A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 24, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 10:1-11 and Acts 1:6-8
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of my heroes is Francis of Assisi.  It all started when my mother exposed me to “his” prayer, the one that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  It touched me so deeply that it remains a vital prayer in my spiritual journey, even after learning that he is almost certainly not its author.

I probably read it first as “make me an instrument of peace.”  Only later did I hear the important “your.”  And only sometime after that did I realize that the lines that follow are not other, separate things being prayed for, but are ways of being an instrument of God’s peace.

I don’t remember when I first learned the basics of Francis’ biography, but it only endeared him to me.  The warrior who turned his back on violence.  The son of a wealthy merchant who turned his back on that privilege in about as dramatic an “in your face, dad” was as possible.  (In the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis disowned his father, even stripping off the clothing he had received from him.)  The founder of a new order of Friars that was countercultural, that embraced poverty and service to “the least of these” with profound vigor.

The more I learn about Francis, the more I admire him.

Francis had a humble brilliance and intense magnetism that altered European culture.  “But to say Francis started a movement suggests that he was a clever strategist who unfurled a plan we might follow ourselves to reform today’s church.  Far from it.  [Francis biographer Augustine] Thompson argues that Francis ‘seemed to have none of the qualities usually found in a leader, religious or otherwise.  He seemed positively averse to the responsibilities that his movement’s success forced upon him.’  He refused to assume a position of authority in his own new order; instead, laser-like, he focused on each individual person he encountered, whether a new friar of a wretched leper.

“Almost allergic to structure, Francis jotted down some loose rules only under duress. …  ‘Francis founded his movement in spite of himself.  Whether the brotherhood should grow or not seems never to have crossed his mind …  One senses that Francis cared little about success or failure.’”[1]

I’m not sure what this pre-modern friar has to teach us about evangelism – that’s the topic of today’s sermon – in our post-modern world.  But I suspect there’s something.  “Francis was holy and bereft of slick leadership ability, yet we are still talking about him and his movement and writing new biographies about him eight centuries later.”[2]

Our reading from Luke testifies to the contagiousness of a lived faith, which not only witnesses to our dependence on God but also enables us to trust in one another more fully.  This story of the sending out of the 70 disciples (or 72 disciples – depending on which manuscripts you use when you translate the gospel) is unique to Luke.  The number might come from the number of Christian missions that existed at Luke time.[3]  It might come from Genesis 10 where the number of Gentile nations is enumerated as 70 (or 72, depending on which manuscripts you use when you translate).[4]  Other interpreters point to the 70 elders of Israel mentioned in Exodus 24:1 or the 70 members of the Sanhedrin.[5]  Remembering that Luke also wrote Acts, where the story of Pentecost is told – when believers from Gentile countries hear the disciples and are converted – I suspect the number 70 is symbolic of carrying the gospel to Gentile lands.

“Total dependence on God is as much the mission [here] as proclaiming the gospel:  ‘Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one on the way.’  The disciples are … sent in pairs, never alone, emphasizing that Christian discipleship is always and fundamentally realized within community.”[6]

Jesus’ admonition to greet no one does not sound very warm or welcoming.  Walter Wink points out[7] that traveling salespeople can gab (as, I would add, can church people), and the gift of gab can help us procrastinate from actually knocking on doors.  And knocking on doors is what this group of disciples has been called to do.

They’ve been told to carry no money or extra clothes, so they are utterly dependent that someone will take them in.  And this person who takes them in will be a genuinely compassionate person – a person who can become the nucleus of a new convert community in that town.  Wink says that admonition to stay in one place amount to a challenge not to upgrade your accommodations.  He says this is important because this way your core leader can get maximum training from you.

Wink’s interpretation reminds me of a story I read long ago.  It was about a person – a woman, I think – who wanted to better understand homelessness.  So she decided she would live on the streets of a city for a period of time – several weeks, I think.  She prepared herself, picking one pair of shoes, one jacket, only the possessions she could carry.  She decided she would limit what was in her wallet: her ID and $20.  But she was going into the city, away from home, so she decided, just in case, to sew a couple hundred dollar bills into the lining of her jacket.  “I won’t use these,” she promised herself, “unless there’s an emergency.”

She took a bus into the city, knowing that the homeless hung out near the bus station.  She wandered around and eventually met another homeless person who ended up being her guide through this experience.  She explained what she was doing and that she knew she was going to need help to get through it.  Her guide obliged, showing her now to work the soup kitchen and shelter system, how to keep warm on cold days, and how to care for her feet and keep track of her possessions.

