In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Things are not always as they seem. It’s one of those universal clichés, but there is some truth in that statement. Things are not always as they seem. I’ll start with a story from my time in DC. On a cold January day a few years ago, a man was playing a violin just outside a downtown subway station. He played for 43 minutes and just over 1,000 passed him by and tossed a total $32.17 into his violin case. No one applauded at the end of any piece that he played. And that isn’t a big surprise. You see musicians at subways stations all the time in DC.
Now I wasn’t there to witness this particular man playing the violin. But something was different about him. He looked the same as any other street musician, but the music sounded better. Turns out, it wasn’t just another guy playing the violin; it was the Grammy awarding winning, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. And he wasn’t playing movie themes, but instead was playing some of the most complex and beautiful music ever written. And he wasn’t playing on some instrument that was bought at a thrift store, but instead on a violin that was made around 1710 and was purchased for $3.5 million dollars. Just two days before this social experiment, Bell had sold out a concert hall where tickets went for $100 each. A man whose musical talents normally earn him $1,000/minute made only $32.17 in 43 minutes. That day, things were not as they seemed.
We find this same reality expressed in our reading from 2 Samuel this morning as well. Things are not as they seem. David is the king of Israel, a nation experiencing peace for the first time in generations. Up to this point, the Ark of the Covenant was seen as the physical representation of God’s presence with the Hebrew people. But David thinks that now that he is living in a grand city that God also deserves some sort of a fancier place to dwell. David thought it was a nice offer, but things were not as they seemed.
Many of you know that today a group of youth and adults are leaving for Grundy, Virginia to work for a week at the Mountain Mission School. Last year we spent a week there, living in community with the faculty and students of this school, and we’ll be doing that again this year. I hope that you also know that we’ve hired a very talented and enthusiastic young woman as our Director of Children’s and Youth Ministry. Bringing her on board will mean that I’ll be shifting my job description to include more work in the area of evangelism. So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about mission and evangelism and what they mean.
This passage from 2 Samuel challenges us to reconsider our assumptions, not only about the house for God, but about everything that we do on God’s behalf, which includes mission work and evangelism. Historically, mission and evangelism have gone hand in hand. The story goes like this: God has redeemed humanity in the crucifixion of Jesus, but in order to receive this salvation, you must be aware of and accept it. So the work of evangelism is telling people about it and mission work revolves around getting people to believe the same thing that what we do. And I’m not knocking mission work, a lot of good has also come from it. What I want to challenge is our view of evangelism.
God, it seems, is constantly calling us to a new vision. As soon as we get comfortable, God seems to push us in a new direction. It’s the story of David. Finally, Israel is established as a nation, they have a king, and an army that protects them from invaders. And this is when David offers to build God a house. This passage really can’t be understood without considering the Hebrew in which it was written. David says to God, “I’m going to build you a bayit.” And God responds “when have I ever asked for a bayit?” God then recounts what God has done for David- brought him into safety, handed over his enemies, and established his throne. David offers to build God a bayit, but God says “no, I’m going to make you a bayit.” The word play here is so rich- as the word bayit can mean house, but also dynasty. David is thinking in terms of a dwelling place, but God is talking in terms of an everlasting covenant. Things are not always as they seem.
I hope you see the easy parallel to mission work and evangelism that is imbedded in this turning of the tables. David thought he was to build up God, but instead it is God who builds up David. Too many missionaries have uttered the phrase “we’re going to take God to Africa, or wherever.” We do this in the Church as well; we think it’s our mission to build God up, to sell God, to sell people on the concept of faith. The Church has a real edifice complex. We focus on what we build. I applaud our national Episcopal Church for deciding this past week at General Convention to move our headquarters away from the posh downtown Manhattan office building, realizing that we are not called to build and maintain buildings.
God doesn’t seem to be very interested in, or impressed with, the things that we build. God has seen the rise and fall of empires and churches. And let’s be honest, most of what we build with our hands and take pride in doesn’t give glory to God, it gives glory to us. Jesus once said something about not letting your right hand know what your left does. But we like to have huge buildings that cost millions of dollars, we do an act of charity and we issue a press release and put it all over Facebook. Are these things built for us, or for God?
Instead, God says that God will make David into a bayit, a dynasty. God wants to build David up, not the other way around. We see a few things in this new vision of building. The first is that God won’t be confined to an Ark, a Temple, or even the Church. God will be with God’s people, wherever they are. We can’t put boundaries on God. This new vision of who builds up who also shows us a lot about what God is really interested in- us.
We are the mission of God. CS Lewis offers this parable: imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But then he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts a bit and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of- throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.
