The Gospel On A Bumper Sticker

Mark 8.31

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribe, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

What’s the Good News?

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but how we answer that question can make all the difference in the world.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, is currently in the process of hiring an associate pastor to join him in his parish ministry. He looked through a handful of resumes and eventually reached out to interview some of the strongest candidates. In each conversation they discussed call stories, best church practices, and a handful of other topics, but my friend ended each interview with the same question, “What is the Good News?”

One would hope that clergy would know how to respond to such an inquiry, but the candidates struggled to articulate the faith they have committed their lives to.

Which makes me curious… how would you answer the question?

Let’s imagine someone has come to you with a tremendous opportunity – The person has agreed to pay for hundreds of bumper stickers to be passed out to all the members of the church in order to drum up some conversations in the community, but you have to come up with the slogan for the bumper sticker AND the slogan has to be the answer to the question: “What is the Good News?”

So, what’s your answer?

(Will Willimon once told me he could summarize the Gospel in seven words: “God refuses to be God without us”)

Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

The Gospel According To Paul

Romans 8.1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the  church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.

But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.

It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.

Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.

And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.

That is, all of them.

Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!

No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do. 

At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ. 

And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.

Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace. 

And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!

Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.

Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.

Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.  

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Think and Let Think · Too Good To Be True

He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

Make The Good News Good Again

Devotional:

Psalm 119.1

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

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Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus said that.

And he meant it.

Or so I, and countless Christians, have been told over and over again. We Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard! How else will the rest of the world know how badly they need to repent and turn their lives back to the Lord?

When I was in college, those statements covered much of what I heard about the church. While classmates were off doing whatever it was they did on the weekends (whether I joined them or not) I was made to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices I was making because, I was told, I would be happier if I was “walking in the law of the Lord.”

The same comments about the church were made while I was in seminary, and I’m sure that for a while in the beginning of my ministry I made the same points.

But they never really made me feel happy, no matter how well behaved I was. I was caught in a conundrum – Either be perfect and unhappy, or let my guard down and feel guilty. 

It took me a long time to realize that when Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect, he does so knowing that we won’t be able to do it. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel – God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But if the gospel is only about how we have to constantly do better all the time, then we will walk away from church without the Good News sounding like good news.

karl-barth-smoking

Karl Barth put it likes this:

“Basically, the gospel is a very simple thing. The gospel is no system of this or that truth, no theory on life in time and eternity, no metaphysics or the like, but simply the sign that God has blessed the world, this poor world in which we live, with all its difficulties, with all its misery, with this whole ocean of death. And in this world we dare to live in the knowledge that God loves us, but not only us Christians who believe that God loves the whole world. Every person, even the most miserable, even the most evil, is loved by God. This is the privilege: to be commissioned and enabled as a Christian to proclaim that.” (Barth in Conversation – Volume II. Interview with George Casalis on November 7th, 1963.)

It is a rather radical proposition and yet it is precisely what makes the Good News so good.

The Good News Should Be Good

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with David King about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). David is a 21 year old college senior who is currently studying philosophy and religion. Our conversation covers a range of topics including prayers for healing, disrupted expectations, finding words, laughing at funerals, Paul as James Joyce, bearing burdens, boasting in the cross, on not going house to house, and the fruit of God’s labor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Good News Should Be Good

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We Are Not The Plan

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42-43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Josh is a regular contributor to Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the humanity of Elijah, being found in scripture, following the rules, HBO’s Chernobyl, the twisting of sin, angry prayers, a church full of strangers, the too good Good News, feeling bad for pigs, and social healing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are Not The Plan

The-Plan

What’s Good About The Good News?

Devotional:

Luke 5.11

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

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Are you willing to leave it all behind for Jesus?

It’s a question that Christian types will ask under the auspices of something like “evangelism.” And for as much as it pains me to hear things like that, it’s not actually wrong.

I mean, its THE implicit question that Jesus hangs in the air when he meets Peter while fishing. The fisherman have finished their late night trolling (no one was dumb enough to fish during the day) and then this strange and bewildering rabbi shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go out and see what we can catch.” 

