The reading we just heard is from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In Chapter 9 Paul defends himself as an apostle. He is arguing that he has the right to preach to the Church in Corinth. Scholars believe that in this part of his epistle, Paul is addressing concerns that arose from an earlier letter that he sent to the Corinthians. This earlier letter has been lost and is not part of the Biblical Canon.
These three verses particularly speak to a specific need I see in US Quakerism today: A need for us to preach the Gospel more freely, to preach our Truth. I see many within our faith tradition who are afraid to speak their Truth. We are happy to stand for a number of social issues, but we are shy about talking about the moral foundations where these convictions come from.
Early Quakers felt the urgent need to proclaim the Truth, their Truth. These Friends were willing to go to jail or even to their death to proclaim the Gospel. They believed it was an important duty to convey the Gospel and the radical messages they saw in the Bible, such as anyone can have a direct relationship with God and anyone can be called by God to preach. They felt called to spread these messages without asking for anything in return and they could not ignore this calling.
Early Friend James Naylor wrote: “For there is a necessity laid upon such as are sent by him, and woe to them if they go not. And they who are thus sent are no hirelings, neither do they come with ‘What will you give me?’ but they must witness forth freely what Christ has revealed in them though they suffer for it.”
18th Century Quaker minister Elizabeth Hudson agreed with Apostle Paul that “a Dispensation of the Gospel was committed to me and woe was unto me if I preached it not.”
This leads me to several questions: What are we being called to preach? Where are we called to witness? What is Christ revealing to us?
When I was here two months ago, I preached about the violence that people of color are facing. That is just one of the many issues facing us and the world we live in today. In our world today, we are facing climate change, rampant war culture and militarism here and aboard, modern day slavery and human trafficking, and the discrimination that the LGBTQ community still faces, even with gay marriage being legalized. Here in our state, any couple can get married, but LGBTQ people can still be fired here if they talk about getting married at their place of employment. We have a long ways to come until the Kingdom of God is fully realized here on Earth.
What are you being called to preach? Where are you called to witness? What is Christ revealing to you?
Let’s us not forget that preaching does not always require words. George Fox once admonished Friends to “let your lives preach, let your light shine, that your works may be seen, that your Father may be glorified; that your fruits may be unto holiness, and that your end may be everlasting life.”
This phrase “let your life preach” has now become “let your life speak”. Thanks to the writings of Parker Palmer, this phrase is now more well-known than it once was, both within Quakerism and within the wider world. But for me I resonate more with George Fox’s phrasing of Let your life preach. The way we live our lives tell what we really believe, what our core beliefs are.
What do we really preach with our lives? Do we proclaim our Truth? Or do we just go with the flow, instead of challenging the status quo in our midst? What is holding us back from living out our Testimony? I do not just mean testimony as a piece of the SPICE acronym that is popular in Quakerism today: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. To early Friends, a testimony meant bearing witness.
What are we bearing witness to today as a faith community? What is our testimony to the wider world?
Often I find our witness as Quakers is absent in the wider world or not as radical as our spiritual ancestors were. Are we scared of being unheard or even ignored?
One of the fears I have encountered in my ministry thus far is the fear of not feeling like I will not be heard. What is the use of me even trying if no one will listen?
This fear reminds me of the story of Stephen Grellet and his ministry to an isolated wood camp in Pennsylvania. Stephen Grellet felt called to go deep into the wilderness and preached to a particular wood camp that was known for its rowdiness. Even before he left for the journey, the innkeeper warned him about going. But he followed this calling from God to travel. He thought that God was leading him to a large group that needed to hear his witness.
Yet, after three days of traveling, he found the camp to be completely deserted. To underline the desolation he found, an account of the campsite includes details about the pile of black embers illustrating a fire that had long since gone out. Though deeply disappointed, Stephen knew he was called by God to this particular spot and he was called to preach, so he did and proclaimed that God was there. After preaching in the wilderness, he headed back to civilization.
Six years later, Stephen was walking over London Bridge when a man stopped him to ask if he was Stephen Grellet. After Stephen replied in the affirmative, the man said that he had been in the woods that day six years before. Stephen was in disbelief because he clearly remembered how deserted the camp was. The man replied that, yes, the woodmen had deserted the camp to move deeper into the woods, but this man had discovered that he left a tool at the previous camp. On his way back he heard Stephen preaching and the man stopped to listen. His preaching had a profound effect on the man’s life. As a result this man started reading the Bible and, a short time later, he became a missionary too.
Stephen Grellet followed a leading and still preached even though he was rather confident no one was listening. But he was wrong. Someone was listening and his preaching changed the person’s life forever and leading to more people’s lives being changed because of Stephen following through with a leading despite feeling unheard.
Are we that bold to let our lives preach even without an audience? What is holding you back today from proclaiming our Truth in the wider world with your life?
Our witness is needed in the world, as much as it ever has been. Like Jesus said in Matthew, let’s stop hiding our light under a bushel! Let’s go out into the world and let’s our lives preach!