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Another story, one of the "minister, priest, and rabbi" variety. These three, the only clerics in town, had become good enough friends to take a fishing trip together to the northern wilderness of Canada. While they were there they became even more cordial than they had been and began to talk about their innermost thoughts. The priest confessed that he had a terrible time with his vow of celibacy and occasionally slipped off incognito to visit the strip joint in a neighboring town. The rabbi confessed that he too had problems within his tradition - he LOVED bacon, and every so often would indulge himself with a huge (and secret) plate of bacon and eggs. The pastor remained silent for a long time. Finally when pressed by his brethren to reveal his weaknesses, he said, "Well, since you insist, I am going to tell you. I just love to gossip, and I can hardly wait to get home." (Tee hee.)
I am more deadly than the screaming shell of the cannon. I win without killing. I tear down homes, break hearts, wreck lives. I travel on the wings of the wind. No innocence is strong enough to intimidate me, no purity pure enough to daunt me. I have no regard for truth, no respect for justice, no mercy for the defenseless. My victims are as numerous as the sands of the sea and often as innocent. I never forget and seldom forgive. My name is GOSSIP.(1)And we would all say Amen. "It isn't the things that go in one ear and out the other that hurt as much as the things that go in one ear, get all mixed up, and then slip out the mouth.(2) Is there anyone here who has not heard that? Does not KNOW that? I doubt it. This is "common sense" stuff. That means I have no intention of going on any further in this direction. We are all aware of the damage to be done and the danger to be avoided from the too talkative tongue. BE CAREFUL. 'Nuff said.
Actually, something else SHOULD be said. In the context of our life together as the church, another danger exists as regards the tongue. It is not used enough! Jesus asked the disciples in our gospel lesson, "Who do people say that I am?" They responded, "John the Baptist...Elijah...one of the prophets." Then Jesus pressed them further, "But who do YOU say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." Good for Peter. Truth be told, most church folks these days would be just as happy to stand quietly still in response to the question - let Peter (or anyone else) answer. Not that they have no answer; they are just a bit reluctant to talk about Jesus or God or anything "churchy" outside the context of church. The tongues that can be so dangerously talkative at one moment fall strangely silent the next.
Why? Do they not care? No. People care. They have heard that part of the Christian calling is to witness to our faith, and, even though there might not be much evidence, they do want to do it. Most folks, I think, are just plain scared. They do not feel comfortable sharing their faith because they do not feel COMPETENT in sharing their faith - they do not want to get the story WRONG. On top of that, our culture says that religion is a private matter, so we all have a wonderful excuse to just keep quiet about it. That ought not to be.
Perhaps you have seen the same bumper sticker I have seen paraphrasing the "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" campaign. This one reads, "Friends Don't Let Friends Die Without Jesus." OK. But I would rather it read "Friends Don't Let Friends LIVE Without Jesus." Or without the church. Or without the friendship and fellowship that comes with being an active member of a caring congregation. Or something like that. The concern about friends dying without Jesus betrays a belief that salvation is pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye. Not so. A truly Biblical understanding insists that salvation (from the Latin salus - health) is a here-and-now experience as well, and is best found in the life of the local church.
Want proof? Listen to these numbers. The Gallup organization reports that frequent churchgoers are 48 percentage points more likely to rate themselves as "very happy" than those who attend erratically or not at all. An article in Emerging Trends says this: people who are active in worship are more family oriented, less often divorced, three times more benevolent, lower candidates for alcohol or drug abuse, give considerably more time to civic causes and contribute more substantially to social values than do those who do not worship.(3) One of the things that we hear regularly from the Baby Boom Generation as well as the Generation-X'ers is a desire to find opportunities for meaningful service. Where do we find the best outlet for that need? The church. Another study, Giving and Volunteering in the United States, shows that people who are members of congregations are far more likely to be generous with both time and money to a wide variety of non-profit activities. Gallup's studies indicate that almost half of church members did unpaid volunteer work in the past year compared with only a third of the unchurched population; nine out of ten church members gave money to a charity, while only seven of ten non-members gave.(4)
Teenagers. Someone has said that the average teen gets more temptation to sin on the way to school in the morning than his grandfather got on Saturday night when he was out looking for it. The teen years are tough. Gallup says that of the 76% of teens who said they were members of religious congregations, 62% were also volunteers, and 56% made charitable contributions. By contrast, those who had no church affiliation volunteered only 44% of the time, and only 25% gave to worthy causes.(5) If these teens are the generation who will soon be in charge in this nation (and managing my Social Security and Medicare), I would prefer to take my chances with the ones IN churches than those on the outside, wouldn't you?
