1.  The Good News Is That We Don’t Have to Argue

 

The Good News is…

The Good News is not having to argue…

The Good News is not having to argue for the absolute correctness of our own particular point of view.  

 

Let me repeat that idea as it relates to the passage from Matthew 28; the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is open to debate, but it’s a debate that we don’t have to win.   In order to make the gospel true, we don’t have to win the debate.  

 

Think about the guards at the tomb of the risen Jesus.   Those poor guards.   All they had to do was stand there with their spears and protect a corpse that’s been encased in heavy stone.   They fail, and after telling the religious authorities what had actually happened, these enforcers of the status quo are baffled and bewildered.   They can’t quite explain the phenomena of a resurrected peasant Jew, but they still have to pay the bills, and it would sure be nice to have a little nest egg for a rainy Roman Empire day.  So, the guards—who have just experienced something utterly beyond their understanding—settle into an exchange of currency that they do understand very well.   Namely, they say, we will tell whatever story makes us feel the safest and the most secure.   Whether it’s true or not is beside the point.

 

2.  The Good News Is That It’s Done

A college student came into my office with a grave expression on his face.   He asked me some questions about the Bible and especially about the passage where Jesus says that “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go into hell…”   This very intelligent college student asked these questions about Mark 9:43 as a prelude to telling me that he was preparing to punish himself.   He was preparing to mutilate his own body because of something that he’d done, some sin that he had committed, some hurt that he had caused another human being, some insult that he had inflicted on God himself.   And when I had the chance to look him in the eyes, I did, and I told him NO.   I told him face to face what we offer every Sunday here at Latah Valley—that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and promised new life.   He replied that wasn’t good enough, that he had to do something drastic to show how badly he felt.   And I told him something’s already been done.   “What?  What’s been done?”   I said, the only mutilated body that God ever sees or ever wants to see is the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.   It’s done.  It’s a done deal.

 

Now, someone here may wonder about that deal.   You may wonder.   But please don’t imagine that you’re arguing about it will make it any more or any less true.   Someone here may wonder about the  accomplished nature of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

3.  The Good News Is That We’re Free To Wonder

And I can only respond that you and I are indeed free to wonder.  Go ahead and wonder about that story.   But then, allow yourself to also question the other stories that circulate.   

 

In the world news section of the Spokesmen Review, there appeared a story about an advertising campaign, sponsored by the British Humanist Association.   Beginning in January of next year apparently thousands of posters will be plastered on London buses and the posters will read as follows:

There is probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

“We wanted it to be a positive message,” said Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the atheist group.   “It’s telling people that it’s OK if you don’t believe in God.   And “If it raises a smile, too, good.”

 

Now, if you and I are free to wonder about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also free to wonder about other world views.   For example, I have a question.   Does it make sense for us to stop worrying if there is probably no God?   Given the chaos that takes place when individuals try to enjoy their lives at the expense of others, worrying might seem very logical.   If there is truly no one to whom we are accountable and no one from whom we might seek mercy, please, by all means, start to worry.   In the words of the late, great rock group, Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.”   But then again, what if we’re not?   And isn’t your answer and my answer to that question the most important decision we have to make?

4.  The Good News Is That Nothing About Us Is Wasted

“After the chief priests assembled they devised a plan,” a plan that included lots of hush money and these talking points: 

“You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”

 

Notice the imperative language here:  You must say.  I’d like to highlight it because it seems to be indicative of every official version of faith.   You must say.   You must repeat what we have told you to say, and not offer anything of your own about what you have experienced.   And, you see, I want to contrast that one-way, monolithic, closed-off, doctrinal approach with what I imagine Latah Valley doing as a new church.   

 

In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, two people (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) fall in love.   Joel and Clementine love one another, but because of the pain that each one experiences while trying to love and trying to forgive, the main characters in the story submit to an experimental procedure which deletes those memories from their minds.   They can no longer remember annoying one another.   They can no longer remember how they intentionally hurt one another.   But they also can’t remember the thrill of treasuring one another, or honoring and giving to one another.   They can’t remember, but through a series of wild circumstances they meet again after their memories have been deleted.   They meet and discover what they lost because other people in their lives tell them.   They are in love and nothing has been wasted.  Not even the pain.

