How Can I Keep From Singing? – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Luke 1:26-38, 29-56
Mark 1:40-45

For the next few weeks, we brothers are presenting a sermon series based on the “Five Marks of Mission” of the Anglican Communion.  The Five Marks of Mission are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures, challenge violence of every kind, and pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

In this series you will actually hear two different brothers preach on each mark.  My brother Nicholas (who preached on Tuesday evening) and I were given the first mark:  To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

There is probably no word that makes an Episcopalian jumpier than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs than evangelism. If we had our druthers we would much rather cuddle up with the word sacrament[i] or perhaps incarnation[ii].  The essence of these latter words have a gentle quality to them like hot water slowly extracting flavor from tea leaves that will warm and comfort us.  The word evangelism, however, is about as welcoming as being thrown into an ice cold swimming pool after a long soak in a hot tub.  I suspect that most of us would just assume avoid that.  And so it is with the word evangelism.  Why does this word evoke such a negative emotion in so many of us that are Anglicans?  Perhaps we can turn to the dictionary for a clue:

  1. 1 :  the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ
  2. 2 :  militant or crusading zeal

Descriptive words such as winning, revival, militant, and crusading zeal seem to jump out at us.  Episcopalians don’t necessarily see themselves in a contest and needing to be the winners of anything.  Neither do many of us have a personal affection for war or the ardent desire to go forth and conquer.  We admire the ‘via media’ or middle way, one of the great virtues of the Elizabethan Settlement.  That’s not to say we don’t disagree about a great many things:  Ask a high churchman and low churchman each about their understanding of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist and you’re sure to hear very different views.  But in spite of this, we recognize the truth that we all need come to the communion rail and receive the sustenance of Jesus (however that happens) together.

Personally, I think both the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and we as Episcopalians have misunderstood the meaning of the word evangelism.  This verb form actually comes from the Greek word for evangelist:  euangelion which means “messenger of good news.”  It is where we get the word ‘angel.’  You may remember from the gospel according to Luke:  The angel Gabriel was sent by God to Galilee to a virgin whose name was Mary.  He said to her:  “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[iii]  The angel Gabriel was an evangelist, a bringer of good news.

Mary visits her cousin and when Elizabeth greets her Mary sings one of the greatest hymns of the church:  “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for He has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”She then witnesses to who God is and how he is fulfilling His promise at this time in her life.  Mary becomes an evangelist, a bringer of good news.[iv]

The writers of the four gospels are called evangelists because they proclaim the good news of Jesus.  At the beginning of Mark’s gospel we read a story of a leper begging Jesus for healing.  Jesus stretches out his hand and heals him.  We then read, 41 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus* could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  This man became an evangelist, spreading the good news of what Jesus had done for him.  [v]

Do these stories from the gospels make you uncomfortable?  Do these evangelical actions of Gabriel, Mary, and the man cured of leprosy sound unreasonable?  I think most of would say no.  Why is that?   I think it is important for us to note that evangelism is not about winning or conquering but is actually a natural response to an action that has been set in motion by God.  In other words it’s not about what we can do for God or anyone else for that matter, but rather, what God is doing for us.  The angel Gabriel proclaimed good news to Mary at God’s initiation.  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth to share the good news that she had received from the angel.  The leper who was once an outcast went among the townspeople freely proclaiming the good news of his being made whole by Jesus.  I don’t think anyone of us would act any differently.  When receiving good news you can’t help but to share it because it bursts forth from your inner most core and radiates outwards.It is involuntary.  In 1868, American Baptist minister Robert Lowry published a hymn in his songbookBright Jewels of the Sunday School which included these words:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?[vi]

How can we rescue this word evangelism from its assumed posture of force and reclaim its truer essence of a loving response?  First, I’d say we have to be open to cultivating the relationship that God desires to have with us.  When the angel Gabriel visits Mary she is at first fearful.  But, Luke says that she assents to God’s action which is an important piece of the story.  After he tells her how God will accomplish this amazing thing in her life Mary replies:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The founder of this community, Father Richard Meux Benson wrote:  we cannot bring any souls to God. But His peace shining though us can draw others to Himself, if there is nothing in ourselves to hinder it.[vii]Like Mary, we have to say yes to God.

