Evangelism Re-Defined: The Missionary Next Door

This week I am beginning a new three-part sermon series entitled, "The Missionary Next Door:  Learning to Be A Witness Right Where You Are."

The question that really drives this series is one that should cause anyone who calls themselves a Christian to straighten a little in their chair:  "Why don't more Christians share their faith?"

I think there are a lots of reasons, but here are a few of the most prevalent---according to me.   Most of us are worried that we'll get asked a question that we can't answer and then we'll look stupid.  Some of us worry that if we share our faith that we'll be labelled as "one of those" Christians and then we'll look stupid.  Then there are others of us who are afraid to say that we're a Christian because we don't really act like one at all in front of people...and we know that makes us look stupid.

Did you know that you get opportunities every day to be a witness to what God has done for you?  Are you taking them?  Seriously.  There's the waitress that serves you coffee at your favorite diner.  The barista at Starbucks.  The person at the McDonald's drive thru.  The young woman at the reception area of your gym.  Your mechanic.  Your grocery bagger.  Your mail person.  The UPS guy.

Or how about this?

What kind of neighbor are you?  Are you the person that everyone in the neighborhood knows and waves to happily every time they see you, or are you the one they mumble about and talk behind your back because you're a jerk?

What kind of co-worker are you?  Are you the one that everyone relies on, pours their heart out to, knows is the "go-to" person on the team?  Or are you the one that doesn't get invited to the after work gathering because you're a hopeless gossip and busybody?

What kind of customer are you?  Are you gracious and generous, or a huge pain in the....? Did you know that it's common knowledge in the service industry that the very worst tippers at a restaurant are people who are eating lunch after church on Sunday.

What kind of family member are you?  I think I'm going to leave that one alone... it hits too close to home for all of us?

Most of us don't take the opportunities, we let them pass us right by.  

The title of this sermon is "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"  I'm shamelessly ripping of one Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood television show.

Mr. Rogers sang this song hundreds of times over the course of his career.  His little show offered a glimpse into what a neighborhood---both real and imaginary--could look like.  For generations of children, this image of neighborhood was in sharp contrast to their own realities.

The decline of community in America has been widely reported, documented, commented on, written about, mourned, etc.  In many ways we are slowly becoming a much more isolated, fearful, wary society.  Mr. Rogers idealized view of society is something that we just sort of remember fondly---like our own idealized versions of the neighborhoods of our childhood, perhaps.

This is where those of us who call ourselves Christians should feel the weight of conviction.  We don't have to acquiesce to the pressures of culture.  We don't have to give in to increasing cultural isolation.  We are called to something greater and more beautiful.

We need to embrace this calling, and to affirm that when you know Jesus, you show Jesus to your neighbors.  

Robert Putnam wrote a book several years ago entitled, "Bowling Alone."  In his book Putnam wondered aloud what happened to all of the organizations, neighborhoods and associations that were filled to overflowing in the late 1960's. His book title comes from the idea that more people are "bowling alone" rather than in leagues, which used to be one of the only ways that people ever really went bowling.

Our cultural isolation can be written off as the by-product of too many channels on TV, the overall busy-ness of our cultural, the rise of individualism, changing roles and families...  The reasons aren't what is important any longer.  We basically wave to our neighbors, but don't really have the energy or the time to chat them up.  I heard once that the garage door opener was the invention that killed neighborly chats.  Now we press our garage door opener when we are half a block from our house, roll into it and shut it behind us without ever having to talk to the guy across the street.

Yogi Berra said something profound.  "If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours."  Good old Yogi.  It's true, though isn't it?  We've become unconnected to one another.  We don't go out of our way to be neighborly, and typically we get the favor returned.

God had something else in mind, though.

I'm teaching from Leviticus this week.  I don't ordinarily teach from Leviticus because it's... well sort of boring.  It's full of rules and regulations, many of which we pretty much ignore.  There are some folks who use some of the laws in Leviticus to back up their social world views, but could care less about the rest of them.  But I digress...

Read Leviticus 4:13-16

The offering that is being referred to in this passage is the "Sin" or "Purification" offering.  The passage indicates that when someone in the community commits an "unintentional" sin that the whole community basically assumes responsibility for that sin.

So what is "unintentional" sin as opposed to "deliberate" sin?  Essentially this doesn't really mean what we assume it means.  It's not a sin of ignorance, but it's also not sin with "a high hand," as deliberate sin might be described.  In the ancient Hebrew language, sin with a "high hand" meant sin that was committed as if one was shaking a fist in the face of God.  "Unintentional" sin is basically a slip, a falling short, a mistake.  You know, the kind of sin that we all commit.

But there was nothing individualistic about this sin.  The whole community was called to assume responsibility for it when they discovered it.  It doesn't say that the person who commits the sin should be asked to leave until they get themselves right.  The community takes it on as if every member were guilty.  Then the elders acting as representatives bring the sacrifice on behalf of everyone.

So here's what we gather based on what God is commanding here:  Individual sin affects the whole community.  The whole community had to assume responsibility.  The elders confessed and repented on behalf of the people.  God obviously had some clear ideas about responsibility, connectedness and community.

Here's what I think that we need to take away from this.

Until you assume responsibility for your neighbors, you will never see them as God sees them.  

I am that neighbor who flees into his garage.  I am often exhausted when I come home.  I barely have enough energy for my family.  I had a neighbor across the street from my old house that I spoke to when I moved into the neighborhood and then again when I moved out.  This hits me hard.

Do you pray for your neighborhood?  Do you offer prayers while you're walking or driving through it?

Do you volunteer to help you neighbors when they need some help?

Are you breaking bread with your neighbors?  Have you invited them over for dinner?

Do your neighbors know where you go to church?

We have no idea what is going on in the houses of our neighbors.  We don't know the pain or the loss they might be feeling.  We don't know their stories because we aren't seeing them as God would have us to see them.  We aren't taking responsibility for them before God.

Now I am not advocating that God needs us to witness to them or they will never hear the Gospel.  I have heard that in fundamentalist churches---that the blood of the "lost" will be on our hands if they die without Christ and we didn't witness to them.  God doesn't need us to carry the Light to the world, he wants us to join him.

I heard the story of a lady in Miami who endured Hurricane Andrew several years ago.  Her house was damaged badly, and she got a settlement to have it fixed.  The money ran out in the middle of the repairs, however, and the contractor left.  The house had no wiring for power and no plumbing.  She lived this way for 15 years right under the noses of her neighbors.

What sort of spiritual darkness might our neighbors be experiencing that is going unnoticed?

You might be saying, "But I don't know what to say.  I don't know the Bible that well.  I don't know a lot about Christian doctrine.  I don't want to look... stupid."

Just tell your story.  Tell the story of how God's grace has changed your life.  Tell the story of how encountering Jesus transformed you forever.  Tell about the hope you feel, the joy that fills your life, the purpose that you have...

Be a neighbor... a real neighbor.  And let God do the rest.

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