Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sharing the Gospel, Sharing Our Selves

Text:  I Thessalonians 2: 4-8
Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Writing to the church at Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul speaks of being “entrusted with the message of the Gospel" (I Thess. 2:4). I’m interested in what it means to be “entrusted with the Gospel” because, in a way, that’s my job description. The good folks who ordained me to Gospel ministry trusted me to pass on the Gospel message. I take that responsibility seriously. But I think you, too, have been entrusted with the Gospel. What does that mean to you? Specifically, what is there about the Gospel that requires its bearers to be trustworthy? This phrase suggests there’s a lot riding on if and how well we deliver the Gospel.

If you let the theme song to Mission Impossible play in your head, you can imagine the Gospel as a classified document entrusted to a special agent, as if the fate of the World depends on its careful transmission. In fact, some Christians have indeed treated “the Gospel” as a top secret message only they can decode to save the benighted world. 

Just for fun, picture the Apostle Paul sitting on a park bench and pretending to read a newspaper (the Good Newspaper, of course). He coolly scans the front page as inconspicuously as anyone could while wearing a toga in Central Park. Soon a man in a dark suit sits on the opposite end of this same park bench, seemingly uninterested in his robed, sandal-shod bench-mate. After a minute, Paul casually folds up his newspaper, places it on the bench between himself and the business man, and plods away. The agent-disguised-as-a-businessman slides his hand to the nearby newspaper, places it in a black briefcase, and he, too, saunters off but in the opposite direction. 

This silly scenario is my way of describing how some Christians understand the Good News/Gospel: as a communique we must gain possession of and then decode so the good guys can be saved from an enemy.

Many think of the Gospel as a set of beliefs that have saving power. When I was part of an evangelical church in my youth, we were taught to “share the Gospel” with our friends who might be “lost.” This Gospel we were to share was really a set of assertions that would save us from hell if we accepted this worldview. That’s no longer my understanding of the Gospel that has been entrusted to me.

What is the “message of the Gospel” as it’s popularly understood?  When you've heard pastors charge their congregation with sharing the Gospel, what did they mean? 


Essentially, the Gospel message I heard as a child was the belief that we were sinners deserving eternal punishment, but we could be spared torment if we believed the blood of Jesus saved us.

Who wouldn’t embrace that message? If most of the people you knew understood the world in those terms, it would be easy simply to agree with the prevailing culture and be assured of eternal life.

The problem is that particular Gospel message is good news only for the people who are able to accept that worldview. It’s terrible news for those never exposed to that worldview or who simply can’t be convinced of it. As you probably know, the word “gospel” is an English translation of the Greek and Latin words euangelion and evangelium that literally mean Good Message or Good News.  How do you know if you’re sharing the Gospel? If you’re sharing good news. But if the message you’ve been entrusted with is not authentically good news, then it’s not Gospel.  If the news is not good for everyone, then it’s not Gospel.

And the Gospel is not necessarily a message that can be conveyed in words—or not in words only. If we read further in today’s Epistle Lection, we hear Paul explain that he came to the Thessalonians to care for them “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (I Thes. 2:7). In fact, he continues, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (I Thes. 2:8). The Gospel’s effect is not merely intellectual; it’s relational, societal, holistic. The Gospel is not so much about having faith in Jesus (believing certain assertions about him) but is more about having the same kind of faith that allowed Jesus to live selflessly, vulnerably, humbly, courageously. The Gospel’s signature is deep caring and self-giving love ("sharing our own selves"). Paul wasn't concerned about winning the approval of others. He was entrusted with tender care for others--the core message of the Gospel. 

A modern novel set in early 17th century Japan contrasts a Gospel of words and doctrine with the deeper Gospel of care and self-giving love. Silence, by acclaimed Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, is the historically-based story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries sent to Christianize Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed. Japanese peasants who had secretly converted to Catholicism were ferretted out and convicted of the crime of Christianity if they refused to step upon an image of Christ called the fumie used by the Japanese government to identify suspected Christians.True Christians were exposed when they would not trample the image of Christ. 

