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Sunday, September 13, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

To What End? Being Church in These Days:

The Proclamation of the Gospel
for the Salvation of Humankind”

Part of a sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 19
Nehemiah 8:1–12

If you downloaded the bulletin for this morning or printed it out, then you might have noticed something a little different: the sermon actually has a title—good news for those of you who wish that happened more often. And the title for today’s sermon is “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” Now, I realize it is not one bit catchy. Plus, the language is rather antiquated and stilted. Furthermore, “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” sounds like quite the daunting task. And yet I am curious if it is a task that you, personally, would sign on for, or not.

I hope you nodded your head yes, because by being in worship with us—however you came to be here, whether you went to our website and intentionally clicked on the livestreaming link or whether you’re here because you were just scrolling through Facebook and noticed we were streaming—by being part of this Presbyterian worshiping community today, you actually have signed up to take part in this intimidating-sounding assignment.

Not only did Jesus tell us, in the Great Commission, to proclaim the gospel, but this work of shared ministry is written into the very Constitution of our Presbyterian Church (USA). The Book of Order, which gives shape to our life together, names six Great Ends of the Church, including the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

You will hear the other five in the weeks to come. These six foundational works of the church came into being between 1904 and 1910—hence, the language—as the former United Presbyterian Church of North America faced a new century. And since that time, these six statements of purpose have been viewed as our collective mission statement, central to our calling and our life together. They express who and what the church is to be and how the church is to act. In other words, living out these six statements of purpose is why we exist.

As we begin this fall season together, still worshiping virtually; still not physically gathering together; still doing most of our ministry and fellowship via Zoom and phone calls, we are going to look at this Presbyterian mission statement and take one piece of it each week. We will consider how we are called to live these purposes out anew in our day, in our time, in our collective and individual lives. Thus, we begin today with the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Now, I do realize it is a loaded phrase on at least four levels. After all, what do we mean? Proclamation, gospel, salvation, and all of humankind—each one of them can all be a little complicated, to say the least.

Let’s just consider “gospel” first. A friend of mine told me a story this week about a recent encounter she had with a person who was not a church member. They were having to do everything by Zoom, of course, and my friend was not quite sure what was going to happen since they had never met. As soon as the Zoom screen popped up, one of the first things the young woman said to my friend was, “I just don’t want it to be preachy. Do what you do, just, if you don’t mind, don’t be very preachy.”

My friend reflected that is always a bit of an awkward moment when the person asks a preacher to avoid being “preachy.” Yet when she asked, my friend knew what she meant. I do too. We have both heard those words throughout our years of ministry. The reason they were even talking in the first place was because the young woman was trying to plan her father’s memorial service. He had been an active member of my friend’s church, someone she had known for more than five years, but she hadn’t known his daughter for more than five minutes. More to the point, his daughter did not know her, and so she was suspicious of just what kind of proclamation was going to happen. Just don’t be preachy, she said.

You know what that young woman meant too, don’t you? I am sure you do, because even in all of our theological and political diversity, my guess is that we can all agree there is too much judgment these days. There is too much condemnation and othering. There is too much speech that only tears down and never builds up, and quite a bit of it gets named as gospel, though I often fail to see the resemblance. All of that is why that young woman grieving the loss of her father did not want the service to be “too preachy.” “Do you know what I mean?” she asked my friend. “I do,” my friend replied. “I promise you, I do.”

Yet if defining the gospel is one of the challenges inherent in this first part of our Presbyterian mission statement, another complicating factor is the reality that proclaiming the gospel isn’t something that only preachers do, either. We see that in our passage from Nehemiah today.

Before we dive in, though, let me first offer a bit of history. As many of you know, after ancient Israel was conquered by Babylon, many of the Israelites were taken into captivity, transported away from their homeland, and placed into exile in Babylon itself. They languished there for a generation, until they were finally allowed to return home.

When the people returned, Ezra and Nehemiah stepped into leadership, which is where today’s text begins. So again: Babylon was behind them. Exile was over. They are back home. Life will soon get back to normal—except for the fact that they’d been gone for so long that the people who had returned home, many of whom had actually never even been there before, didn’t know what normal was anymore.

Questions and uncertainty emerged. What does faith look like now, in this brand-new day? What sort of practices are important now? What does it mean to worship God now? Honestly, their questions are not drastically different from the questions we’ve been asking as we live through a global pandemic. Like us, the newly returned exiles were full of questions, but they also knew they had deep spiritual resources on which they could draw, as do we.

So that is indeed what they decided to do. Our scripture for today tells us that all the people decided to call on Ezra the priest to read to them from Book of Moses, from the Torah. So Ezra stands on a box “made for the purpose,” we are told, and reads from early morning to midday, with everyone listening intently. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Again, we are told several different times that all the people are there. This includes Matithiah and Hilkiah and Hash-baddanah and Pelaiah. All the people are there, listening. And some of those gathered, called Levites, moved amongst the crowd, helping them to better understand what they are hearing, acting as theological teachers. More than a few biblical historians claim that this is the moment when the sermon was born. You can decide if that was a good day or a bad one.

