Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on September 20 2009.
Mark 3:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
These days we’re talking about “just walking across the room,” which is Bill Hybels’ way of describing a lifestyle of reaching others for Christ. We’re in the second week of a four-week campaign designed to renew our hearts and minds regarding this scary, difficult subject of evangelism.
Last week we acknowledged our tendency to stay inside our own warm circles of comfort. When given a choice, we’ll hang out with people we know and feel comfortable with over people we don’t know 9.9 times out of ten. That explains in part why many of us interact so little with people far from God.
Fortunately our God doesn’t act the same way. In fact, twenty centuries ago God left the cozy comforts of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ and walked across the universe for you and me. And he calls on us to do the same so that people will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves them.
JWAR pushes all of us to place the people who flow in and out of our lives at the top of our priority list. It asks us to see people, really see them, and be prepared to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives when it comes to taking the plunge and engaging them in conversation.
In this week’s sermon, the JWAR resource materials encourage the pastor to share a recent experience of taking a risk to talk with someone you don’t know, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To be honest, I had no idea how that was going to happen over the last week. I prayed that God would make it happen, but was prepared to skip over this personal illustration…until Curtis came along.
Thursday, my schedule got discombobulated when someone in our church became deathly ill. I rushed to see this person in the hospital, and then contacted my lunch appointment who graciously agreed to reschedule our meeting for another time. Eventually, I left the hospital and went to a nearby restaurant to order a sandwich to go so I could work and eat in my office.
I’m about to take my place in the line to order—there must have been a dozen people waiting ahead of me. Just as I take my place a gentleman dressed in jeans and a tee shirt slips in line behind me. Judging from his appearance, I suspect the man is homeless, and prepare myself to be panhandled.
Right on cue, the man tells me he has only a little money on him, and wonders if I will help him buy his lunch. I immediately wonder if this man knows who I am, but he doesn’t seem to recognize me (for which I am grateful!). Suddenly, I realize I am out of my comfort zone and in what Hybels calls “the zone of the unknown,” and I have a choice of engaging this person or walking away.
In all honesty, part of me wanted to tell the guy to move on—I was already worn out with ministry for the day. But I felt God nudging me in a different direction. So I asked the guy for his name, and he identified himself as Curtis. On the spur of the moment I told Curtis I’d buy his lunch.
At first, Curtis regaled me with a number of stories about why he had no money, and I just listened. Then, without any warning, he suddenly became honest about how he wheeled and dealed to get people to buy him food, and said he’d rather do that than steal. I asked him all kinds of questions about where he lived and how he made do.
Finally, I asked Curtis where he was with God. Together, we stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant just out of the pouring rain while Curtis confessed to me that he knew who Jesus was. He just wasn’t living for him at the moment. Then I told him I bought his lunch because God loved me. And I knew God loved him, too, and I wanted him to know about that love.
Only then did I tell him I was a pastor. He asked if I had a card, and I gave him one, encouraging him to visit our church. Then, I felt prompted to look him in the eye and say, “Don’t give up on yourself.” And we parted ways.
As the day wore on I couldn’t help but reflect on that “chance” encounter. What were the odds that my lunch would be cancelled and that standing in a long line of people Curtis would approach me to buy his lunch? I certainly haven’t always agreed to buy someone lunch in these situations – why did I say “yes” this time? And why did I feel led to listen like I did, and say what I said?
Was it all one big coincidence? I don’t think so. Because once you sign up to just walk across a room for God, anything and everything can and will happen! If you prefer safety and predictability over risk and adventure, then I advise you not to sign on for just walking across the room!
Okay, so let’s say you’ve decided to trust God enough to take the plunge and make yourself available to people outside your comfort zone so you can show them the love of God? What now?
Bill Hybels urges us to make three moves, all starting with the letter “D”—
· Develop friendships
· Discover stories
· Discern next steps.
In other words, you don’t cling to your circle of comfort, but expand that God-inspired circle called the Kingdom of God.
Developing friendships seems benign enough until you see what Hybels has in mind. Bill doesn’t mean developing friendships just with persons you’d naturally hang out with anyway. Once again he’s talking about stretching yourself with a radically inclusive view of the world that involves pulling people into your circle you might normally ignore, or even avoid.
In his book, Just Walk Across The Room, Hybels chronicles the relational pattern that most Christians fall into. When they become Christians, most adults have considerably more friends far from God than Christ-followers. But that ratio reverses in a hurry. In no time, Christians find themselves so wrapped up in the life of the church that they have few if any non-Christian friends left.
This pattern of pulling away from the world is easy to chronicle. First, we gradually lose contact with people far from God. We honestly just don’t have time for them. But it doesn’t stop there. Eventually we go out of our way to avoid outsiders, because we don’t want their pagan ways to rub off on us or our children. Then, we publicly criticize them because they don’t believe or behave the way we think they should.