The protagonist of this novel, a priest name Father Rodrigues, was arrested and subjected to horrific torture for his faith. But eventually he denied his faith. Ironically, by denying Christ, he exhibited, I believe, a deeper understanding of the Gospel.  Let me explain.

Father Rodrigues, as I said, remains firm in his faith throughout extended torture up to a point. However, his torturers eventually tell him that they are holding in a nearby cell three Japanese peasants who are parishioners of Rodrigues. They will be tortured until he recants.  Rodrigues cannot bear to hear their cries of agony, but he believes there would be nothing worse than to betray Christ. So the torture of people he loves continues. 

Then Father Ferreira, Rodrigues’s revered former teacher who has already apostatized (betrayed his God), visits Rodrigues’s cell. Ferreira declares that “certainly Christ would have apostatized for [the tortured peasants]. . . . For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.”[1]  Ferriera at last gently leads the reluctant Rodrigues to the fumie, the icon of Christ which he must tread upon to signal that he is recanting. Rodrigues looks at the face of Christ engraved on a copper medal upon a dirty wooden plank. In anguish, but in faith, the priest desecrates the image of Christ:
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is not mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie.  Dawn broke.  And far in the distance the cock crew.[2]

Readers have to decide for themselves how to interpret this climactic scene. I believe Father Rodrigues comes to understand that a martyred Christ endured pain to end the cycle of violence an expose the perpetrators of injustice. Jesus' death inspires us to do the living and loving in his name. 

Silence concludes with the affirmation that “there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work.” It implies that our understandings of who Jesus is and what Jesus demands of us continue to unfold.  We are told Rodrigues loved his Lord now “in a different way from before.”  The narrator continues:
Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring [Rodrigues] to this love. “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”[3]

We may bear witness to Christ without words, even when the world judges our actions and words to be a betrayal of the Church. Love of God and humanity is Christ’s fundamental requirement, not proper doctrine or unswerving belief. Love. Love of someone in the cell next you or on the other side of the globe who is suffering. Love.

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said nothing about sticking to orthodox beliefs. After all, Christian doctrine did not yet exist. Instead, Jesus gave us the love commandment: 

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22: 34-40).

Friends, if we are ever arrested for being Christians, and if you’re being tortured in order to force your pastor to deny Christ . . . I am going to deny Christ. I intend to trample on the face of Jesus whom I love.  That seeming desecration, I believe, would be the only way to affirm and validate Christ in that extreme situation. To deny Christ in order to share Christ's love is to honor Christ. To reject a symbol in order to support the reality of that symbol would be my choice. That is how I would hope to remain a trustworthy messenger of the Gospel. That is how I would keep the Gospel “good news.”

PRAYER: Christ of Great Compassion, you have entrusted us with your Good News. May we be worthy of your Gospel of Love. Amen

[1] Shusaku Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1980), 256-257.
[2] Ibid., 259.
[3] Ibid., 286.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"My Presence Will Go With You and I Will Give You Rest"

On third Sundays our service is contemplative. We pray in a variety of ways. In lieu of a sermon, I'm sharing a portion of the prayer service keyed to the Hebrew Bible lection.

HEBREW BIBLE READING     Exodus 33:12-23                

Moses:  12 “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 

How we might express this: Okay, God. You asked me to lead these folks, but you haven’t sent me much help. You’ve told me I’ve got what it takes, but you need to show me what to do.  Don’t forget, these are your people.

God: 14“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 

Moses: “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 

How we might express this: We need a sense that we’re heading in the right direction and becoming a distinctive people in our culture.

God: 17“I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 

Moses: 18 “Show me your glory, I pray.

How we might express this: I want to know you more deeply.

God: 19“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. 21See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

WORDS FOR MEDITATION   refrain of a 19th century hymn by Fanny Crosby
   He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry thirsty land.
   He hideth my life in the depths of his love, and covers me there with his hand.

Imagine a flow of life’s goodness passing before you. Visualize faces of those who’ve been good to you.  Freeze frame some of the best moments in your life. See an unceasing line of God’s beauty and wonder passing in front of you.  Offer thanks.  (Children may draw a picture of a parade of good things for which we thank God. They may share these pictures near the end of our worship service.)