5.  The Good News For Latah Valley Is That God Believes The Risk Is Worth Taking

You see, I believe in a church community that resembles the flawed relationship of Joel and Clementine.   I believe in a church that has to risk the pain of remembering.   And I believe in a church where we remind one another of a story that we’ve been programmed to forget.  

 

In his book, Looking Before And After, Alan Jacobs laments the fact that he doesn’t really have a good testimony.   In certain evangelical circles a “testimony” is tantamount to one’s own personal story of faith in Jesus.   But for Jacobs that story involved a revival meeting in Birmingham Alabama and then several years of nothing special.   He actually went away to college and forget that he actually raised his hand when the minister issued the altar call.   He forgot until he went on his first date with Teri, his wife to be.   He realized at the time that Teri had been a committed Christian and that the only way he might even have a chance of kissing her would be if he showed some interest in the story of Jesus.   So, he did, and behold.   Alan Jacobs remembered that he had a place in that story. 

 

Here at Latah Valley I believe that God has risked his own story among our mixed motives.   But, you see, once we risk telling that story to ourselves and to others, we’re in it for a lifetime.   For a lifetime and then some.   Amen.

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October 15, 2008

 

Dear Nicole:

 

This is just a short note to affirm you, your special gifts and your ministry among us.   Thank you for always being so conscientious, so caring and so eager to serve.

 

Here’s a passage that reminds me of you, followed by a short poem:

 

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.   And Miriam sang to them,

‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’”

(Exodus 15:20—21).

 

            _____________________________________________________

 

 

On the ecstatic shore she waits,

Prepared for the restless ones

who step upon the last slippery rocks.

 

All the breathless tribes look down,

their sleeves drenched with ocean spray,

their foreheads creased with unknown steps ahead.

 

Until her voice gathers them, until the wind-swept

Song caresses the blistering soles of their feet,

no one fathoms the pillar of fire as it smolders.

 

Then, as if collapsing, the gathered remember

A cascading melody—and the sons of slaves weep

And the daughters all dare to dance for blessed joy.

 

 

Peace in Christ,

 

 

 

Scott

 

 

Two contemporary writers are getting at what I mean by God birthing a new creation in the old neighborhood.

In Soul Graffiti, Mark Scandrette describes a guy, named Gary, who wants to help with their new ministry in downtown San Francisco.   Gary is very gung-ho, but when Mark explains about “the present availability of God’s kingdom,” his face looks puzzled.

 

“That’s not what I understand the gospel to be about!  I was told that I was a sinner going to hell and that if I believed in Jesus and confessed my sin, God was legally obligated to forgive me and let me into heaven.  You can try to love people, but we are so broken and wicked that you will always keep messing up.  There is no way that we can live much better than we do.  That’s why the gospel is all about God’s grace and forgiveness” (p. 149).

 

Scandrette then goes on to say how Gary eventually phoned him with the message that he could no longer participate in the ministry.   Evidently there had been some “inappropriate” behavior in Gary’s past.   He had to take the time to admit this behavior to his wife and to “get right” with her regarding a continuing addiction to  pornography.   This, apparently, had so consumed Gary’s psyche that he could not entertain the notion of the kingdom of God being something more than sin-management.   In Gary’s world, it was all about the individual forgiveness that he received on a weekly basis.   He managed.  He managed his life with a periodic installment of praise music and messages focussing solely on God’s personal grace for him.  The social dimensions of the gospel weren’t in his purview.

To be truly be “born of water and of Spirit,” of course, people like Gary must begin to hear the summons of Jesus as a communal proclamation.   The kingdom into which we enter is a network of relationships.   And yet, prior to the Spirit’s sending us out into that reality, we are immersed in the depth of the “water.”  The “water,” in my opinion, is not the same as the Spirit.   Rather, it is an indication that God would like us to know our place.   To know our place means that we offer to God the specifics or the details of our days and ways.   We don’t therefore use the message of God’s forgiveness as a means of avoiding the nitty-gritty and raggamuffin material of our lives.   That material, as a matter of fact, becomes the basis for our being sent into the world as a vibrant witness to God’s kingdom.

Around John, chapter three, please note the following references to “water” as that image is associated with a place.   In each place, the Spirit takes what is raw and unruly and make use of it as a demonstration of the kingdom.

  ·         John 1:29—34, when the Spirit descends upon the Jordan River

·         John 2:7—10, when Jesus turns water into wine in Cana

·         John 4:7—12, when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well

·         John 5:7, when Jesus helps a crippled man get into the water at the five porticos in Jerusalem

·         John 6:16—21, when he walks on water and travels on the Sea of Galilee

·         John 7:37—39, when returns to the temple in Jerusalem and says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes drink.”