So how do our unchurched friends learn all those benefits? (And if you are worried that you do not know anyone who is not already a part of a church, the truth is that, if you are anything like the rest of America, approximately HALF of your friends have not been to church within the past six months except for a wedding or a funeral, a Christmas or an Easter - that makes them "unchurched." They might have their name on a roll somewhere - even HERE - but if they do not attend, they are unchurched.) How do we get those unchurched friends of ours "churched?" Some TONGUE has to tell them. How about yours? The timing could not be better - today is Evangelism Sunday!
How do you go about it? Just invite. Simple. No deep religious discourse necessary. You do not need any formula, no Four Spiritual Laws, no Two Questions, the way the TV folks do it. Just invite, and the more specific the invitation (to some particular event or activity), the better. Even if they are not able to accept your invitation to THIS event, try again for another. If they want to talk about spiritual things, fine - tell your story...how you came to faith, the church, what it has meant in important moments in your life. That is a story worth sharing. And all the studies indicate that your friends will appreciate your interest in them. We live in perhaps the most religious nation in the technically-advanced world - 95% of us say we believe in a God or Supreme Being. Eighty percent say we pray regularly. Forty percent say we were at worship in the past week (even though only about half of those saying that actually were in attendance). Many of those not currently attending anywhere were active members in some church in the past, and three out of five say they would respond positively to an invitation. When is the last time you invited someone to come to church with you? When is the last time you invited FIVE? THREE might come! Get that tongue going.
Now, one thing to be wary of - if you invite your friends, as the statistics indicate, they might actually come. And if they come once, they might want to come again. And again and again and again. They might even want to join. Even more so as they bring THEIR friends...and then THEIR friends bring THEIR friends. Oh, I know - that is what the church needs to grow. And the more growth, the better - more people, more programs, more money. Lots going on. That will change this place. Suddenly First Presbyterian will be different...and for us to presume that everyone would be happy about that is naïve.
This is a loving congregation, and that is wonderful - we are FAMILY. Not perfect, by any means; after all, when Christians gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does. That would be SAINT Murphy's Law. No matter. Believe it or not, there is a danger with a "loving congregation" - the "family" circle of love can be so strong that outsiders cannot get in. We have to be careful.
One of my cyber-friends, Roy Lloyd, interviewed the late Mother Teresa a few times over the years and her answer to one of his questions jumps out in this context. He asked her, "What's the biggest problem in the world today?"
She answered, without hesitation, "The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day."(6) Amen.
Another friend has a picture gallery in his church with photographs of many of the members. He says, "I don't know how many times at a wedding or some other function in the building that someone has looked at the pictures and stated, 'I didn't know they went to this church.' Why didn't they know?"(7) he asks. You know as well as I do. Do YOUR friends know where you go to church?
I think the point has been made. James says watch your tongue. Be careful about what you say. And Christian discipleship says we do need to put that tongue in motion in the right ways. It will require some thought, some preparation, and surely some prayer as you ask for God's guidance in opening doors for your invitations. One final bit of advice: DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED! In the words of the Apostle Paul, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."(8) This is, after all, a story WORTH sharing.
An ancient legend recounts the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. Even in heaven he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and said, "Master, you suffered terribly down there. Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?"
Jesus replied, "Oh, no! Not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know."
But Gabriel was perplexed. He asked, "Then how will people learn of what have you done and your love for them?"
Jesus said, "I have asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell others about me. Those who are told will tell others in turn. And my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of humankind will have heard."
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He knew what poor stuff humans were made of. He said, "Yes, but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if they just fail to tell? What is your alternate plan?"
Jesus answered, "I have no other plan."(9)
1. Morgan Blake, sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal, quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
2. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 256
3. Herb Miller, "Are We Inviting?" Invite a Friend Action Guide, (Princeton, NJ: Religion in American Life, 1996), p. 5
4. George Gallup, "Faithful Congregations and the Good Society," Invite a Friend Action Guide, (Princeton, NJ: Religion in American Life, 1996), p. 9
6. Roy Lloyd, via Ecunet, "BOTTOM DRAWER CHAT," #1202, 9/12/97
7. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #482, 9/8/97
8. Galatians 6:9
9. Hewett, pp. 70-71