Peter, inexplicably, agrees and before long they’re hauling in so many fish the nets begin to break and the boat starts to take on water.

Peter can’t handle the holiness of the moment and begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. But Jesus calmly replies, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Notice: Jesus doesn’t ask a question! There is just something about the profound wonder of the moment that compels Peter and the other fishermen to leave everything and follow Jesus. 

Oftentimes when this passage comes up, we make it out into a moment of self-righteousness; it becomes a competition about who has given up more for Jesus. And, invariably, the everything isn’t everything but mostly just a list of material possessions.

And no doubt, Peter and the others gave up something material – they left the livelihoods of fishermen. But there is more to what is left behind for Jesus than just our jobs or our material comforts.

Sometimes we are compelled to leave something even more difficult behind.

Our sins.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

The faithful life is not easy. When we confront the frustrations in another person, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. When we witness horrible behavior, Jesus whispers in our ears “judge not, lest ye be judged.” When we are so convinced of our own righteousness, Jesus shows up to remind us of how broken we really are.

But the kicker is that even though we are compelled to leave it all behind, we don’t. 

We might have good days where we make the right decisions and speak the loving words that Jesus would have us say. But we invariably fall back into patterns and rhythms in which we are not the people God has called us to be.

And we’re not alone – the same thing happened to Peter! Peter, called from the boat, abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need and denied even knowing him.

But to whom does Jesus appear after the resurrection by the side of the sea? 

Peter.

One of the great mysteries of faith is that we are compelled to leave it all behind and Jesus knows that we won’t. 

That’s the kind of love we encounter in the risen Jesus, a forgiveness in spite of, and because of, us.

No wonder we call it Good News.

All Things To All People

1 Corinthians 9.19-23

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled a list of questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to our faith. Today we continue the series with, “How do we share the Good News?”

“When did you last speak to someone about your faith?” Throughout John Wesley’s ministry, this was a question to be answered by all people within the Methodist movement. And it’s a question most of us would rather avoid today.

It we’re honest, we don’t want to appear too evangelical (whatever that means). We don’t want to be confused with the kind of bible toting people who seek to win others for Jesus. We don’t want to leave church with tracts to pass out to people in public warning them about their imminent doom unless they accept Jesus as their Lord.

And yet, that question, the one we want to avoid, the one that makes us squirm in our pews, is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask.

When I was in college, I became the de facto cook for my house. There were five young men all living under the same roof, and I tried my best to make a home cooked meal once a week so that we could all sit down and break bread with one another. When we sat around the table for the first time, with our assortment of hand-me-down plates and silverware, I asked my friends to pray with me, and they just stared at me as I bowed my head and asked for God to bless the meal and us.

Week after week we sat around that table, and the longer I prayed for them, the more they adapted to it. Such that, one night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they stopped me from eating and said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?!”

Around that same time I was invited to guest preach at one of the local United Methodist Churches. I, of course, invited all of my roommates to attend and they all sat together in the furthest back pew.

The service was fairly typical, and the sermon was a definite B-, but then we moved to the communion table and the pastor prayed for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and cup into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And while the whole congregation began lining up in the center aisle, my roommates did as well with bewildered looks on their faces.

I realized, as they were walking closer to me, that none of them had received communion before, nor did they have any idea what they were doing.

When they made it to the front they all stood in front of me with wide eyes and nervous ticks. I quietly whispered, “take the bread, dip it in the cup, eat it, and I’ll explain everything at home.”

And so, they did.

There was a time in the life of the church, when we could expect new people to show up on Sunday mornings no matter what. When Christianity was Christendom, which is to say, when Christianity was normative, the majority of people in a community could be found in church on Sunday morning. This meant that for generations, great scores of people were born into, and raised through a church, such that things did not have to be explained or proclaimed, and the work of evangelism was nothing more than standing in front of one’s own church to share what God had done.

But that time is long gone.

And because churches can no longer expect that, “if you build it they will come,” the work of evangelism has increased sharply. Congregations are told that they are in the business of saving souls, and that they must do everything within their power to share the Good News. But more often than not the good news sounds like bad news.

