It is an honor to join you for this summer’s preaching series at Marsh Chapel, which is focused on Evangelism in the Liberal Tradition. “Evangelism,” “evangelical,” “to evangelize”…these are not comfortable terms for many New England Christians. A number of years back, our family attended the wedding of some distant relatives in West Virginia. The groom and his groomsmen were clean-cut, athletic, enthusiastic young men who were all planning to serve Christ’s church as youth ministers. Over the course of the weekend celebration, they learned that I was a pastor in New England. I remember them shaking their heads in a kind of pitying admiration, and then one of them said,“Boy, New England is a tough place to evangelize.” I didn’t have the heart to tell them we don’t even like to use the word.
For those of us who preach or teach or participate in churches in New England, we know this is a tough place to evangelize. It’s a tough place to have a vital and vibrant church, its a tough place to be a Christian. According to a Trinity University study, New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region of the country.
II. Grace Restaurant in Portland, Maine
We see evidence of this all around us. Someone told me about a church in Maine they attended a few months ago. They said they had a great experience. Absolutely loved it! I was intrigued, and I asked what made the experience so wonderful? They said, “I had the pan roasted Atlantic Cod with braised baby artichokes, clams, fingerling potatoes, olives, and oven-dried tomatoes. It was divine!” They had eaten at Grace Restaurant in Portland, Maine a trendy new restaurant that opened last year in a 1850s Gothic Revival-style church. The review in the local Portland paper stated: “Few of us bother to go to church anymore, so people in Maine must find ways to reuse our houses of worship, just as we do our riverside mills in this post-industrial age. Grace Restaurant’s repurposing of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church is the most impressive reclamation project yet.” There is more “repurposing” of former churches, in New England than anywhere else in the country.
III. Church Condos
A number of years ago, the Boston Globe’s Real Estate section had a cover story entitled “Converted.” It was about the many churches in and around Boston that have been converted into high-end condos. The comments from the new condo dwellers were as amusing at they were disturbing. One woman said, “I am a very spiritual person, living in this old church is like being cradled in God’s hand.” Another commented, “I love old buildings, if there were icons on the walls that would have been really fun.” I don’t know about you, but I will turn over in my grave, if years from now someone is living in a two bedroom condo in a church I attended or served saying, “you know it would be really fun if there were icons still here. If only there was an etching of the crucified Christ over the kitchen sink – that would have been really neat.” Slowly, but surely, the Church of Jesus Christ is being driven into exile in New England…what group of Christians can think about evangelism, when many communities are just struggling to survive!
IV. Culture Shift
It used to be, in the good old days, you could get a dose of Christianity just by going to school. We were a Christian nation and people just assumed everyone believed just like they did. The Ten Commandments could be posted wherever people wanted to place them. Manger scenes could be erected on town greens without creating a firestorm of controversy. In fact, our historic old New England churches we referred to as meetinghouses because the church was where the people of the town went to conduct civic business and engage in community discourse. The church was central. Sports games and practices were never held on Sunday. You couldn’t buy booze on Sunday. In the town my wife grew up in, you couldn’t even drive on Sundays. Everyone went to church – in fact, it used to be that you didn’t dare miss church because if you did, you’d be the one everyone would talk about at coffee hour…the good old days! Much has changed – the church in New England isn’t central anymore – our faith is in exile, and if Christianity is to regain it’s relevance in this region, evangelism has to become more than just a scary word we don’t dare speak.
V. Ezekiel in Exile
The Prophet Ezekiel understood exile. He was among the first group of Jews to be deported from his homeland in Judea in 598 BC, to the menacing empire of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. From a distance, Ezekiel learned of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and the sacking and burning of the Temple. All that had been, was lost. The glory of Israel was a fading memory. That is when God gave Ezekiel a powerful and disturbing vision. We are told that the spirit of God placed Ezekiel in a valley filled with countless dry, sun-bleached, lifeless bones – a gruesome sight that could have only sunk Ezekiel’s spirit more deeply into despair. When you find yourself in the Valley of the Dry Bones, it always seems as if things have gone from bad to worse. I suspect we have all had our moments when it felt as if death and destruction were all around us. Our health was failing, or our business was failing, or our marriage was failing, or our children were failing…the bones of misfortune piled around our ankles and all hope seemed to be lost. If asked by God, “Mortal, can these dry bones live?”, we might have responded with a resounding “No!”
Ezekiel’s response to God is not far off from that. When asked, “Mortal, can these dry bones live?” “Can what is dead regain life?” “Can the exiled Hebrews thrive again?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” Which is a way of saying, “I don’t know.” “Things look grim.” “I’m not sure I like our chances.”