When we have said yes to God then we give ourselves fully to participate in the act that God has initiated.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney, Director of Anglican Communion studies at Virginia Theological Seminary writes:  The first missionary act is God creating and crossing the creator-creature boundary for life. To begin with God is to begin with mission. To begin with mission is to begin with God.  That means mission does not begin in activism, but in contemplation and discernment, first in scripture and then in tradition, in history and in context. Through such discernment the first question is not, “what should we do?” The first question is, “who is God?” and “what is the work of God?”[viii]

And I would say that this begins first with us:  What is God doing in your life?  How can you then participate in this action?  Perhaps your proclamation of the good news might be one of action rather than of word.  It could be that your first instinct is like that of Mary when she sings her Magnificat:  to worship and give glory to God.  You could also use this good news to give energy to vocations you have already taken up in this world using the gifts and talents you have been endowed with by God.  St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to having said:  Preach always, if necessary, use words.

If you don’t quite know how to begin, then let that be your prayer.  When you come forward in a few moments to receive the sacrament of the altar, as you lift up your hands, give yourself to God and pray:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  God will take care of the rest.

[i] The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 857) states:  The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

[ii]incarnation:  the belief in Jesus Christ as both God and a human being.

[iii] Luke 1:26-38

[iv] Luke 1:39-56

[v] Mark 1:40-45

[vi]Robert Lowry, ed. Bright Jewels for the Sunday School. New York: Biglow and Main, 1869, hymn number 16.|

[vii]Father Benson of Cowley; Woodgate, page 81

[viii] From an essay entitled:  What is Mission?  by the Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney, Professor of Anglican Communion Studies at the Virginia Theological Seminary

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  1. Frank McNair on September 29, 2021 at 16:06

    The word “evangelical” evokes a negative response (even from someone like me —> who thinks the Gospel is indeed ‘Good News’) because it has been co-opted by rigid, rule-bound people who would rather tell people what they cannot do (marry the person they love, vote for human rights, eschew intemperate political leaders) than “love ‘em all and let God sort it out.”

  2. Elizabeth Hardy on September 29, 2021 at 12:05

    I’ve read this sermon previously. But what stuck out to me today is that evangelism or mission begins with discernment, not just leaping into action, any kind of action, whether it is helpful or not. We are sometimes too lazy to take the time to answer those questions: what is the work of God, what is God doing already in my life, how can I participate in that action? They sometimes require more energy than helter-skelter activity. Thank you Br. Jim. Elizabeth Hardy+

  3. William Stewart on September 29, 2021 at 11:04

    Regarding “negative“ reactions to the word, “evangelism“ (Br. Woodrum‘s 9/29 post), it is not that we “misunderstand“ the word, but that this word has been so misused by others that we need to reclaim its meaning.

  4. Shannon Bailey-Bloodworth on May 22, 2019 at 15:53

    I thought the quote from St. Francis was “PRAY always, if necessary with words.” Comments?

    • William Stewart on September 29, 2021 at 11:05

      St. Francis did not speak English, so different translators might use slightly different words.

  5. Guy Rowe-Sleeman on April 14, 2016 at 19:51

    I attended an Anglican College reunion at U of T and I was talking with the chaplin who I knew for over 40 years and another student. The chaplin left and the student asked me how I came to know Father Harold. I said when I was an undergraduate he gave my dad who had suffered a massive stroke the last rites at a Veterans Hospital. No one thought he would live through the night. I told him my dad lived 18 years. The student responded that would be Harold. I responded that would be God. The evangelical part of the conversation was simply stating what I witnessed a priest and our Lord do for one of his own.

  6. Ruth West on April 14, 2016 at 16:05

    Thank you, Br. Jim, for this good message. I so like Gwedhen’s ending comment, “It is comforting to realize that we only have to say yes, and God will do the rest.” God works best with those who totally surrender to Him. How often the scripture tells us of ones who replied to His calling, “Here am I; send me.” Sometimes, however, one might say yes and then change his/her mind. Or one might say no, and then decide to do it. The Bible deals with that, asking which one is most acceptable? Of course, its the one who decides that obedience is best, even if he says no in the beginning.

  7. Margo on April 14, 2016 at 15:30

    Dear Br. Jim, Thank you for your optimistic words. Let me share my experience. I moved onto this street 7 years ago. Over time I met all my neighbors and shared with them what was happening to me with Jesus. Good opening I was the new rector. I now have 8 new friends who have become dear to me but do not want to know or share anything of our experience of God in our church. The ‘good news’ is just too old hat nowadays. Still trying though. Margo

  8. gwedhen nicholas on April 10, 2016 at 16:58

    Thank you Br Jim. I like the thought of the beginning of evangelism being prayer. When we pray we are close to God, and He can speak to us and then after, through us. It is comforting to realize that we only have to say yes, and God will do the rest.

  9. Elaine Dando on April 10, 2016 at 13:28

    I love the sense that mission begins with contemplation of God. It helps me in the waiting and the longing.

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