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Fear mongering tactics with threats of hell and eternal damnation are hung over individual heads with hope that it will scare them into church.

            The bible is used as a weapon to attack people for the way they are living in order to shame them into coming to church.

            People are treated as numbers and objects to be placed on a worksheet and empty promises about heavenly rewards are used to get people to come to church.

            And people wonder why the church is shrinking…

When I asked for questions in November, a lot of people asked about ways to share the Good News. Behind those questions was the desire to grow the church. Growth is a good thing, I mean: Jesus sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, but growth for the sake of growth is problematic.

If we want to fill the sanctuary up every Sunday we could do raffles, and giveaways, we could provide financial incentives to get people to invite more people to church, but it wouldn’t be faithful. The only way the church grows is when we believe the church has something so incredible to offer that we’re willing to invite others to discover it.

The point is this: we can no longer just wait for people to magically appear on Sunday morning.

In addition to the questions we received about sharing the good news, there were an equal number of questions about why I participate in a podcast. For the last year and a half I’ve been working with two other United Methodist pastors to produce weekly podcasts (a podcast is a downloadable audio file that you can listen to on your phone and computer). We started it as a way to have conversations about theology and scripture, and as we made the episodes public, they started reaching a lot of people. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. By the end of the month, we should hit our 200,000th download.

But we didn’t start the podcast to become popular. We started it to reach the people who no longer felt comfortable in church. We wanted to provide conversations with zero commitment on behalf of the people listening so that they could encounter the church from a new perspective. Because for as much as this thing we do called worship is what being the church is all about, for some people it’s not enough.

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We were taking a break from a live podcast event back in December when an older man walked across the room and stood right in front of me. He stared at me with a curious look and said, “You sound different in person.” Unsure of whether or not he meant it as a compliment, I inquired as to how. He said, “You sound a little more confident on the podcast than you did tonight. But I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate your vulnerability.”

We talked for a little bit about the guests we had that night, and the challenges of doing a live recording, and then before returning to his seat he said, “I left the church years ago because I felt burned. Too many sermons about what I had done wrong, too many people suffering without anything changing; too many pastors abusing their privileges. But then I discovered the podcast, and I started listening. And the more I listened, the more I heard God, and the more I realized I needed to give the church another chance…”

We live in an ever-changing world where people consume information so quickly that the church can appear archaic and irrelevant. But I believe this is a sad misjudgment. Rather, I believe church has the most important thing to offer of all, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like Paul, we do well to do whatever we can, by whatever means we can, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Paul that meant being a Jew to the Jews, and outside the law to those outside the law, and all things to all people.

For us today, that might take on different meaning, we might be tasked dropping our political identities in order to reach people across the political spectrum, or crucifying our prejudices in order to reach people who do not look like us, or repenting of our judgmental attitudes in order to reach people who frighten us.

As Christians, we are necessarily evangelical. Evangelism means, by definition, sharing the Good News. So much of what we do and who we are is wrapped up in the story of Jesus, recognizing how the story has changed our lives, and the hope that it can change the lives of those around us.

            But, sadly, being evangelical these days often comes off like being a bad and annoying used car salesperson. When the tactics of fire insurance, and bombarding strangers is the best we have to offer others, when winning souls becomes more important than loving others, we cease to be evangelical, at least the way the word is meant to be used.

Last year, I drove up to Cokesbury on a Sunday afternoon to meet a handful of people from the church before it was announced that I would be your new pastor. We sat down in the conference room upstairs, exchanged pleasantries over fruit and cheese, and then we went around the table to introduce ourselves and describe how we are connected to the church. One by one I learned about some of you for the first time, how long you’ve been here, what you like, what you want to change, all of that stuff. And one of the last people to share was Emmett Wright, and all he said was, “I’m an evangelist.”

And, because being evangelical can be so misconstrued these days, all I could think was, “that’s just great [sarcasm].” So I asked him to elaborate and he said something memorable like, “just wait and see.”

