Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 15, 2017
With this in mind, let’s look again at the gospel lesson. John the Baptist risked his life’s reputation on becoming a wild-haired prophet in the wilderness, preparing the way for the coming Messiah. In fact, John risked his very life to do this. Why? Because he believed with his whole heart that God was going to lead the Jews out from under Roman oppression to a life of freedom and peace. To do this, a Messiah was going to come and lead the way. He was so passionate and fervent in his belief, that he began to attract many people and convince them to repent of their sins.
When he saw God anointing Jesus as the Messiah through the kiss of the Holy Spirit, John knew that the time had come. As Jesus walked towards him a few days later, he cried out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Some scholars have recently proposed an alternate interpretation of this verse that does not align with the traditional atonement theologies. They write that lambs were never used for sin sacrifices, but only for the Passover sacrifice, which was held to remember God’s liberation and deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. By equating Jesus with the lamb, John was, in effect, saying that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to liberate not just the Jewish people, but the whole world from the sin of oppression and human alienation from God. Now this was a message to get excited about!
What excites us about our faith today? Where do our passions lie in the church? I’ll tell you where I’ve seen people’s passions in this church. One is the ministry of music. We have a very hardworking bunch of musicians, who offer a top-notch program of music that helps us worship God and provide a ministry of outreach when singing for personal care homes at Christmas. I’ve also seen passionate commitment to other outreach ministries with West Broadway, with our sponsorship of refugees, with our interfaith solidarity and with our commitment to foster relationships with Indigenous communities. I’ve seen passionate commitment to pastoral care through our prayer shawl ministry and our One-on-One visitors to those who find it difficult to get out.
Underlying the passion of these ministries is a belief that God calls us to be Christ’s hands and feet in Westworth and beyond, allowing ourselves to be vehicles of Christ’s compassion and love. I have heard a number of people speak passionately to this belief.
I’m sure that there are many other reasons why you all come here to church. You may have different passions and interests, which help to enrich our community. I invite you for the next minute to share with your neighbor why you come to church at Westworth…
…Because of John’s enthusiastic promotion, Jesus was able to attract and invite potential disciples to follow him. “Come and see,” Jesus beckoned. “Come and see what God is doing in our world. Come and hear a message of hope. Come and experience the miracle of healing and reconciliation.”
Once we’re clear about why we come to church; about what our passions are for the church’s ministry, it becomes easier to talk about them with others and to invite them to come and see—to come and experience it for themselves.
I have seen passionate evangelism amongst secular organizations, such as the World Social Forum, a gathering of tens of thousands of people from NGO’s, advocacy groups and social movements that promotes an alternate vision of a just and peaceful world. Participants are so passionate about this that they have spread the word, and the World Social Forum has grown.
What would happen if we become so passionate about our faith and our church’s ministry, that we cannot but help to spread this good news and invite others to come and see what makes us so excited?
I recently visited someone in the hospital. After I prayed with him and was about to leave, he said to me, “Bring your faith with you again when you return.” I realized that we have something to offer that the hospitals and friends and sometimes family can’t give. We can offer prayer and assurance of God’s presence so that when they are lying alone in the hospital bed, they can wrap that prayer shawl around them and know that God is still with them.
When I meet with a family to prepare for a funeral, we plan the service and they talk about stories of their loved one. But it is usually not until I offer a prayer near the end, that the tears start to flow. Prayer has a way of touching deeply what cannot be touched by talk. We have something to offer that funeral homes cannot give.
These are the ministries that give us good news in a world where violence and terror seem to be taking over. If we’re convinced that our faith is important to us and that it is making a difference in our lives and in the lives of people we touch, then we will want to share this good news with others so that they, too, can experience healing, reconciliation and love.
In your bulletin, you have a card that David has recently made up. It talks about his passion for our children’s program, another important ministry of our church. If you know of a young family that is not involved in church, you may want to give them this card, just in case they are interested. Or, you may know of someone who might appreciate the gatherings of the men’s or women’s spirituality groups, or UCW units. Personal invitations are, by far, the most effective way to help people find their way into a group that is life-giving for them.
One of the most important lessons in evangelism is that our focus should not be to increase our numbers. Rather, we need to stay focussed on what excites us about our faith and our ministries. This is where the good news lies and this is what people are interested in hearing. When we’re passionate about our ministry, others will want to hear about it and may even want to come and be part of it. Our focus needs to be on what might be life-giving to them, not on how we can survive. So let’s find the courage to invite others to come and see what God is doing.
Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit_weekly-seeds_listen-god-is-calling