 

In her book, Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner shares her difficulty in converting from Judaism to Christianity.   She struggles with telling friends and family who have known her all her life.   But then, one night she has a dream about being abducted by mermaids.   Beneath the surface of the water, she says,    

We could breathe and walk around and talk.  Life as a captive to the mermaids wasn’t actually so bad.  Our captors didn’t keep us gagged or in chains.  They let us do whatever we wanted, except go home.   We could go the movies, cook four-course dinners, read…  We just couldn’t return to shore.

 

And then, the dreamer writes about a “Daniel Day Lewis-like man,” who comes to rescue her.   The mysterious figure allows her to go home and to live her life, from childhood into adulthood.   Moreover, in the dream, he’s always there.   She can always slip away and talk to him and listen to him.  And Lauren Winner says that when she awoke from that dream she knew it was about “the reality of Jesus.  The truth of him”—and how she had to live as his disciple, not in spite of being born into a Jewish family, but because of it. 

Here at Latah Valley I am now wondering about the “water” aspect of our being born into God’s kingdom.   Water, as we’ve noticed, signifies a place, a culture and that peculiar pattern of relationships that we’ve been given.   God’s intention might be to use us as a means of redeeming those relationships where we are.   Too often we assume that to be born into the reign of Christ’s love is to escape or to be removed from the everyday.   What if, instead, we have been born into a better version of those neighborhoods that we know best?

Born Of Water And Spirit

October 13, 2008

[I preached a message on Sunday, October 12, 2008 that started off reasonably well and then went down hill from there.   I’m sorry to God for not doing a better job in the moments of worship.   Here’s what I was trying to say…]

1.  The Kingdom Can Neither Be Seen Nor Entered From A Distance

From a distance the world looks blue and green…

From a distance there is harmony…

From a distance we all have enough

From a distance we are instruments…

From a distance you look like my friend…

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves…

And God is watching us from a distance…

God is watching us, God is watching….

God is watching us from a distance…

No, as much as they sound like them, these are not the esoteric lines of the ancient philosopher Plato.  Plato did not write “From A Distance.”   Artist Julie God did; and in 1990 Bette Midler made the song into a sentimental favorite all around the country.

And yet, before we get too carried away with the tender and idealistice vision of hte words, I”d like to  point out that Jesus would have probably gagged on them.   I do believe with all my heart and from today’s reading of John 3:1–10 that Jesus of Nazareth would not have been able to stomach “God is watching us from a distance.”

 

First, apart from the fact that the song makes God appear like a voyeuristic stalker, we learned last week how Jesus often describes the “kingdom of God” as AT HAND.   And , if that fials to make an impression, there’s also the biblical references to God’s jealousy (Exodus 20:5) and to God’s anger (Jeremiah 6:11)–each of which might indicate how emotionally invested God is.   Definitely not distant enough to be aloof and detached.   But for my bread and butter, I always like to fall back on Acts 17:27, when Paul announces to the Greeks in Athens these potent words:

“God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he alloted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places… so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him–though indeed he is NOT FAR FROM EACH ONE OF US.”   Yes!  I love that!

2.  Jesus Allows For Questions and For Dialogue

God is not distant.   And God does way, way, way more than watch us.  So, if you and I happen to fall into the rut of thinking that we might want to imitate God and just watch the kingdom go by, think again.  Better yet, be born again.

Be born.  Does that sound strange?   Being born is the one decision that no one here has had to make for ourselves.   Being born is passive.  Someone else makes the decision and we’re just in the middle of it.  Close.  So close.  Scarily close.

 

I rememeber on the day Ian was born, Sheryl and I went to the doctor’s office.   She was overdue.   So he examined her and then said that he’d like to induce labor.   He then instructed us to go right to the hospital.  Startled, and still not quite ready for the big event, I posed this simple question:   Where’s the hospital?   The doctor then walked me over to the window of his office and pointed to the building across the street.  It was that close.   And then, later, in the delivery room, with Sheryl asking me to rub her back one minute and then yelling at me to stop in the next, I found the birthing process to be one of the scariest close encounters of my life.   Ian, of course, doesn’t remember a thing.  But he was there, in the middle of it all.

