Sunday, May 2, 2021

Sermon: “The Prophet-Driven Market”, Acts 8:26-40 (May 2, 2021)


We’ve all been in this situation: you enter a store, minding your own business and focused on getting your shopping done, when it happens—a sales associate appears out of nowhere and swoops in to ask, “Can I help you find anything?” Sometimes, they persist even if you say no: “Well, let me tell you about our sales today,” or, “We’ve gotten some new styles in for spring; let me show you.” Ugh. It’s enough to make me want to turn around immediately, walk out the door, and never look back.

Very few people I know appreciate this kind of guerilla sales technique. It breeds anxiety and discomfort. What you might not know is that for some companies, this type of in-your-face welcome is corporate policy. When I had a summer job at a certain clothing store back in college, this was how hours were assigned: if you had the most customers reporting that you’d helped them, then you were able to take on more shifts, and therefore get paid more. Employees of other companies work entirely on commission—if they don’t talk you into buying something, they don’t get paid at all. So it makes sense that an associate at one of these companies would accost you the moment you step through the door…but understanding why doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Now, imagine a store where they use a different approach. Instead of motivating their associates with the promise of more income (or the threat of less), they only hire people who are really passionate about their product. They instruct their employees to make their availability clear—maybe through a uniform or a nametag, and a friendly smile and brief greeting as people enter—but not to bother customers unless a conversation arises organically, or they explicitly ask for help. This low-pressure model might not bring in as much profit, but I imagine that it would reduce anxiety for both the customer AND the employee. I bet that both would be more likely to talk about their positive experiences outside of the store. Personally, I much prefer this business model.

I sure am glad that I work at a church, where I never have to follow that first model ever again. After all, church people never worry about our numbers or our brand image…or do we? I can’t tell you how many times over my seven years of ordained ministry I’ve heard, “We need to get more people to come to worship!” or “We have to offer [insert children’s program here] or else families won’t come!” or “We can’t offend Mrs. X because she’s one of our biggest givers!” We may like to think that we’re in this “church thing” for the right reasons, but all too often, we let our anxieties and insecurities dictate how we share the gospel. All too often, we act more like the salesperson in the first scenario, driven by statistics more than love of the “product”.

Imagine if the early disciples took this approach to evangelism. Imagine how differently this story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch might have gone. The manager points out a wealthy potential customer to Philip (he was, after all, an important official responsible for the entire treasury of the Ethiopian Queen), and Philip’s eyes turn into dollar signs. So, he sidles up to the Ethiopian, sees him browsing, and asks, “Can I help you out today?”

When the Ethiopian gives him an opening, Philip immediately launches into his sales pitch: “Ah, Isaiah, yes; this is a wonderful passage. You know what goes really well with it? Teaching Sunday School! It’s a great opportunity to help out! Next week, there will be more kids; you should definitely come back! And did I mention that we’re in the middle of a stewardship campaign?” The scripture is almost forgotten in the process. The Ethiopian might stick around to be polite, but ultimately, if the Church continues to prioritize its own agenda over the Good News that drew him in the first place, he won’t stay long.

Thank goodness Philip isn’t working on commission. Instead of letting his anxiety guide him, he listens to the Spirit and the Ethiopian to determine how the conversation would go. Notice how he makes himself available, but he doesn’t push; with the exception of his opening words, everything he says is in response to the Ethiopian’s questions. It’s the message itself, combined with his enthusiasm and earnestness, that “sells” it, not Philip’s aggressive and manic salesmanship.

Friends, Christ has not called us here to gain members or to accumulate wealth, but to change lives. We aren’t called to be profit-driven people, but a prophetically driven people. Not to propagandize, but to share what this faith, this community, this Jesus, has meant (and continues to mean) for US. It may sound mundane and banal, but being a disciple isn’t supposed to be all miracles and grand speeches, booming programs and expanding budgets. More often, it’s best accomplished through genuine connection, with the other person’s needs at the front of our minds rather than our own.

Sometimes, we won’t even know if we’ve “made the sale” (so to speak). There are few things more frustrating than not knowing whether or not we’ve made a difference in the long run, but we need to trust the Holy Spirit to do her part. While it’s true that the interaction between Philip and the Ethiopian was brief and never repeated—scripture tells us that they never saw one another again—this doesn’t mean it was a failure. In this case, the payoff wasn’t in gaining a loyal customer, but in creating a faithful Christian: “the eunuch never saw [Philip] again but went on his way rejoicing.” Even though the Ethiopian didn’t become Philip’s disciple or join his community, Philip had done his job, and he’d done it well—and he probably didn’t even realize it.

I’ve told the story of my call to ministry many times over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever told it from this pulpit: when I was a teen, I was at the hospital with my family spending our final moments with my grandfather, who was a Presbyterian minister. As we sat by his bed that week, we received countless letters and visitors from every corner of the country, each person taking this last opportunity to say goodbye to a man who’d had such a profound impact on their life.

My grandfather was unresponsive by this time, so there’s no way of knowing if he could hear any of these testimonies, but they were told all the same. Very few of the stories that we heard that week involved a transformative sermon or a miraculous act; far more of them were about his attentiveness, his presence, his faithfulness—his love. He had touched so many lives, and those lives had gone on to touch other lives. His ministry had had an astoundingly extensive impact, yet while he may have had his suspicions during his lifetime, he’d never REALLY known it.

All this got my teenaged-self thinking: this is what I want the final moments of my life to look like. This is how I want to have spent my life. It was another nine years before I officially embarked on the path to ordination, so there’s no way my grandfather could’ve had even an inkling of the path my life would ultimately take. Yet, his humble witness to others changed my career trajectory…and because of that, he’s still touching lives today (hopefully for the better, depending on your opinion of MY ministry). But he doesn’t have to see the results to have served his God well.

Our goal should never be “butts in seats”; it should be helping others to know Christ’s love, whether we get to benefit from their discovery or not. We’re not independent associates working on a commission; we’re part of an international “sales team”, with the Holy Spirit as our supervisor. This means that sometimes, we don’t get to see the whole picture. We have to listen to a person’s story, do our best to point them towards Jesus, and then let go.

Sometimes, that even means letting someone else “make the sale”. Of course, I want new members as much as anyone, but I’ve been known to suggest a different church from the one I’m serving if mine isn’t a good fit for someone. As much as their presence could help ensure my paycheck, it’s more important that they encounter Christ in a way that works for them. Maybe that means a church closer to their home, or with a stronger youth program, or bigger, or smaller, or with more of their peers. Not once have I found out whether my recommendation made a difference…but I trust the Holy Spirit to do her part.

Of course, if your community IS a good fit, by all means, sing its praises! That’s always the best way to draw someone in (remember that employee hired for their love of the product?) Just make sure that you’re emphasizing the right things: not our entertainment value or our popularity, but the love and Good News that we continuously try to share in Jesus’ name.

Unlike a secular business, God’s Church will always survive—we don’t have to worry about that. A given church community might not, and our preferred way of worshiping might not, but the Church itself cannot be destroyed. There’s always a market for Good News. So, tell it, simply, clearly, and sincerely. Just tell it. Your salvation doesn’t depend on how many souls you save, so let your only motivation be love of the gospel. That kind of message, shared with that kind of love by that kind of messenger, can change lives in huge ways we may never even know. The Holy Spirit’s got your back. In everything you do, let it be for the purpose of sending everyone you meet on their way rejoicing. Then, whether they stay or go, you can rest assured that you’ve done your job as a good and faithful servant of the Lord. Amen.

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