SONG OF GOD’S GOODNESS    “Goodness is Stronger”  pp. 30-31 in songbook 

From the Moses story we learn that it’s sometimes easier to see God’s backside than God’s face—easier to see where God has been than where God is leading. We give thanks for where God has led our faith community thus far and trust that God continues to lead—and to call out new leadership among us. Consider prayerfully how can you help us move forward.

SONG OF GOD’S SUMMONS    “In Love You Summon”    p. 37 in songbook

God promises to go with Moses and says “I will give you rest.” Action and contemplation become a healthy recursive process.  Pause now to rest in God's stillness.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Braggin' Rights

Text: Philippians 3: 4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

If there had been a Religion Olympics back in his day, the Apostle Paul would have taken the gold. If there had been a show called Jerusalem’s Got Religion, the artist formerly known as Saul would have made it to the finals. If the Pharisees had hosted a banquet to honor the most pious of the pious, that crowd would have toasted the man we’ve come to know as “saint” Paul.

As he brags in his letter to the Philippians (verses 4-6), he can tick all the boxes in the religious score card of his day:
Duly circumcised at the required age of 8 days? Check
An Israelite? Check
A descendant of the House of  Benjamin? Check
Both parents Hebrews? Check
A Pharisee? Check
A persecutor of the early church? Check
A righteous keeper of all the religious laws? Check

Yet  he is happy to lose those badges of honor for the cause of Christ. The very things he’d been proud of are the things he now considers “rubbish”—though “rubbish” is too inoffensive a translation of the Greek word skubala, a crude word for excrement (v. 8). Leave it to Paul to be blunt. He’s saying, in the strongest and most shocking language possible, “Everything that used to matter to me and that I thought mattered to God is a load of horse hockey.  All those prestige points count for nothing. Because what really matters is “knowing Christ” (v.8).  Paul’s hope is to “gain Christ” (v. 8) and be “found in [Christ]” (v. 9). Being “in Christ,” as we discussed last Sunday, may not have anything to do with believing certain things about Jesus. Being “in Christ” is a spiritual disposition that has nothing to do with following the Law but everything to do with having “the faith of Christ” (v. 9). And yes, many translate this significant phrase in verse 9 as the “faith OF Christ” rather than “faith IN Christ.” Consider what that shift in prepositions makes in Christian theology if Paul is saying that our righteousness comes from having the faith OF Christ, by having a Jesus-like trust and hope in God so that one could give up everything to know this union.

Of course, it’s one thing for someone who has not attained social stature to say, “I don’t care about prestige.” It’s another for someone who benefits from a pecking order and who has spent his life attaining status to then give it up. That’s what Paul did. In fact, he was in prison while writing this letter. He had lost all status. But his losses require us to take him very seriously when he scorns the privileges that had accrued to him by accident of birth and by effort. 

Paul had recognized his privilege. And that recognition paved the way for his personal transformation and the kind of transformation he was encouraging among faith communities in the highly stratified, patriarchal Roman Empire. He says in verse 10 that what he really wants is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” With a mission statement like that, it’s a wonder the church survived beyond the first generation. Paul, who took the Gospel to the despised Gentiles, understood that spiritual and social transformation required people to give up privilege and rub shoulders with those on the margin.

What does rejection of privilege have to do with us?  We’re just average folks. Are there privileges today that we have to renounce in order to know Christ, to have the mindset of Christ, to share in his sufferings—which leads to resurrections? 

Do you recognize any privileges that you, like Paul, either were born into or acquired through hard work?