Well, likewise, Jesus highlights tow dynamics about the kingdom’s proximity:

No one can see the kingdom without being born from above;

and

No one can enter the kingdom without being born of water and of Spirit.

 

3.   Being Born of Water and Spirit Means Knowing Your Place and Being Sent From It.

 

Statements like these invariably lead to questions.   Jesus, I think, welcomes these questions, but he’s going to push back.  He’s going to push Nicodemus to go deeper into the birthing metaphor…

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one ener a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

In response, Jesus strikes this sober tone:   “Very truly, I tell you…”  In other words, I’d like you to follow me to the next level.  I want you to leave all your preconcieved notions of the kingdom behind.   The kingdom of God isn’t about the boundaries of Israel or even the boundaries of Rome.   The kingdom is about being born as a new creation in the old neighborhood.  

[to be continued]

THE KINGDOM AT HAND

October 6, 2008

1.       The Good News of The Kingdom Is Like A Wink And A Nod

 

Consider, if you will, the power dynamics of Hogan’s Heroes, a television show, which ran from 1965 to 1971, and then in re-runs well into the 1990’s.   Hogan’s Heroes depicts events which took place during World War Two, in Stalag 13, which is a fictitious prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany.   One of my favorite characters from that program is the rotund Sergeant Schultz, who is the primary guard for the prisoners.   And what makes Schultz so funny is that he sees things going on that he’d rather not see.   For example, when he walks in and catches a brief glimpse of how one of the bunk beds provides access to a tunnel, he says, I know nothing, and backs out of the door shamefully.   No one has ever officially escaped from Stalag 13, but the power dynamics are not as they appear.

 

Schultz does not want to recognize the shaky ground upon which his farcical authority rests; and here’s something similar that I’d like to offer you this morning.   If the good news in Mark 1:14 is true, and I believe it is, then you and I are no longer prisoners.  You and I are no longer captive to the powers that can hurt or divide us.  You and I are no longer incarcerated by the darkness that can depress us.  If the kingdom of God is at hand, as Jesus says it is, we are truly free—which means that we can come and we can go.   And every authority, like Sergeant Schultz and Colonel Klink, that tells us otherwise is to be treated with a wink and a nod in Jesus’ name.  

2.        Everything Else Becomes Relative To The Kingdom

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news…”

 

You see, what’s immediately apparent in nearly every New Testament reference to the good news is that makes all the bad news relative to God’s kingdom.  No one wants to see John the Baptist stifled and shut up in King Herod’s jail.  (Well, maybe Herod does.)  But the bad news of John’s being hauled away in shackles is overwhelmed by the possibility that beneath the bunk beds of his cell there’s an escape tunnel.  The kingdom of God, embodied in the announcement of Jesus, creates a subterranean way out.  And for those who turn around and believe it, nothing can hold us back.

 

Comedian Bill Maher has produced a new film, called Religulous, which combines the word Religion with the word Ridiculous.   That alone tells you where Maher is coming from.   He essentially lumps all religious people together as stupid and blames religion for America’s lack of maturity.   Anyway, in an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, he reviewed several idiotic caricatures of Christianity, but then said that when he visited a truck stop and met people who had been in prison, what they had to say about Jesus gave him pause.   You see, it’s almost as if the kingdom of God only makes sense when we’ve hit bottom.  

  • After the addiction to drugs, Jesus came, proclaiming the good news…
  • After the diagnosis of lymphoma, Jesus came, proclaiming good news…
  • After the Wall Street bail out, Jesus came, proclaiming good news…
  • After the big family fight, Jesus came, proclaiming good news…

Now, no matter what kind of news comes our way, the gospel message of Jesus has a way of destabilizing it—or subverting it.   In William Willimon’s book, The Gospel For The Person Who Has Everything, he says that we don’t need to convince strong people that they are really weak, but that God has given strong people strength for the purposes of participating in the reconciliation of the world.   Any other use of that strength will come to nothing.

3.  Jesus Must Proclaim Because It’s Not So Obvious

Given my in-depth knowledge of Hogan’s Heroes, I once felt qualified to enter into a conversation with a real-life prisoner of war.   Jim Klingenberger had been captured at the Battle of the Bulge and then transferred to a special camp where none of the guards resembled Sergeant Schultz at all.  They actually took their jobs quite seriously, and as the war was winding down, Jim recounted one frightening episode.  He said, the guards led him into an empty stadium, where he and others imagined that they might be summarily executed.   Instead the lead guard sat down on a bench and told the prisoners that, while many others might say they weren’t for Hitler in the coming weeks, he wanted them to know:  I’m for Hitler, he said.