I don’t agree with Bill Hybels on every point. In fact, before this sermon is done I will challenge him at a key place. But one reason I wanted us to read his book together is because Hybels goes out of his way to challenge the Christian cocoon mindset, the “Holy Huddle” mentality that says we should stick to our own kind, forcefully advocate for our own ways, and openly criticize those who say or do anything different. And I could not agree with him more.
Being radically inclusive, by the way, does not mean we go soft on sin. Jesus himself said some tough things with great conviction. He does not gloss over the consequence of our actions, or the possibility of hell. But Jesus speaks the truth with such love that sinners are drawn to him like metal filings to a magnet. And the most religious folk of the day are perpetually offended by the way Jesus hangs out with all the wrong people.
If we’re going to be serious about following Jesus, we’ll be following him across all kinds of rooms to connect with all kinds of people, all of whom God loves as much as he loves us.
As we do, we’ll be discovering the stories of people’s lives. In other words, we’ll be listening intently to them whether they are Jew or Gentile, weak or strong, black or white, homeless or homeowner, gay or straight. Like the Apostle Paul, we’ll be building bridges instead of walls, with anybody and everybody. Like Jesus, we’ll be loving people no matter what we hear and see.
I’ve heard Christians criticized for all kinds of things—especially for being judgmental and legalistic and pushy. But I’ve never heard us be criticized for listening too much, or loving too much. The point seems to be that we need to put all our evangelistic speeches on hold until we’ve really gotten to know somebody well. That may take weeks, months, or even years.
Are you ready to love somebody for years with no immediate payoff? Your answer to this question is so important because people far from God can instantly pick up on our agenda to hustle them into our churches as fast as possible.
In the book, UnChristian, written by the George Barna research group, we read about a young man who moved to New York City. This young man met another young man who seemed genuinely interested in him. After a long, engaging conversation his new “friend” asked if he’d like to join him at a Bible Study, and the newcomer said, “No thanks.” And he never heard from his new “friend” again, making him think his new friend was nothing more than a “spiritual headhunter.”
Later, in this same book, church outsiders are asked in interviews what they are looking for as they interact with Christians. Here’s their list:
· Listen to us. Talk less and listen better.
· Don’t label us. Words like “lost” and “pagans” are offensive.
· Don’t be so smart. Don’t pretend to have all the answers.
· Put yourself in our place. Don’t judge us until you know what we’ve been through.
· Be genuine.
· Be our friend with no other motives.
Does this mean we give up on trying to lead people to Christ? No, it means we
love people first and foremost, and trust God to provide the openings we’ll need over time to point people to him. This is why discerning next steps is so important. When we run ahead of the Holy Spirit out of our need to get another evangelistic notch on our Bibles, we risk hurting people and our cause.
What’s at stake in doing this right? Nothing more or less than expanding the circle of the Kingdom on earth, and the Kingdom of heaven. By the way, my quibble with Bill Hybels is that he’s so anxious to get people to heaven that he sometimes seems to ignore how important it is to get people into the Kingdom on earth where they can do an amazing amount of good in this lifetime.
See, there are many people suffering with withered parts all around us. Like the man suffering with a withered arm in Mark 3. Jesus saw the man while he was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, no less. Let’s not overlook the fact that Jesus saw this man with a need. We can’t and won’t do anything about the needs around us until we see them.
Jesus also saw the Pharisees, and knew they were watching to see if he would break the law prohibiting healing on the Sabbath. Knowing what he did next would likely seal his fate, Jesus let his love for the deformed man outweigh his fear of death. And after quizzing the Pharisees about whether it was more lawful to plot someone’s death than to heal someone’s body on the Sabbath, Jesus invited the man to stretch out his hand, and he was healed.
Last Sunday, we acknowledged that we don’t know if the adulterous woman Jesus rescued from the Pharisees in John 8 leaves her life of sin, much less decides to become a Christ-follower. This Sunday, we again have no idea if the healed man in time follows Christ. Because once again, Jesus seems content to do his part on that particular day to point the man toward God, and trust God to do the rest.
Now here’s the thing. There are people all around us suffering with withered parts. Some with withered minds that are convinced that God either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care, or both. Some with withered hearts broken by abuse, abandonment, or betrayal. Some with withered souls so dry, so dark, that hope is long gone and the only goal left is survival.
I notice that most of us, myself included, are quick to condemn the heartless Pharisees who would rather keep the law than see Jesus heal a man. But how much more sense does it make, my friends, to conduct our worship services and our committee meetings and our programs as though as people outside these walls don’t even exist?
Is there anybody here who thinks we couldn’t do a better job of expanding our circle? A world full of withered people is waiting.