The privilege most in the news since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, just over a month ago is white privilege. I recently listened to an audio tape of a community meeting that NPR journalist Michel Martin moderated on August 28 in Ferguson. Mayor James Knowles defended his leadership in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown to an audience largely unsympathetic to the mayor. One decision the Ferguson police officials made after an officer shot the unarmed 19-year-old African American was to leave the bloody body in the street for four hours while awaiting independent investigators who would make sure the crime scene was not compromised. Brown’s mother was nearby, unable to go near him, but probably unable to look away. I have no way of knowing if the police acted according to standard procedures. Those attending the Aug. 28th meeting had divergent understandings of that and other decisions made by city officials in the aftermath of Brown’s death. But what struck me as the most revealing comment in the entire 2-hour meeting occurred when Michel Martin asked the mayor this:

“Forgive me,” she interjected, “but have you ever apologized to Michael Brown’s family?”

Ferguson’s mayor said he had not.

Rumblings from those in attendance signaled their disapproval.

“Why not?” asked the moderator.

Mayor Knowles replied that he had invited the family to come and meet with him.

Michel Martin followed: “Did it not occur to you to go to them and apologize?”

Ferguson’s mayor repeated: “We have invited the family to meet with us.”

That reply reveals how the privileged take for granted their privilege, how the privileged assume the weak and wounded can be summoned to the powerful and will respond on the terms of the powerful. The privileged don’t realize how different their circumstances are.

I know I shouldn’t judge a man by a few words that might not represent what he meant to say. But “We have invited the family to meet with us” do not sound like words of someone trying to comfort a bereaved mother. “We have invited the family to meet with us” is a lawyerly statement that literally uses the imperial “we” to speak down to others. “We have invited the family to meet with us” does not say that one human being is hurting with a deeply aggrieved community for which he feels commonality and bears responsibility. In disbelief, I waited for the mayor to reconsider his response to Michel Martin’s question: “Didn’t it occur to you to go to them and apologize?” 

No, it didn’t occur to him. Because those in privileged positions don’t have to think about moving toward those who are lower on the ladder of privilege.

That’s why Jesus was such a radical example of leadership. Instead of expecting the people go to the Temple, he went to the people. Instead of requiring his followers’ adoration, he washed their feet. Instead of courting the respect of the religious and political authorities, he sought out the tax collectors, the poor, the lepers. The Christian story says that Jesus gave up glory for a shameful cross. And once Saul was converted and became a follower of The Way, Paul recognized his own privilege was a spiritual stumbling block. Conversion/transformation often begins with such a realization. And then a rejection of that privileging.

The events in Ferguson and in our race-divided city reveal an ongoing need to renounce privilege, which is necessary for the salvation of Ferguson and Mobile and our world. We can’t know the union possible through the Cosmic Christ if we are guarding our status and defending our good names and pretending we have less privilege than we do.

Racism cannot be combated by asking people to treat others with respect and to interact without prejudice. That’s a start. But we must explore systemic racism. Because you might be a nice, kind person who doesn’t mistreat people of color and who doesn’t use the n-word and who has friends of other races—but you are still participating in (whether you know it or not) racist systems. Whether you’re hateful to people of color or not, if you’re white, you are benefiting from white privilege that you and I must work to end. To give up my privileged edge doesn’t mean I give up my rights; it means I lose my unfair advantages that I might think of as simply part of the given order of things.

Paul was willing to give up his privilege. Not because it was the nice thing to do. Not because he was politically correct in an Ancient Near East kind of way.  Paul was willing to give up his privilege because he experienced in the Christ a different understanding of religion. It’s not about braggin’ rights and strengthening your religious resume. When you give up your braggin’ rights, you know Christ.  You no longer aim to impress others with pious religiosity; instead, your aim is to adopt that same humble and compassionate spiritual disposition of Jesus. Forsaking a position of strength for vulnerability allowed Jesus—and Jesus’s followers--to learn the way of suffering. And fall in love with God.  Jesus showed us how to give our entire selves trustingly to the God of love.

Although we usually celebrate communion by intinction, today we will bring the communion bread TO YOU. The church has for too long summoned people to her. Today we bring the bread of salvation to you. God is going to you. Jesus traveled to the fringes. He reached out to those hurting on the margins. As should we.

Your church, O God, has been proud.  But these are humbling times for Jesus followers.  As the Church Universal loses some of its accustomed privilege, let our more marginal status reintroduce us to the humble Jesus—and reconnect us to one another.  Amen