OUR ELEVATOR SPEECH
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on14 May 2023 Easter 6; Year A
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
As we continue to move beyond the Covid pandemic experience, I keep encountering things we did before the deadly disruption; and I am surprised not only to remember certain activities and perspectives but also emotionally how to mark what feels like “long ago”. “Before Covid”; “After Covid”: The reality of the last three-plus years can almost stand as a kind of B.C. and A. D. demarcation. The point is that I do believe that it is important for us as a church and as faithful individuals to pay attention to how much the pandemic time shaped our lives and effected our perspectives.
Case in point: In a recent meeting of the Vestry’s Executive Committee, Treasurer (and indefatigable engineer) Joe Bianca identified three questions we need to ask now that we are (for all intents and purposes) in a “post-Covid” time. The three questions are: What are we doing now that we need to continue to do? What are the things that we are doing that we need to stop doing? What are the things that we are not doing and but need to do?
The common inclination among us has been to get back to “normal”; but the challenge for our responses is that we need to go deeper than merely returning to what is familiar. I say this because life has changed – for better and for worse. Our lives have changed – for better and for worse. So, to what extent will we take stock of all that we have gone through and be creatively accountable for answering Joe’s questions?
Discussing our responses to these questions and holding ourselves accountable for what we do with our responses was the primary purpose of our April 30th “Quarterly Parish Meeting”. And with the formal commitment we have made to meet on Saturday, June 17th, at the Williston Northampton School, we will take concrete steps to clarify our answers and to craft action plans that will put our answers to work.
(We will be communicating more details about this parish June planning session in the weeks to come. Yet, with a month’s notice, do, please mark your calendars with the intention of being a participant in these crucial discussions.)
All of this brings me to the point of remembering and reclaiming something you and I were regularly talking about before the pandemic struck. And I am personally triggered (I use that word consciously) to recall our “long ago” discussion, fueled by the rather unassuming statement Peter makes in today’s epistle lesson. In writing to members of the fledgling Jesus Movement, Peter encourages and instructs them with these words: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet, St. Peter wisely concludes, do it with gentleness and reverence.
[1 Peter 3:15b].
What Peter commends in his epistle is what three-plus years ago you and I spoke of as the need to develop our “elevator speech”. Remember?
For those among us who came to join St. Philip’s during the pandemic and missed this item or for those who (like me) have tended to forget the precise content of those days, the “elevator speech” was this: If we encountered someone on an elevator and (for some mysterious reason that person discerned that we were a Christian); and that curious (if not brash) individual asked us why we were faithful to Jesus, what would we say? Moreover, given that we only had the short response time that it took to go from the floor we were on to the lobby of the building, what would we say that was honest and helpful? “Elevator speech”.
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. [The Message]
This past week I came across an article, the title of which caught my eye: “The Church That Grew without Trying”. The gist of the article was that in the first three centuries of its existence, the early church grew and expanded in astounding ways, none of which were the product of special organization or mission strategy. Early Christian leaders did not engage in rival church growth programs or muse about various spiritual techniques. Yet, the growth of the faith happened. And it happened primarily and essentially because followers of Jesus lived in such a compelling way as to attract people who were dissatisfied with their lives, controlled by their habits, and lost with whatever was their life’s organizing principle – that is, their “religion”.
The key to the early church’s vitality was representatively captured in these words of Cyprian, Bishop of Antioch, around the year 300. Bishop Cyprian said, “We do not speak great things ,but we live them.” Cyprian’s sentiment echoes in this Prayer Book petition: “Grant us an awareness of all your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise not only with our lips but in our lives.” In a much later era, St. Francis of Assisi spoke similarly: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
And yet – and yet, what are the words that identify our faithfulness? What are the words of invitation that we take to heart and are living? What’s the “Why” of our faith-life; and how might we speak that purpose with “the utmost courtesy”?
I love what our youngest daughter, Lucy, says to her sons, when they are stressed to express themselves. “Use your words!” she reminds them. Yes, you and I need to use our words; and if necessary, to learn those words. I do not speak French even though I studied it for five years in high school and got college credit to have to take only one year at University. The problem was I never truly used my “other” language. Many of us fall into the same category when I comes to speaking our words of faith.
There is a word that speaks to this “Why?” – why faith in God’s Christ; and it is kerygma. [K-e-r-y-g-m-a] It is a Greek word that means “proclamation”; but within the early Jesus movement kerygma became associated specifically with the proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus. (“Good News” being an English derivative of the word “gospel”.) The point about “kerygma” is that it had no precise, formulaic definition. Each Jesus follower expressed his or her own “proclamation” based on their living the “Good News”, the gospel of Christ. And to sharpen the point, these kerygmatic proclamations were not answers, as we often see on bumper stickers. They were declarations – declarations of trust and experience, of faith and understanding.
What is your version of kerygma What is your concise, experiential, and respectful declaration of faith in terms of the Good News of Jesus Christ? What difference does your faith make in your life? In some form or fashion, identifying our kerygma our proclamation of our faith story) and demonstrating our proclamation through the way we live will be what the June 17th, Williston parish planning meeting will be all about. It will be a time to proclaim how the elements of our kerygma help compose our action-oriented responses to Joe Bianca’s three questions.
The issue of how St. Philip’s might grow and continue to mature as a reliable, trustworthy resource of “Good News” stands at the heart of all our discussion. How can St. Philip’s increase our presence and impact on its members’ lives and the life of this small city of Easthampton? One response among us that has just begun to surface is to invite non-members to participate in a “focus group” where we can listen to their experiences and their needs living in this area. More pointedly, in a focus group discussion we can also hear what they think of the church and what keeps them from participating in community life with us. We already have some viable contacts for forming such a focus group. One of which already meets in our parish hall five mornings a week. “The Easthampton Family Center” attracts dozens of kids and parents Monday through Friday. As our neighbors, why wouldn’t we ask them to speak to us about the demands they face in their lives, what they need in terms of support, and why the church seems not to be accounted by them as a helpful resource.?
Like St. Paul in the Athenian Areopagus, we need to listen and observe “with the utmost courtesy” and then be prepared to respond – with our invitation to explore safely and reliably what we have and what we know in God’s Christ. “Elevator Speech”.
I am bold enough and experienced enough to say this: We can come up with all kinds of good ideas and creative ministry programs, but unless we are prepared to speak a personal accounting for our faith and offer our hands-on invitation to “Come and See” (to use the words of our St. Philip), if we don’t engage with this, the church – our church – does not deserve to continue. And believe me, without this clear integrity, it won’t continue.
So, it's time. In fact, there is not a lot of time left. With the approaching end of Eastertide, it’s time for us to regroup, refocus, and do what the Risen One has shown us to be and do. It’s time. Together, let’s work on our “elevator speeches”, our faith words, and use them for our own sakes; but not for ours alone but for the sake of the world.
It's time. Alleluia! Amen.
________________________________________________________________________________  Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Book of Common Prayer. Prayer of General Thanksgiving: p. 101.