SERMON Lent 3b 2018
Billy Graham and Evangelicals
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
I think you all must know by now that Billy Graham died last week. Do I need to tell anybody who he was? Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist, a Southern Baptist minister, who changed the lives of millions of people over many decades by his call to give their lives to Christ. How many of you ever saw him? He was unquestionably a very powerful preacher with a simple message: decide to make Jesus Christ your personal savior, and live into that commitment each day. Perhaps you know the song: “I have decided to follow Jesus” … that pretty much says it. Millions of lives were changed by that call to faith in Christ from the lips of this great man. (Rest in peace, Billy Graham.)
I’d like to speak today about evangelicals and their movement, which has become such a powerful political force in our country.
I never saw Billy Graham in person until I was in my 40s, but I heard that call to make a decision for Christ in early childhood, at the Southern Baptist vacation bible school I attended for three years running with a friend from school. I loved it, and I still remember the 24th psalm from reciting it every day in worship. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein … I still recite it today as I walk between the altar and the hearse at every funeral.
I heard the call early and often, but I never made a decision for Christ; I never needed to. There is no time in my life that I can remember not knowing that Jesus loved me. I don’t know where I heard it or how I learned it or when I believed it. Somehow it’s just in my soul’s architecture.
My experience of evangelical Christians was pretty extensive. Later in my youth, with a different school friend, I was involved with another evangelical church, part of a smaller southern denomination called the Church of Christ. The way all these evangelical Christians lived their faith was impressive. They were the most devoted and kind and sincere people who could ever hope to meet. They were deeply religious, the faith took root in their hearts, and the life of their church was … just part of who they were. Their whole life of faith, worship and service was the way they embodied Christ in the world.
Evangelicals are much more strict and serious than we are about everything. Tithing, for one thing. They nailed their wallets to the cross. Lutherans – even though we have “evangelical” in our name – never got THAT memo. Another thing evangelicals take strictly and seriously is generosity. Generosity to people in need, even and most especially strangers. Some of us never got that memo either.
Let me tell you how this played out for me: I remember spending a summer of Saturdays helping the men from the Church of Christ rebuild a house that had burnt – I mean: tearing out the charred walls and floors and putting in new floors and walls; the men actually did the work; we kids fetched and carried. It was hard work, but it was also no big deal; it was what they did. They just helped people who lost their homes because they are commanded to do so in Matthew 25 where Jesus says “help people or go to hell.” So I helped. I pushed a wheelbarrow, mostly back and forth to the dump truck (no dumpsters back then).
Now the word for this wonderful thing they let me help with is discipleship. Disciple comes from the same word as discipline. The discipline of being a disciple of Christ is all about love: it is Christ’s command to care for vulnerable and hurting people. It’s not rocket science. We don’t have to cure cancer or give up our guns or cut off a toe, but if we have faith we will do what we can. That’s love in action. Evangelicals as I knew them weren’t heroes; in love they did what they could, and they did a lot. They do a lot. Thank God for them. Thank God for Billy Graham, who did so much to form and sustain their faith.
As I give my thanks, however, I think it is important to remember and for once in our time together to lift up the ways in which we part company with our evangelical brothers and sisters. By “we”, I mean the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is, in a sense, the Mother of all protestant churches.
We part ways. We part ways in the science classroom, in the doctor’s office, at the ballot box, in the bedroom, in bible study and at the altar. We part ways whenever zeal for their faith causes evangelicals to try to control other people’s lives, or use the law to enforce their own particular religious doctrines and principles on others. We part ways when the bible is promoted as an infallible source for scientific and political truths. We part ways when conformity to one set of tribal norms and customs – and in this case the tribal norms of Southern white culture, which I know so very well being a product of them – when social conformity is equated with faithfulness, when non-conformity is proclaimed as the road straight to hell, and a certain strain of patriotism is identified with righteousness before God. In my view this whole thing is to be resisted as a distortion of what Christian faith is and how it lives in the world.
Let me be plain about this: the modern evangelical movement as represented by Billy Graham has some things radiantly, excellently right: grace and truth pour out of the heart of God and into us through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Let us give ourselves to him and live in his love, serving others and giving glory to God. Amen.
And evangelicals get some other things just woefully, shamefully wrong, but that only concerns me when they try – wrongly, as it seems to me – to use the law to do things that can only be done with love, with hands-on, in-the-room personal love. This applies to all personal, moral decisions including a woman’s heart-rending personal decision about abortion and a gay person’s decision about whom to marry. God is on all sides of those decisions. They cannot be legislated. They must be worked through in real time. Meanwhile God is good, God is love.
Evangelicals claim to be people of the bible; well, all Christians are people of the bible. But the bible did not come down from heaven in a glad bag; the bible is the church’s book, written within the church, compiled within the church, edited, promoted and proclaimed by the church and for the church. The bible was made for the people, not the people for the bible. It is a living thing, as the church is a living thing, and it is precious because it is a mirror that shines a living light into our lives, shows us who we are, and speaks a life-giving word into our hearts and our communities and the world.
To sum this up: the word evangelical comes from the word gospel. The gospel is good news; it is a process, not an outcome. God is the creator and God is still creating. Creation is not finished until God says so, and that saying-so is something that all Christians pray for. It is something I am sure that our friend Billy Graham prayed for every day of his life. Amen. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.
Let us pray.