At the end of her experiment, she had learned a lot and was deeply grateful for her guide’s assistance.  In an act of gratitude, she cut open part of the lining of her jacket and handed him one of the hundred dollar bills she had secreted away there.  Her guide was indignant – not because she was offering him money, but because she hadn’t really experienced homelessness.  She hadn’t experienced what it was like to live on the street without a safety net.

Living without a safety net is what Jesus is telling the 70 to do.  Living without a safety net is essentially what Francis chose to do.  Living without a safety net is not something I want to do.

But I can’t help but think that there are ways we can go out into the Tri-Cities, a place we need to go because I think it is a place Jesus intends to go to, too.

The seventy were sent out to get things ready for Jesus.  In our reading from Acts, the resurrected Christ charges the disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  I believe that charge, that call, that vocation exists for us disciples today, too.  But it can be hard to fulfill.

None of us wants to be perceived to be a slimy Christian, a Christian that says, “If you don’t believe like me, you’re damned.”  After all, one of the areas of agreement Progressive Christians have is about the validity of other spiritual and religious paths for other people.

The adult Sunday School class has had some discussions about evangelism and evangelicalism.  Pastor Brenda shared the difference with them.  Evangelism, very simply, is spreading the good news of the Gospel to others (this is the literal definition of the root of the word evangelio, ‘good
news’).  Evangelicalism is a Christian point of view that stresses the authority of the Bible, 
personal conversion and confession of Christ as Savior, and the act of evangelism (i.e., spreading the Gospel).[8]  Thus, our call is to progressive evangelism, not progressive evangelicalism (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t; I think Jim Wallis, for instance, is a progressive evangelical).

So what does progressive evangelism look like?

Progressive evangelism is not telling people where their journey is supposed to take them or how they need to change to be acceptable or … well, you can think of a bunch of things that progressive evangelism is not.  Progressive evangelism is extending the invitation to experience God’s radically inclusive love.  Progressive evangelism is extending the invitation into community to have companions on the journey of faith.  If you look at our stated mission and purpose in our bylaws, you will see that evangelism – this progressive evangelism – is core to our mission.

The general rule is that adults who were not part of a church (be that they were never churched or that they became de-churched) become part of a church (or become part of the church again) because they are first invited by a person they knew to visit, to check it out.  Your invitation may be the thing to get someone to start taking their spiritual journey seriously.

That said, Niles Discovery Church is not the right church for everyone.  But if we’re the right church for just 10% of the un-churched people in the Tri-Cities, there are plenty of people out there that need to hear about us.

The biggest challenge for me (after worrying about being perceived as an evangelical) is worrying that I will come across as a vampire.  “I want new blood.”  But if I follow the example of Francis who did not worry about success, only about faithfulness, there is a way for evangelism to have integrity for me:  It has to be about what I’m giving away.

So a place for me to start is to think about what I value about Niles Discovery Church.  I value how welcoming our church is, that we really live out our Open and Affirming statement.  I value the companionship I have here for the journey, a companionship that is free of “should” and preconceived notions of how my journey is supposed to go.  I value how spiritual and theological questions are valued, sometimes more than the answers.  I value how despite my imperfections and broken places, I am loved.

That’s a list of four things I value about Niles Discovery Church.  You can make your own list.  When I look at my list, I see things that are worth giving away.  I suspect that when you make your list, you’ll find the same is true.  The reality is that Niles Discovery Church is something to share.

Jesus is recorded as giving his advice to the seventy as he sent them out.  Here’s my advice (not that I’m pretending to be Jesus, but I’ll give you my advice anyway).

  1. Make a list of what you value about Niles Discovery Church.
  2. Pray about your friends and acquaintances and listen for the Spirit’s prompting.
  3. When the Spirit places someone before you, find a way to share our church – the stuff that you value about it – with them.

Today, we received and blessed financial pledges for 2014.  That’s not the only thing you have to share.  Make a commitment to yourself to share your church, too.

Amen.


[1] James C. Howell, in a review of Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press).  Howell’s review appeared in The Christian Century, 10 July 2013, p. 39.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This is what Michaela Bruzzese claims in “Freedom to Trust,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/freedom-trust-0 (21 November 2013).

[4] This is what Walter Wink claims in “The Mission of the Seventy,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/mission-seventy (21 November 2013).

[5] Ralph F. Wilson points to these possibilities in “#42. The Sending Out of the Seventy,” Jesus Walk, http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/10_1-8.htm (18 November 2013).

[6] Bruzzese, op. cit.

[7] Wink, op. cit.

[8] Brenda Loreman, in an email to the Adult Sunday School Class at Niles Discovery Church, dated 4 November 2013.

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