The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 6, 2019
The great Catholic leader Emmanuel Suhard said that reaching out to those not of the church does not consist of having a persuasive sales pitch or charisma for stimulating spiritual interest in people, but of being what he called “a living mystery”: a person whose life makes no sense unless Christ is behind it.
Bill White, a pastor whom I greatly admire, tells of what happened one Serve Day, a day when volunteers from different churches join forces to do work projects to uplift the community. Bill was a part of a team of 50 Christians, all wearing yellow T-shirts, which was rehabbing a house in Compton. As Bill walked down a narrow side street, he passed a couple working in their front yard. Bill paused to compliment the woman on her roses. She asked, “Who are you folks wearing yellow shirts?” Bill replied that they were Christians trying to bless the neighborhood with acts of humble service.
While they were chatting, the man was weed-whacking the other side of the yard. When he happened to look up and notice Bill’s yellow shirt, he turned off the machine, set it down and walked over to them. He looked intently at Bill. Then he nodded with approval toward the renovated house down the street and said, “I love your heart. Where can I get a heart like that?”
Flabbergasted, Bill replied, “We got our hearts from Jesus, and He’d love to give you a heart like His, too.” That sparked a conversation during which the man had a little epiphany and experienced an unveiling of the mystery of what God is up to.
For Presbyterians the twelve days of Christmas ended yesterday. Today is called Epiphany, and introduces a season that lasts all the way to the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. The word “Epiphany” originates from a Greek word that has its roots in the term for “sunrise”. By its association with the dawn of a new day’s light, it came to mean “disclosure” or “manifestation” of something previously hidden.
The early church adopted the word to describe the manifestation of God in Jesus to the Gentiles. The early church discerned that unveiling of the reality of the incarnational mystery in the moment when the magi, who were pagan astrologers out of Persia, found Jesus. They saw in that mere child a revelation of divinity that moved them to bow down and worship.
The early church saw itself as the second flesh of the Son of God – in fact, as His only flesh on earth after He returned to heaven. Thus, the early church understood itself to be the present physical means by which Jesus might bring about an epiphany of who He is and how He is very good news – the means by which, to quote today’s scripture, God might “make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” and through which, to quote today’s scripture again, “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known”.
Do you grasp what this says about why this church exists? It exists to reach out and serve its neighbors who are not a part of it, and thereby to show them something of the reality behind the mystery of the incarnation.
In today’s passage Paul speaks of himself in order to speak of the church. Paul’s purpose, and the purpose of all Christians, he is saying, is to manifest in their flesh what Jesus was manifesting in His. That’s the best way to love our neighbors as ourselves!
Now, while we may make our friends, and we may make our enemies; God makes our neighbors. God puts us in physical proximity to particular people for a purpose – and God never gets the addresses wrong. God has made for this church neighbors of all kinds. Our neighbors are affluent retirees, up-and-comers, movers and shakers; they are also the homeless, the mentally ill, and to some the undesirable. But they are, by God’s will, our neighbors, and thus ours to love, serve and bring an epiphany to!
Of course, sometimes we are at a loss for how to do that for our neighbors – whether they be those who seem to have nothing or those who seem to lack for nothing.
Yet, everyone is looking for kindness, respect and encouragement. We can always give that, and God can always make of our giving a suggestion of an even greater giving in Jesus. If our neighbors need very little from us, they still need it very much.
Once a church deacon was approached by a severely disheveled homeless man. Presuming the man to be after money, the deacon said, “I am sorry. I wish I could help you. I have nothing on me. I don’t even have a MacDonald’s gift card or a guide to area social service on me. And I don’t have the time to try to get you to someone who has something, because I have to rush off to pick up my daughter.” Then, though feeling it to be a lame response, he added, “I will pray for you.” The homeless man stared at him a moment. Then he smiled and said, “Thank you!” “Thank you for what?” the deacon asked. “I’ve given you nothing.” “Oh yes, you have,” the homeless man answered. “You looked at me, and I am so sick of being invisible. Thank you for just looking at me.”
People need so very little. They just need it so very much. And one little spark of kindness and respect can ignite a warm fire in whose light someone might have an epiphany of Christ and His love. Who knows what God might make of our just looking at someone and treating them decently, of our smiling at a person having a bad day, of our including a stranger in our social circle, offering an acquaintance a ride, of our directing, in a small way, someone’s gaze to Jesus?
Several decades ago, an MIT meteorologist named Edward Lorenz ran some routine experiments and discovered that changes that are tiny and insignificant in themselves can produce huge and significance differences in outcomes. He developed a theory he called “the butterfly effect”, and presented it in a scientific paper entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Lorenz asserted that, while a butterfly’s wing-flapping cannot cause a tornado, it can start a chain reaction leading to huge changes in world-wide weather patterns. In other words, even little actions can have large effects.
In our reaching out to those not of the church, our humble efforts can, by God’s grace, lead to a butterfly effect with major impact. We invite someone to go to church with us, follow up with a phone call when someone doesn’t show up as promised, bring a friend soup when they come down with the flu, strike up a conversation with a lonely co-worker at the water cooler, persist in praying for a highly stressed individual, or share with an acquaintance an honest (if not all that impressive) story of how we experienced God’s support – and sometimes there comes an epiphany.
Let’s give it a try. After all, that’s what we’re here for. Let us pray.