God’s answer comes in the form of a command. “Prophesy!” “Speak!” “Tell the people what is possible!” According to this passage of scripture, the first step to new life and vitality is to speak about it. Tell people about it. Proclaim that God can put back together that which has been broken apart, and then watch what happens! Dead bones, dead relationship, dead churches, dead faith – are given new life by speaking good news into unfortunate situations. Curiously, that is exactly what evangelism is – the sharing, the speaking of good and encouraging news. When people are told what is possible – that is when good things can begin to happen. The Hebrew’s hope, their faith, and their imagination had been deadened in exile – they lost a sense of possibility. The first step back to their Promised Land, was to have someone speak up and proclaim that God could lead them back from the brink of disaster. Ezekiel, standing in a deep dark valley with dead bones gathered around his ankles became that someone! He proclaimed that God could breath life into death!
VI. Good News in Exile!
As Christians across New England sit in sparsely populated church pews, as we see the role of Christianity in our culture greatly diminished, as we quietly wonder if our faith ma
kes any difference at all…it can seem as if all hope is lost. And what has really been lost is our imagination – we cannot even conceive of a vital Christian faith that captivates our lives and our culture. We don’t know what it looks like. We have no vision for it. We can see the mustard seed, but we can’t imagine it taking root and growing into an enormous bush that demonstrates the expansive nature of God’s kingdom. We can’t imagine having a faith that daily directs our actions, any more than we can imagine sitting in a church packed with people who are passionate about bringing about a better world for the glory of God. All we see around us are the skeletons of once proud churches, now repurposed into condos, or restaurants, or community centers. “Mortal, can these dry bones live?” Our first instinct is to say, “No.” “Things look grim.” “I’m not sure I like our chances.” But Ezekiel encourages us to believe that it is possible. Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed encourages us to believe that it is possible. Both of these stories prompt us to raise our voices and proclaim that God can still breath abundant, expansive life into death!
VII. Ezekiel’s Witness
The prophesy that Ezekiel dared to proclaim in the Valley of Dry Bones came true. Against all odds, seventy years after their captivity in Babylon began, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Why? We have no idea. But it happened. It is a historical fact. God said the Hebrew people would be restored to their land, and it came to pass. Given all the challenges to their survival throughout the generations, it is nothing short of miraculous that any Jews remain in Palestine today. Time and time again, when the Jews were standing in the Valley of Death, with the bones of their people literally gathering around their ankles, God brought them back from the brink of destruction into new life.
That’s what God does. God is in the resurrection business. God resurrects lives. God resurrects relationships. God resurrects entire communities. God can resurrect churches. God can take a mustard seed and turn it into a powerful image of heaven. God breathes abundant and expansive life into death – it has been true for the Jews, it was true for Jesus, it can be true for us and our churches. And something of the resurrection message, which is found throughout the bible, must be at the heart of evangelism. Resurrection is the good news we are called to share – in the Valley of the Dry Bones, in desperate lives and situations, and in dying churches. “Yes,” we are encouraged to believe, “these dry bones can live!” A mustard seed of faith can produce a kingdom full of possibility. Resurrection is real!
VIII. The “E” Word
In truth, as New Englanders, the word evangelism freaks us out a bit. It conjures up images of theologically disturbing religious tracks on car windshields, or hellfire and brimstone preaching yelled trough a megaphone by a guy wearing a sandwich board sign licked with flames, or roadside billboards that proclaim a Judgment Day that came and went without much happening. That is what we think of when we hear the word evangelism – so we choose not to have anything to do with it whatsoever. We have come to believe that evangelism means telling people they are doomed if they don’t change their ways. It’s about telling people how bad things will get because of their sins – and as thoughtful people who are aware of our own failings, we don’t want any part of that.
However, according to this story of Ezekiel, evangelism is just the opposite. Evangelism is not about bad news, but about good news. Evangelism is standing in the midst of difficult, perhaps even desperate situations, and getting up the courage to tell people that God intends for things to get better. Evangelism is not about hell and fire, but about hope and faith. It’s about how seeds become giant bushes, and giant bushes can become powerful symbols of God’s abundant and expansive love. Simply put, evangelism is about sharing good news like that with others!
IX. Speaking of Faith
So, given this story of the Dry Bones, what might evangelism look like today in New England? I think, like Ezekiel, as Christians, we are called to stand in the dry and barren and desperate places of life and proclaim words of hope. We are called to speak up – and to speak words of encouragement. In disheartening situations we are called to be the ones who proclaim what is possible, even if we hold some doubts ourselves. In the midst of broken dreams and broken promises, broken relationships and broken churches, and broken budgets and broken political discourse, we are called to ignite people’s imaginations by reminding them that we serve a God – we follow a Lord – who is in the resurrection business. Time and time again, our God breathes life into death. God takes what is broken, and puts it back together again. That is who God is, that is the essence of God’s character. Our Lord is a life-giver, and that is good news. And when we gather up the courage to share that good news with others…that’s called evangelism. That is what evangelism looks like in our tradition, and that’s something we all can do!
~The Rev. Dr. Stephen Chapin Garner, Pastor of United Church of Christ, Norwell, MA; Part of the 2011 Summer Preaching Series, “Evangelism in the Liberal Tradition”
For information about our summer preaching series, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.