On any given week Emmett will invite a score of people to come to experience God’s presence at our church. But he does not evangelize by attacking strangers with threats or empty promises. He meets people where they are and he gets to know them. He sees his evangelism first as a call to friendship, with all people, long before inviting them to church. And because he fosters friendship first, the people he invites to church always want to see what it’s all about.

Emmett is a lot like Paul in that he becomes all things to all people. He never presents the gospel in some stuffy forgotten way; it is always alive and exciting and friendly. Emmett meets people where they are, instead of sitting around waiting for them to show up.

Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism. Over and over again he won people for the sake of the gospel. Not to fill pews, not to frighten them, not to shame them, but because he believed the story of Jesus Christ was the most important story they would ever hear. He believed the message of salvation would change everything about the way they lived. He believed that following Jesus would make all the difference.

Paul became all things to all people because that’s precisely what God was willing to do for us. God became all things to all people in Jesus Christ. God humbled himself in the manger and took on flesh. Though God was free to as God pleased, God made himself a slave to all in Jesus in order to free us from slavery to sin and death.

            Evangelism always begins in friendship, in the intimacy of two people sharing life together. Evangelism takes place in the trust when listening becomes more important than talking. Evangelism comes to fruition when saving and winning others is more about them than us. Amen.

When The Good News Sounds Like Bad News

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people who the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings fort its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

My very first sermon, while a teenager, was on Paul’s description of the body of Christ from 1 Corinthians. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

I don’t remember a lot about the sermon save for the fact that it wasn’t a very good one. To begin, I had never preached before, nor had I given a lot of thought to what preaching was supposed to sound like. Second, the text itself was plenty confusing on its own without some teenager trying to wax lyrical about it. And finally, it wasn’t very good because I ended with an overly long description of the human body that bled into a call for each person in the congregation to figure out what body part they were for Jesus, and get to work.

In my head this sounded like a good charge to propel the congregation forward to do the work of Jesus in the world. But what really happened was a bunch of people left church that morning trying really hard to not think about being Jesus’ thigh, or clavicle, or pinky toe.

Jesus’ first sermon was on the text from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Though upon reading from the scroll to the gathered congregation, he rolled it back up, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, as scripture tells us, when the people heard what he said, they were filled with rage, drove him out of the synagogue, and forced him to the brow of a cliff so that they could hurl him over the edge.

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I get the frustration people can feel with regard to preaching. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the altar during worship. But what kind of sermon is worth killing over?

Isaiah, like Jesus, was tasked with speaking to a people divided, where leaders played to the powerful and privileged, justice was available for the highest bidder, and inequality reigned supreme. The prophet attempted to bring good news to a people where isolation was more important than community, and where word of God’s extensive work was met with frustration, disapproval, and even violence.

How can good news sound so bad?

It’s all well and fine when we hear about what God is going to do for us, but when the scope of God’s salvation stretches to those other people, it’s a little harder to swallow.

Isaiah paints a picture of God’s work: The oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be healed, the captives will be set free, the jubilee year will begin.

In other words: the poor and the weak will be given power and strength, the people who mourn for better days will be rewarded, people in jail will be released, and all debts shall be forgiven instantaneously.

Now, if we were in prison, or heavily in debt, or ostracized to the outskirts of society, this would sound like really good news.

But if we made money off of those in prison, or grew powerful by lending money, or sat in the places of respect and comfort, this would sound like really bad news.

The people of God during the time of Isaiah needed hope. They were oppressed, imprisoned, and brokenhearted. And through their ruins God was going to spring forth new life, their offspring would be known among the nations, and they would be blessed.

As Bob Dylan put it, the times they were a changin’.

But it’s hard for us to side with those who are oppressed, because we’ve got it pretty good. We were able to make it here for worship on a Sunday morning, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted for our faith, and should something terrible happen we know that we have a church that will help to see us through.

It’s difficult reading Isaiah’s words because we’ve grown so comfortable with God’s love that we forget God has the capacity to hate. God is love such that all things that go against love are against God.

Isaiah boldly proclaims that God hates robbery and wrongdoing, God hates when the people take advantage of others, and God hates injustice. Which is really problematic when we live in a society that rewards those who make the most with the least effort, who prey on the weak to grow strong, and who define their own understanding of justice.

