Proclaiming the Gospel with Reckless Abandon

by Douglas J. Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, the good people of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Longmeadow, MA gave me this wonderful mandala. The words around the mandala are these: “Together, we are called to the great adventure of expressing our faith in a new era, a time full of challenges and possibilities. May we have the courage to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.” The quote is something I said in the walk-abouts. It is really cool to have your own words put into art. That also means those words stand as an on-going prayer to our Living God. Give us the courage Lord to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.

Let’s look at that and let’s get there by way of a story. My oldest daughter Caragh was a gifted basketball player – set the record at her high school for most points in a career by a female basketball player. But before that, in 8th Grade she went through a rough stretch. She had a coach on an AAU travel team that was really tough. For years I had been her coach, always encouraging her and staying positive and she played the game with a joyful aggressiveness. Now this coach was very knowledgeable but screamed at kids when they made mistakes. I went to one of her games and Caragh would run down the court and go to the exact spot her coach had told her to go. But she would just stay there. If she caught a pass she would throw it right back to the teammate who threw it to her. After the game I said to her, “Caragh, you aren’t having any fun out there. You are just trying to not make mistakes. I want you to listen to your coach but take risks out there. If you mess up, you mess up. But play with reckless abandon.” That became our phrase – reckless abandon. I was at West Point at that time and Caragh was used to all the cadets talking in acronyms. Like rem for “ready to eat meal” –in which none of those words are true. We agreed I would shout out RA from the stands to remind her to play with reckless abandon.

The change was remarkable. I would shout out RA and she would go back to her old style. On defense she would jump the passing lane and steal the ball, charge at the dribbler and create turnovers. On offense she would hit the cutter with a pass, if she was open she would shoot or drive the lane. The game was fun again.

One time I arrived at a game late, coming directly from a church service so I was dressed in clericals. As I shouted “RA” from the stands, a person turned around, saw how I was dressed and said to the person next to her “I don’t know what that means. Maybe it is one of those John 3:16 things.”

It is time, in this new era, a time when our world, our country and our state have become more and more secular – a time when church going Christianity is in decline and consumerism is the new mainline religion, it is time to express our faith with reckless abandon. It is time to try new things, to take risks, to be bold and energetic and not be afraid to fail. There is someone who lived that way – his name is Jesus.

The Gospels tell us Jesus’ last words on the Cross were “God, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A statement of profound trust. Where did Jesus get the strength to say it at that moment? I propose that Jesus could say that line because he practiced it. Could it be that every time Jesus was on the frontier of the unknown, every time he was doing something new, every time he was not sure what would happen next, he prayed “into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus made that prayer a way of life. I invite us, God’s people in the Episcopal Church to make that our way of life. Let’s express the eternal truth of the Gospel in new ways. Let’s look at one of many possibilities.

Matthew 25 tells us where to find Jesus. Jesus is the person who is hungry, who is in prison, who is sick. Matthew 25 calls us to a ministry of outreach and social justice. It is the challenge of the prophets. Matthew 28 tells us to go forth and baptize all nations. It is a clear invitation to evangelism. What would happen if we risked mashing those two great challenges into one. In my experience, congregational development happens when we are passionate about both Matthew 25 and Matthew 28. What social justice ministry is your parish called to? And how are you expressing “Jesus Christ is our Savior” in an imaginative, creative, enticing way? Put Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 into action and the Holy Spirit will set our churches on fire.

Amen. RA

The Right Reverend Dr. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. This homily was excerpted from the sermon that Bishop Fisher delivered at the Western Massachusetts Diocesan Convention last December in Springfield, MA.

Below is one priest’s response to the Bishop’s sermon:

A Moment of Reckless Abandon

By the Rev. Christopher Carlisle, Missioner for Christian Formation and Higher Education,

Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts

Cathedral in the Night was born by taking the gospel stories literally. Jesus preferred the out-of-doors and wandered most in secular places. Jesus subverted the reigning social norms and found God on the margins of his world.

The first night of our street church in Northampton was a moment of Jesus-like reckless abandon as a dozen of us huddled on the side lawn of Saint John’s in five-degree January weather. What are we doing, we asked ourselves, with a chalice stuck to our lips? These open “walls of light” may be beautiful, but I wish the UMass architecture students had attached a cautionary warning tag: “Insulation not included.”

In moments like this, reckless abandon can seem like a pretty bad idea — unless it is abandonment of practices that no longer serve the spirit of God. And unless it is reckless to the extent that it upends past expectations of what the church could be. I’ve come to understand my Episcopal priesthood came not by the accident of birth, but by a rabbi from Palestine, who exploded the world by the miracle of God’s abundance.

Cathedral in the Night is thriving, and the food is now excellent, thanks to our partner parishes. Yet the critical number in our parochial report is, as Jesus claimed, “two or three.” It is here that I received my own woeful debt, by which I could be given to God; and it is here that I received “everything,” by which I could be finally free.

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