs to be integrity between the Gospel message we present and who we are as Gospel bearers. It sounds simplistic. But I really think that would go a long way to recapturing evangelism as something that is positive, winsome, and hospitable.”
In our scripture passage for today, Jesus likewise critiques the misalignment of words and deeds. This passage of Matthew comes at the tail-end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous sections of scripture and features the first major teaching from Jesus Christ on the expectations of Christian discipleship. This sermon was given near the start of Jesus’s ministry, after he had been tempted in the desert and had begun calling disciples. Jesus finds himself the leader of one heck of a motley crew. Remember, Jesus’s first disciples were a ragtag group of misfits, societal outcasts like tax collectors, fisherman, and zealots (political revolutionaries). These disciples and the crowds of people who followed Jesus up the mountain, had felt compelled to join Jesus on this journey, but they had no idea what it meant or looked like to be a follower of Christ. They needed guidance and Jesus laid it all out. The Sermon on the Mount features the beatitudes and teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and more. Our passage today is the sermon’s conclusion, where Jesus summarizes the responsibilities of being one of his followers by emphasizing moral consistency. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” In other words, it will not be enough to claim allegiance to Jesus in words, but their actions must convey that allegiance. Always.
Lack of moral consistency eats away at the integrity of the Christian which Jesus compares to constructing a building on a weak foundation. He says:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
When we think of this metaphor in terms of evangelism, it speaks to the ability and credibility of Christians to engage non-believers in dialogue. Let me put this into a different perspective. Say you’re out on a walk downtown and you see a business that looks interesting. Maybe it has a flashy sign advertising an item that you’ve never heard about and you decide you want to learn more about this product. As you start to walk up to the front door, you notice cracks in the building's foundation. As you peek in the windows, you can see floorboards missing leaving holes in the floor and parts of the ceiling are beginning to drop down. Would you still go inside? Probably not. Because even though this business seems like it may have something you’re interested in, are you going to take the risk of injury by entering a building which lacks structural integrity?
This is true when it comes to Evangelism. There is a misconception that most people who do not attend church regularly or who grew up as Christian but have since left the faith have rejected Jesus Christ. However, that’s often not the case. In my experience, when I talk to people about church and Christianity, they usually have very positive perceptions of Jesus Christ; his life and ministry are compelling to people. The study I mentioned earlier from PEW reveals that it is less so an issue with faith or with the core tenets of Christianity and more to do with hypocrisy. There’s this famous quote that is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although it is unlikely Gandhi is that person who uttered these words, that I think sums up the issue. The quote is, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
People are drawn to the message of Jesus Christ, but if they walk up to the door and see that the foundation is crumbling, they’re going to turn around and walk away.
There are an unfortunate number of examples of Christians and Christian institutions that lack integrity. When Christians are in the news lately, it seems it's always for doing something horrible. Those Christians have revealed themselves to have a weak foundation and unfortunately that makes people question every Christian’s foundation.
Now, obviously, there are plenty of Christians and Christian institutions of integrity who do amazing things in their communities. Trinity United Methodist Church is one of those institutions full of wonderful people of integrity. We have a strong foundation, one that is built on not just talking the talk, but walking the walk too. Now, it’s important that I note here that Christian integrity does not mean Christian perfection. One can have a strong foundation and still need some renovations. We are constantly in need of improving ourselves, of learning and listening and growing in our faith. No one expects Christians or Christian institutions to be perfect, but they do expect honesty, transparency, and humility. That being said, despite having a strong foundation ourselves, we have to fight against negative perceptions of Christianity broadly. That means, if you want people to walk through the door, you have to assure them that the ceiling isn’t going to metaphorically collapse onto their heads.
So, how do we do that? Well, for starters we have to maintain our strong foundation. Obviously, we can do that literally by maintaining our buildings, but I’m speaking metaphorically. Through prayer, study, worship, and service, we can both continue to grow in our knowledge of God’s word while continuing to embody it in all that we say and do. However, if we fail to move outside of our walls, to publicize our strong foundation then we fail to stand out and draw attention. You will often hear me talk about the need for progressive and inclusive Christians to “match the energy.” What I mean by that, is when people are unabashedly spreading harmful messages about our God, we must counter that by unabashedly spreading love and compassion. And folks, progressive Christians are bad about not doing this.
The solution to the problem of bigotry, hatred, and greed among Christians in our world has never been to be silent or to hide away in our sanctuaries. It doesn’t matter how well your actions align with your deeds if no one outside of your church walls knows it.
The ministry of Jesus Christ was public and visible. Jesus deliberately sought out those in need. He didn’t assume that they’d come and find him if they needed help, but he met them where they were. Yes, his ministry was one of service and compassion, but he also never backed down from an opportunity to talk about his faith and his God. And when we read the stories of Jesus’s ministry, what we really find is a blueprint for effective evangelism. No one who’s ever lived has ever had more integrity than Jesus Christ and when you have a faith that big, a faith that is built on a foundation of integrity, then you can have the confidence to move about the world and engage people in relationships.
What people aren’t interested in, what people aren’t compelled by, is arrogance and hypocrisy. Fortunately for us, as we’ve established, this community is a healthy, loving, and vibrant community. Why wouldn’t we want to share that? Now, I know that can feel intimidating. None of us want to make anyone else uncomfortable or come across as pushy, but when we see people for who they are and when we meet people where they are, we can share the Good News of Jesus Christ with integrity.
My friend that I mentioned at the start of this story still identifies as an Atheist. I never tried to make him believe exactly what I believe, but I did make sure he knew that I love him and that I’m always here for him. Over the next few years of college, he would join our campus ministry for fellowship and service events, becoming a part of our work in our community even if he never considered himself a part of our church. That, my friends, is something I’m extremely proud of.
There are so many ways that we can make a difference in our community and in the lives of those we meet. There are people who are looking for meaningful relationships. There are people who want to belong to a community that makes the world a better place. There are people who have questions about God and faith. There are people navigating grief that just want to know they’re not alone. Trinity UMC can help those people, but only if they know that we’re here and that we have built our community on a strong foundation.
My hope for you and for our church is that we would all have a faith so big and so full of integrity that we, like Jesus Christ, can have confidence in the Good News we have to share with the world. If your religion, if your church has made any positive impact on your life at all, I implore you to share it. Share it by getting to know new people. Share it by creating meaningful relationships. Share it by caring enough about people to see them for who they are. Share it by being the type of Christian whose integrity shines like a light and transforms the world. Amen.
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