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 pattern.[i]

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 evangelism!

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 articulating 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 specialized ministries:

·        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 that connection:

            “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,

when 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 Ministries.

·        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 of!”

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.