Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
Epiphany is all about God being revealed in the world in a brand new
way. It’s not surprising, then, that two themes are often lifted up during
this season of the church year. They are, on the one hand, the theme of
evangelism and on the other, the theme of mission. While they are not exactly
the same thing—there are differences between them—still, they do
overlap. That’s what we read in Isaiah and
what we read in Matthew: “Let your light shine before others, so that they
may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
That said, let me share how evangelism was once practiced by people in
our specific tradition. In other words, how it was once practiced by us
Lutherans. And I’m going to do that by turning to my own family history. My
Grandpa Watt and his family grew up on a farm, the same onemy father, my
brothers, and I did. All
my grandfather’s relatives also grew up on farms. And I was once told he
had, altogether, as many as 75 cousins!
In turn, my father had, on my grandfather’s side,16 first cousins,
while my brothers and I had 11. Today, my children have just 1 in the Watt
family and, on Deborah’s side, also
just 1. There is here a very clear
What I have described was how most
Lutherans in the U.S. once spread the faith, which meant that not only fertile
were the grain fields that they
farmed. It was, what I have called, procreative
When those of us belonging to the baby-boom generation came of age, we
tended to have less children, although
since there were a lot of us, that meant there were still
a lot of babies born. Nevertheless, that form of spreading the good news
began going out of style. The tumultuous 1960s and the cynical1970s also played
their part in the deepening decline in the mainline denominations.
Now some other traditions, for example, Southern Baptists, have
practiced evangelism much better. They may not exactly be any better
the faith, but they have more than made up enough for itin enthusiasm and
determination. Yet today their worship
attendance is not what it used to be.
To some degree, the same holds true even for a number of the independent megachurches. Those that are
growing are groups like Spanish-speaking congregations made up of a number of
immigrants—just as it once was for our churches a number of generations ago.
Christian evangelism, however, isn’t only about telling others the Good News. It’s also showing others the Good News. That’s evangelism in action—evangelism
by example—what might also be called mission. It’s part of what Jesus meant
when he said: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your
good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
In some important ways, our tradition has, in that respect, done a very
good job. For example, in the nineteenth century, the founding of the first
Protestant hospital in the U.S., just outside Pittsburgh.[ii]
Our Lutheran heritage also has been known for other
Foster homes and adoption services.[iii]
And refugee resettlement, which
began during World War II.
And, in recent decades, our
denomination has advocated for those both here and abroad for whom a decent life
would otherwise remain little more than a distant hope.[iv]
“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good
work sand give glory to your Father in heaven.”
But letting others see, telling them about what we do for
others—isn’t that bragging? Doesn’t Jesus command us to keep such things
to ourselves? To practice humility? As we read laterin the Sermon on the Mount:
“…when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is
doing, so that your alms may be done in secret…”[v]
Well, when it comes to evangelism, when it comes to mission, it’s okay
to tell others about it, that is, when it’s done for the right reason.
When the motive is to let someone else know that our Christian faith isthe basis,
is at the heart of what we’re doing,
then it’s perfectly all right, even encouraged. Only if we’re liable to do
it for the wrong reason should we keep
it to ourselves: Jesus said: “…whenever you give alms, do not sound a
trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,
so…they may be praised by others.”[vi]
Even doing such things for others because it makes us feel good isn’t necessarily the best reason. As Martin Luther
often said, and I paraphrase: “Helping my neighbor is one of the ways I say thank
you to God.” And, for a practical reason: “I love my neighbor simply
because that is what he or she needs.”[vii]
The good works that we do—as individuals and as groups—are simply an
extension of our worship. They are two
sides of the same coin. In Isaiah, that was the problem of some of the Israelites—that they failed to see
“Why [O, LORD] do we fast [in
your holy house], but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you
do not notice?”
[The LORD answers:] Is not this
the fast that I choose…
Is it not to share your bread
with the hungry,
and bring the homeless…into your house,
you see the naked, to cover them?
[When you do, then your light
shall break forth like the dawn…[viii]
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good
works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Christ Lutheran Church has a wonderful
history of doing that very thing, some of which I was last week reading again in
my copy of On the Codorus. This
congregation needs to remember and celebrate it:
In the early 1950s Christ Church
established a home for the aged, later purchased by Lutheran Social Services and
used until the building of the facility at Kelly Dr.[ix]
The parish-nurse program.[x]
And some years ago, Stephen
In terms of foreign
missions, support of the hospital in Tanzania, which a number of you have, in
the past, been very active in.
And a mission trip to rebuild homes
damaged by Hurricane Katrina.[xi]
And do I remember rightly that
Christ Church once sponsored a refugee family?[xii]
And, of course, the
preschool—later the daycare ministry—and also the tutoring program.[xiii]
Recently, some other ministries have been undertaken—that reach out to
those living in the immediate neighborhood.
Will this mission work bring more people into the weekly life of this
congregation? Probably few of those who directly benefit from it. They live on
the edge, so to speak. They’re preoccupied with just getting by from one day
to the next. Yet whenever others—who
may or may not
be more like we are—whenever such people become aware
of the love we show
to one another and those beyond this fellowship, will say: “This is a place I want to be part
For over 200 years, the steeple above this nave has served as a beacon
of light for the sake of the Gospel. It is a symbol of a common life of worship,
education, and fellowship that continue
to inspire, inform, and encourage, so that you, the people within it, may
reflect the love of him who enlightens the world. Will it look like the church
did in my grandfather’s time, or my father’s, or mine as a child and young
adult? Of course not.
The important thing to remember is, while the church changes from one
age to the next, Jesus Christ remains the same—yesterday, today, and forever.
And this is what he says to us: “Let your light shine that before others, so
that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen.
[i]Wott Genealogy (unpublished, 1980).
[ii] G.H. Gerberding, The Life and Letters of W.A. Passavant (Greenville PA: The Young Lutheran Co., 3rd edition, 1906): 184ff.
[iii] See various resources about Lutheran Social Services; locally, SpiriTrust.
[iv] See various resources about Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania; ELCA Department of Advocacy; ELCA Disaster Relief; Lutheran World Relief; and Lutheran World Federation.
[v] Matthew 6:3-4a.
[vi] Matthew 6:2a.
[vii] Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty, ed. Harold Grimm, trans. W.A. Lambert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957): 23 and 27. See also George H. Forell, Faith Active in Love: The Principles underlying Luther’s Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1954).
[viii] Isaiah 58:3a, 6a, 7-8.
[ix]On the Codorus: 51.
[x] Granger E. Westberg in Wikipedia; for Christ Church, Henry Nyman, Melvin Dick, Marlin Kenee, and Patrick Rooney, On the Codorus: The History of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, York, Pennsylvania, 1733-2011 (Self-published, 2011): 65.
[xi]On the Codorus: 66.
[xii] See various resources about Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.
[xiii]On the Codorus: 60.