by Kristin Wickersham
A sermon for St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
In 2015, if you’d asked me what I was most concerned about in attending seminary, my answer probably would have surprised you. Most of my friends guessed that it would be the academic load, homework, or having less time with my family. But instead, my answer was evangelism class. Evangelism is a requirement for seminary. Bishop Curry has said that the quickest way of making Episcopalians burst into hives is to simply say the word “evangelism” to them out loud. In my case, he wasn’t far wrong.
You see, my personality type is almost the exact opposite of John the Baptist’s. John is the church’s wild man. He’s loud, boisterous, and a little bit crazy. He’s hard to miss, even out there in the wild. People came from far and wide to see him and be baptized. Even back in the city, they’d heard about John and his wilderness ministry of baptism. They were feeling drawn to him, even as he was shouting, “Repent!” and proclaiming the need for forgiveness from sins. He must have been quite a spectacle; long tangled hair well past his shoulders, and an unkempt beard in which I suspect you could probably find some remaining bits of locust from his last meal. His clothes were made out of camel hair, and he wore nothing else but a leather belt around his waist. I suspect he smelled constantly of river water and sweat. He has been the object of classical paintings and orthodox icons for centuries. He is always messy. If Jesus is included in the painting, John is looking right at him or touching him. If Jesus is not included in the painting, John is pointing at a symbol of Jesus. John is usually shown with his mouth closed. This is a little odd because scripture clearly tells us that what John used for pointing wasn’t so much his finger, but his mouth. John was strident and a handful from the beginning. When Mary the Mother of Jesus, newly pregnant, went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. That was John; leaping around about Jesus before either one of them was even birthed into the world. John makes for a great Evangelist.
People like me, however, I’d always thought, do not. I am more reserved, quiet, and generally introverted. People like me enjoy intimate relationships and don’t crave the spotlight of attention. Now I know people are much more complicated than this, but I hope you get my drift. We think that evangelism is a spiritual gift given to a few special outgoing brave souls. Others have different spiritual gifts, each to their own ability. We’ll leave evangelism to those suited for it: people like John.
But I’d like to tell you a story and a few things I learned from being forced to be like John for an afternoon.
Not long ago, I met a Jewish woman with the express intent of having an evangelism conversation. We’d been set up by a mutual friend, because this was the dreaded class assignment, and I needed some help. I’d been instructed to have an evangelism conversation with someone outside my faith. I texted with her ahead of time and assured her I had no intention of trying to convert her. I told her about the assignment and said that I needed to practice sharing my faith with a stranger. Evangelism actually means sharing the good news. I can share. I’m just uncomfortable being pushy, rude, and intrusive. That’s what I’d always imagined when I thought about evangelism.
So Rachel and I met for coffee one afternoon. We discussed our faiths openly. She asked about which holidays were most important to Christians, and I did the same for the Jewish ones. I asked her about how her faith treats women and whether they can read from the Torah at her synagogue. She asked about how the church has changed to allow women to be ordained. She spoke about the beauty of Jerusalem and her longing as a Jew to return there. She told me about how Jerusalem feels and the beauty of the Western Wall. As she was telling me about Jerusalem, she began to cry and said that Jerusalem is the place where she feels the presence of God in the world most intimately. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I remembered the section of Luke in which Jesus “set his face to go towards Jerusalem.” I pondered this part of the scripture as I sat in the silence with Rachel. This was not something I had expected from my evangelism conversation. At the moment that Rachel was most emotionally connected to telling me about her religion and faith, what she was saying resonated through my own religion and faith. I began to see Jesus’ experience in a different way and perhaps understand him better. Because of this exercise, I’ve now had the blessing of a first-hand experience of someone else’s religion helping me deepen my own faith.
It had never occurred to me that talking about my Christian faith with someone else would help me understand myself better. It most certainly never occurred to me that someone else’s religion could possibly reinforce my own. Now perhaps that is something particular to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. But I think there’s something deeper going on there. I think it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. As Christians, we are baptized with both water and the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus and stayed with him is the one Jesus baptizes us with. We are spiritual beings connected with the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit can do more than we could possibly ask or imagine. When we live more completely into our baptismal covenant, we reconnect more strongly with the Holy Spirit, and wonderful things begin to happen.
That afternoon not only did I practice evangelism, I strengthened my faith, became closer to Jesus, and also made a friend. The nature of that friendship is important because we are two very different people. She is the daughter of two Eastern Europeans who were Holocaust survivors. I’m a 13th generation Virginian. She’s a Jew. I’m a Christian. She grew up in a working-class section of the Bronx. I grew up traveling the world with my family of American diplomats. We don’t really have a lot in common.
In America these days, especially this past year, we seem to have forgotten how to get along with people who are different from us. Newspapers are full of stories conveying anxiety about the upcoming political changeover. This year’s politics hasn’t brought out the best in our country. There is a constant running commentary about the never-ending battle between Republicans and Democrats, Democrats and Republicans. News devolves into exaggerations, and reporting is sometimes more about instilling fear of the other than conveying accurate information. We are being taught to fear each other and be angry at those who are different from us. What can ordinary people like us possibly do to make such a complicated national situation any better?
After being introduced to us by John, Jesus asks us a question, “What are you looking for?” This is the same question I ask about our country. “What are we looking for?” Oh Jesus, let me start you a list: Peace, Love, and Joy; Fairness, Empathy, and Kindness; Truth and Gentleness. Forbearance. Self-Control. Imagine how much better our society would be with more of these things.
Do you recognize this list? These are what St. Paul refers to as the fruits of the Spirit. We are longing for the fruits of the Spirit. What we need is God. We need the one thing John the Baptist keeps pointing us to.
I wonder if you would join me in taking on a New Year’s Resolution that will be good for all of us. One that will strengthen our faith, deepen our relationship with Jesus, and maybe even make us some new friends. If we as the church make a spiritual discipline of being like John, and embrace our baptismal covenant by continually proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, through both deed and word, we could begin to give our country what it needs. We could continually point, like John, to something higher than ourselves.