One thing, though, is clear: when Ezra reads the Torah, it is a remarkable moment in the history of Israel. The people respond powerfully to that proclamation. It changes their entire outlook on what is possible in their new lives. They move from weeping to rejoicing, all within that span of time. But what is also equally interesting to me is what our lectionary leaves out whenever this passage comes up in the year. It always skips over the verses with all the names. Yet the writer goes into significant detail to tell us who was there—who was involved in the listening and in the interpreting. But the writer didn’t have to. The writer could have just said, “A lot of people were there, all the people, a huge crowd!” But that is not what they chose to do.

Rather, we get to hear many of their names. And it turns out they are mostly names we’ve never heard before, at least not in our Christian tradition. I don’t think that’s an accident. So given that intentionality on behalf of the writer, one conclusion we can draw from this particular story is that the transformative power of scripture can only really be known through people with real names and real lives.

That is not only evident in the story of Israel. It is evident in our story, too. As we have said before, our Christian faith is an incarnational faith. It does not just appear in the abstract. Our Christian faith only shows up as it is lived by people. Actual people. Some of whom we know. Most of whom we don’t. But all of them had names. And faces. And lives.

For from the very beginning, the story of faith has been about people. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Isaac and Jacob. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. And today we learn about Ezra the great priest and Nehemiah, the governor. But we also hear about Mattithiah and Shema and Uriah and Hilkiah. And though we know nothing about the last four I just mentioned except for their names, we do know that this story can’t be told without them. So I think it matters, deeply, that we know these names.

For it demonstrates that God’s work in this world does not only unfold through the saints like Mother Teresa or C. S. Lewis. Nor does God’s work in this world only unfold through the proclamation of those whose worship productions are slick and have millions of views or through those whose names are put up in lights and on billboards. The truth is that most of the time, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, gets proclaimed through the lives of people who never get much attention for it at all.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, author, and well-known national speaker. She writes honestly and beautifully. She also often uses language that might even make a sailor blush. Nadia grew up in a very conservative tradition, the Church of Christ. And in her church, people taught her early on that as a girl she was not equipped to be a pastor. Women didn’t do that. Other than teaching children, women stayed behind the scenes. They were expected to be silent in church. Nadia learned those lessons early.

But after a rather tumultuous young adulthood, Nadia began to wonder if, contrary to the church teaching of her childhood, God was actually calling her to ministry. She writes of the time she went home to tell her Church of Christ parents that she thought she was supposed to be a pastor. She says that she just stammered it out to them. And immediately after those words left her mouth, her father stood up, went to bookshelf, and took down the Bible. Here is how she puts what she thought would happen next: “I thought here we go. He is going to hit me with the scripture stick.”

But when her Dad read, he didn’t read from Paul about women keeping silent in the church. He did not read from Timothy about women not usurping men’s authority. Rather, he read from Esther, a woman who had been a leader among God’s people. “Perhaps you were born for such a time as this,” he read to his daughter. Her parents then embraced her, prayed for her, and gave her a blessing, the kind of blessing one never forgets.

These days, many of us, church people and not, know the name Nadia Bolz-Weber. But there are few of us who know the name of her dad. Yet we cannot tell the story of her ministry without telling his story and the blessing he chose to give, the grace he chose to speak when his daughter came to him as she searched for what God was really up to in her life.

And here’s the thing: that, right there, is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind. Yes, it is old language, stilted, overly loaded and complicated. But even with all of that, it is the work of each and every one of us—COVID or not. It is one part of our church’s life the pandemic cannot touch.

Because not only are there names in our faith story like Abraham and Sarah and Rachel; Mary and Martha and John. And not only are there are names in our faith story like Saint Augustine and John Calvin and Martin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash and the Reverend Eugene Carson Blake and John Lewis. There are also names in our faith story like Hilkiah and Malchaijah and Hodiah and Akkub.

Though I cannot tell you anything about those last four, I can say with confidence that the story of God at work in this world is an incomplete telling without them. And I hope you realize that means that the story of God at work in this world is also an incomplete telling without you. You, too, preacher or not, can embody, in both word and deed, this good news of Jesus Christ. By the very way you live your life, you, too, can choose to be givers of blessings, announcers of grace and mercy, doers of justice. You, too, can proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

When we do that, when we let this proclamation of Good News live in us, live through us, well, I promise there will be someone who simply won’t be able to tell the story of what God is doing in this world without mentioning your name, even if, maybe especially if, you aren’t very “preachy.” Amen.

This particular sermon was heavily influenced by a conversation with and the work of the Reverend Jenny McDevitt, pastor of Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Jenny is the one who pointed out the listings of the names and why that mattered. She reminded me of Nadia’s call story, and she encouraged me along the way.