 

Now, I’m recounting for you that story of a story that had been told to me because I think it conveys three dynamics about the kingdom of God, which are suggested in the other passage that we read this morning:  Luke 4:43.  After preaching at the synagogue in Capernaum and after spending some time in prayer, Jesus says,

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom to other cities too.” 

My question is WHY.   Why does Jesus indicate that his sole purpose is to proclaim something that should be obvious?

And first and foremost, the simple answer that springs to mind is that it’s not so obvious.   Jesus has to proclaim and to be proclaimed because somewhere there’s a guard who says, I’m for Hitler.   

 

Second, although the kingdom implies a new set of relationships based upon God’s love and forgiveness, we still experience a sphere of freedom.   God actually wants us to choose to live in his kingdom—and to make that choice by repenting and by believing.

 

Moreover, the third dynamic of the kingdom proclamation is that its not provincial.  No one city, no one synagogue and no church gets to totally define and impose their version of good news on others.

 

And on this point, the peculiar phrase “at hand”—the kingdom of God is at hand—needs to be unpacked.

4.  What’s “At Hand” Can Be Experienced Here & Now

 

The kingdom of God is sometimes assumed to be the reward that we receive for believing the correct things about God.   Sort of like the all-expenses paid vacation that a radio listener might get for being the caller number nine.  That image of the kingdom, however, cannot really be confirmed in the Bible.  Instead, Jesus initially describes it as “at hand.”   The kingdom, in other words, isn’t the place we go when we die, but an experience and a story that we can touch.   

 

In A Christianity Worth Believing, Doug Pagitt offers this interesting detail regarding his hands-on encounter with God’s Kingdom.   He says that he once had a friend, named Steve, and the two of them lived a “we-run-the-show childhood that seems to be the birthright of apartment complex kids.”  

And yet, in spite of Steve’s terrible set-backs, something happens to him when he’s removed from his drug-addicted father’s care and sent to a foster home.  Steve returns to the Village Terrace apartments as a follower of Jesus, and it’s not too long before Steve invites Doug to see a Passion Play at a smelly downtown theatre.  The performance, of course, recounts the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and by the end of it, Doug Pagitt declares, “I felt my soul wake up.”

 

You see, this is an experience, a moment in time, in which God’s Kingdom impeded upon the free reign of Steve and then upon the free reign of Doug.   And the point I’m trying to emphasize is that there’s a change of power that’s very close.  

5.   Latah Valley Embodies All The News That’s Fit To Live

 

Jesus comes proclaiming the good news of the kingdom at hand.   Something that’s close to us will be affected by his coming and by his message.   Something that has had power over us will be subverted and undercut by the message.  And each person and each community of people to whom Jesus comes will have to embody that news locally.

 

The New York Times, as you may know, has a rather arrogant slogan which appears on the front page of every edition.  It reads, “All The News That’s Fit To Print.”   I remembered that phrase this week as I contemplated all the depressing stories that appear to have their way with us.   I’m actually glad that journalists write those stories.   I’m actually glad for political pundits and proficient pontificators who uncover the truth of what people say and argue for their point of view.  But it’s also important to realize that there’s another kind of news that’s being offered today in the lives of the men and the women and the children who repent and believe.   And what they believe is often quite simple.

 

Just today I was thinking of a pastor that I met from Nepal.  Matthias Subba and I developed this instant friendship over a few days as I attended a conference in northern India.   Afterwards we went for a walk, and I was struck with how this man reached out to hold my hand.   He held it and swung it in the air as we walked together down the street.  I mentioned to my wife later that I wondered, ‘Okay, how long do I have to hold this guy’s hand?’   But in spite of the awkwardness of the cultural exchange, it seemed to me as if the kingdom of God had come very close.   In fact, in my hand, I grasped the love and the hope that Jesus had proclaimed to those synagogues in Judea.   I grasped that love and that hope and I felt myself grasped by them.

 

Here at Latah Valley, there is the wild sensation that God is now holding us.   The kingdom is at hand.   And to the extent that we reach out and hold hands with others, who are not yet with us, that same kingdom news is proclaimed.   Amen.