Here is where Isaiah hits home for us. Because on the surface, it might look like we’ve got it all together, but even the best among us have hidden struggles under the surface. There are things going on in our lives that we don’t want anybody else to know about and we try so hard to keep these secrets and shames bottled up. Christmas, however, has the power to reveal even the deepest secrets we keep locked away. There are the broken relationships, the ignored addictions, the denied depression, the raging affair, the greed, the hatred, the fear.

So, with all of this bad news tucked away from prying eyes, where is the Good News? Why read these words from Isaiah on the third Sunday of Advent, a day dedicated entirely to joy?

When Jesus sat down to preach for the first time, he declared that he was the one who would bring God’s transformation to a broken world. In him all would be made new. He looked out at that congregation with all their expectations about what God would do, and he exceeded them exponentially.

One of the challenges with scripture, and in particular preaching, is wrestling with what and who the Word is for. Is this text from the prophet Isaiah meant for the people of his time, and his time alone? Are the proclamations from the pulpit limited to the Advent of God in Christ and the changes that began in Bethlehem? Are Isaiah’s word meant for us today in this place at this time?

But there is yet another angle by which we can approach God’s Word today… What if its less about the past, the days of Isaiah? What if its about more than the arrival of Jesus, what if this text is describing the already, but not yet, of the future?

God most certainly sent Jesus to inaugurate a new time, a new beginning for God’s people. In Christ the Good News entered the world, but the vision of Isaiah hasn’t come to complete fruition; at least not yet.

The people receiving Jesus’ first sermon were uncomfortable with his proclamation, enough that the wanted to end his life. They couldn’t imagine a God who would so subvert and change the priorities of existence. They were far away from encountering a God who would resurrect his Son from beyond the grave.

They, in some ways, were a lot like us.

They had families to take care of, debts to manage, and secrets to keep hidden. And to hear this Jesus say that God was going to bless everyone, and in particular the people not in the synagogue, is hard to swallow when you consider all the problems you have.

So, it would seem that we have to ask ourselves a question, one we might not want to consider… If this word angered and frightened the people so much that they wanted to harm the messenger, what does it say about our church today? If we were to take stock of who we are and what we’re doing, is this church in line with God’s vision from Isaiah, are we helping to turn the world upside down?

            If not, what more can we do?

God has a vision for us here, and for Christians everywhere. God dreams about the coming future, and with God’s help it can become a reality for us.

God desires a community of faith where all are welcomed. And all means all. This implies a day when those who mourn and those who rejoice can sit next to one another in the pews, where the wealthy and poor can befriend one another, where gay and straight can feast at the table at the same time, where even republicans and democrats can find common ground.

God dreams of the day when the ancient ruins of the past will become the foundation for a new way, when the old can teach the young and the young can teach the old. This coming reality is founded upon the belief that all will know the story that reshapes all stories and that story, God’s story, will have more power than anything else.

God hopes for a day where our allegiances are not divided amongst a sea of desperation, but instead directed totally toward the Lord.

God yearns for the arrival of a new day where we cast away the idols that dominate our lives, where we replace the ashes of destruction with garlands of beauty, where justice rains down like waters.

And when that day comes, when the future breaks into the present, we shall dance and greatly rejoice in the Lord. Every fiber of our beings will exult in the Lord. When we look around we will see one another clothed in garments of salvation, with robes of righteousness, and jewels of grace. The world will cease to be what it is now, and will be like the new heaven and the new earth where tears and shame and weeping will be no more.

That day will come, though we know not when nor how. But we know that is coming. We know that it is coming because God is, was, and always will be be the Lord of all things. We know that it is coming because God always makes a way where there is no way. We know that it is coming because even when the good news sounds like bad news, it propels us into a frame of existence we never could have imagine.

We know all of this because the Good News started when Jesus was born into that tiny manger, and all of creation was changed forever. In that one divine moment the Lord caused righteousness and praise to spring up in new ways and in new places. Such that even today, people like you and me, are hearing the Good News, and it’s changing us forever. Amen.