I suggest that this is the true work of evangelism, becoming the house of God ourselves, not building it. And this is risky business for God, to put God’s mission and task into the hands of fallible and imperfect beings. For God to work with us, the limitless takes on limits, the unknowable becomes known. But God takes this risk with us because God trusts in us, and because God’s mission needs our hands and feet, our ears and mouths. As I’ve quoted St. Augustine before, I’ll do it again- “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” We are the mission of God.
So if God is building us into a house, what sort of house do you look like? What will be your dynasty? What will be your legacy? We are all evangelists, we all are preaching something in our lifestyle. If a Martian came to earth and met you, and was told that you are a Christian, what would they think the Gospel of Jesus is about? Would they say the Gospel of Jesus is the prosperity gospel, would they say it’s about building wealth, would they say it’s about spending every waking moment with a Blackberry in hand? Or perhaps would they say that the Gospel is about loving others at least as much as you love yourself, would they say it’s about giving so that you can be ready to receive?
A quick word-study of evangelism might be helpful at this point. Evangelism is a Greek compound word meaning “good news.” The prefix is eu and means “good,” think of euthanasia meaning “good death,” or Eucharist meaning “good thanks.” And the root is angelos, which you’ll recognize as being related the word “angel,” or those who were God’s messengers. So evangelism means “good message.” But this word, evangelism, is a noun. The real question here is how do we make this noun into a verb? How do we live evangelically?
Simply sharing the good news isn’t really enough. If I told you that I won $10 million in the lottery last night, and to be clear- I didn’t, that’s good news. But how does my telling you about it actually do anything for you? What if, though, I decided to use half of that money for you? That changes things. St. Francis said “preach the Gospel every day and use words when necessary;” and while it’s important to use the name of Jesus, he was on to something.
Evangelism is not about telling others about God, it isn’t about building things for God, but rather evangelism is about letting God build something in us. Evangelism is about being the Good News. And that too is risky, because God is going to do grand and wonderful things with you. God is going to make you into a palace, but sometimes the construction process can be a bit uncomfortable.
The blogosphere, Facebook, and Twitter have been full of commentary this past week about two articles about The Episcopal Church. One article was in the Wall Street Journal, the other in the New York Times. Both classified The Episcopal Church as being in a downward spiral of liberal insignificance and decline. I’m very proud to be an Episcopalian right now. Our Church has decided to stop building the Church as we think it should be built and let God build us instead. We’re realizing that buildings aren’t necessary for ministry, and often they hamper ministry. Just think of how much money we put into maintaining buildings and grounds. And while those buildings are beautiful and are a place to do ministry, do we really need 6 Episcopal campuses in Greensboro? We’re starting to realize that the Holy Spirit isn’t confined to our buildings, but instead can be found in coffee shops, bars, gyms, and soccer fields. We’re realizing that God’s blessing is not confined to the limits of one man and one woman marriages. We are learning that structure and rigid hierarchy aren’t as necessary as we once thought.
And to act on this is risky and challenging. These articles were written out of fear. Fear of what it means to let God build us and shape us into the Church we are called to be instead of holding onto our power and prestige. Fear of what it means to actually make sacrifices in our lifestyle so that the poor and outcast can have a stake in the Kingdom of God. Fear is what made the Pharisees so uneasy when the rebel-rousing Jesus threatened to upset the status quo of the religion of the day.
There is a prayer that we use on Good Friday and at the Ordination of Priests, and I love it. It says “let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This, my brothers and sisters, is good news! The parts of the Church that are old and tired are being reborn. The mistakes we’ve made will be redeemed. Our shortcomings will become our strengths. God is building us up, we just need to get out of the way and let God do it. In our reading from Ephesians today St. Paul writes “but you are citizens of the household of God…with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” If we are to let God build us up, if we are to live the Good News of God’s love, God’s salvation, and God’s ongoing construction in us, we need only to let Jesus serve as the cornerstone for God’s building project in us.
So how do we do that? Well, Jesus was a man of prayer, of loving others, of serving those in need, of making sacrifices for the God’s Kingdom. If we can follow this example of Jesus, if we can live his Good News in our lives, then God will build a grand home in us. And if we don’t follow Jesus’ example, don’t expect God to just leave you alone- you’ll still hear the sound of hammers and chisels in your heart and mind, the project just might take a bit longer.
Things are not always as they seem indeed. We’ve spent too much time and energy trying to be the foremen and women of the construction project of building the Church and doing evangelism, when all this time God was trying to build something in us. It’s a lesson David had to learn, and today we are challenged with it as well. What is God building in your life? What will your house be known for? Is Jesus your cornerstone? Living the Good News is risky business, but it exactly the business that our world longs to have- justice, peace, love, and building up instead of tearing down. Let’s be the pillars of God’s Kingdom.
Today a group of us will leave for Grundy on a mission trip. The rest of you though will go on another mission trip- a mission trip to your office, to your house, to the gym, to the grocery store. We all are embarking on a mission trip today, what will be the legacy of yours?