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Good News Again

Sermon - 1/08/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:1-11

The Bryant clan has an old story we like to tell.  There were two brothers, one of which was a "half-wit".  I know that is probably not a politically correct term, so we'll just call him, um, Frank.  So the other brother went away on a vacation and left Frank in charge of the house.  After a few days he called home to see how things were.  

"So how's the cat?"  he asked Frank.  "The cat died," replied Frank.  "O no, that's terrible!  You know how I loved that cat!  How could you tell me like that?  The least you could do is break it to me gradually.  Tell me something like, 'the cat is stuck on the roof.'  Then I'd be concerned and call back the next day and you could say, 'the cat wasn't doing very well from being up there in the cold without any food, so we had to take him to the vet.'  Then I'd call again the next day and you could tell me that the vet was doing all he could but it didn't look good.  So that by the time you had to tell me that the cat had died, I would have been prepared for it.  Do you understand how much that cat meant to me?"  "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," said Frank.  "I won't do it again."

"That's OK, it was just a cat after all, I'll get over it.  So how's Mom?"
[pause]  "Um, Mom is on the roof."

So anytime one of us would call home in the Bryant family and ask about Mom or Dad, the answer would invariably be, "um, Mom (or Dad) is on the roof!"

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

No one likes to report on bad news and so we always try to find some good news to make the bad more bearable.  USC had an eight-point lead in the 4th quarter of the championship game on Wednesday night at the Rose Bowl.  They had not one, but two Heisman trophy winners on their team.  Their offence had put over 500 yards on the board.  They hadn’t lost a game in nearly three years and were well on their way to be the first team in the history of college football to win three national championships in a row when Vince Young led the Texan Longhorns to an amazing come from behind victory in the final seconds of the game.  So Pete Carroll, coach of the USC Trojans goes to the locker room with his dejected team and says, “I’ve got good news.”  The players look up.  Someone asks, “Can they take away that TD when the player’s knee hit the ground before he tossed a lateral with the ball?”  “No,” says the coach, “but I just found out that I saved a bunch of money on my car insurance thanks to GEICO!”  Wouldn’t help the team but it would make a great TV ad. 

I spent the last half of this week at the coast for my annual sermon retreat.  That’s when I go off with my box of last year’s sermons to catalogue and my Bible and lectionary readings for the coming year to select my preaching themes.  Loads of fun, really.  For a little extra inspiration I took along a book from John Cobb.  For those who have participated in one of our Living the Questions groups, Dr. Cobb is the elderly, skinny man with wispy white hair conversing with the Methodist pastor in various scenes of the video.

Dr. Cobb was one of my chief mentors in seminary and probably has had the greatest influence on my theology outside the Bible.  I believe he is the most significant living theologian in the country today.  Seeing him in those videos brought back fond memories and a desire to reconnect with my old mentor so I took one of his books which I had started but set aside some 15 years ago.  I had just started a new job at the time and there was too much to do it seemed then. Well, here I am, still at that job and there is still too much to do, but I figured I couldn’t use that excuse anymore so in between cataloguing sermons, reading lectionary texts and watching the surf, I read a few more chapters.  Didn’t finish the book, but hey, I figure I’ve still got 15 years left at this job!

The book is published by our own Chalice Press in St. Louis and is entitled, Can Christ Become Good News Again? and is the expansion of a lecture he gave by the same title at his retirement in 1989.  It is probably more relevant today than ever.  He opens the book by stating that his greatest hope for the church of today is that there will be a renewal of a “passionate, progressive Protestant faith.  … Nothing is more disheartening,” he writes, “than the widespread assumption that only institutionalist, doctrinaire, emotionalist, and legalistic forms of Christianity can evoke passion… For one, like myself, who sees institutionalist, doctrinaire, emotionalist, and legalistic forms of Christianity as distortions of biblical faith, and who believes that to be faithful  is to be free and open, the present situation of the church is cause for acute pain.”

The great tragedy of this situation is that we face very real and serious problems in the world, problems which the “real Christ”, as opposed to some of the popular images of Christ, offers “real salvation”.  Passion in the church, therefore, only comes when we can, with conviction and confidence, proclaim that Christ truly is the Good News for all.  Why, then, “do we not make that clear in our weekly preaching and church pronouncements?” he asks.  “Why do we continue to describe that from which Christ saves us in such ways that few see the need for such ‘salvation’?  If we convincingly showed how Christ can save us, individually and corporately, from the utterly critical problems we all face, then the church would once again be looked to with expectancy for leadership.”  This is the challenge we face.  Cobb’s vision for the church is one that I believe we need to more seriously address.  It’s appeal and the passion it ignites is precisely what we need today and is, I think, the driving force behind the interest in the Living the Questions groups in which more than 50 of our members have participating.

Cobb’s basic premise is that the Christian message has been distorted throughout history to the point that it has become bad news to much of our world.  The clearest example of this was 1500 years of anti-semitism promoted by the church without which the Holocaust of WWII would not have been possible.  I have spoken on this many times and will devote a sermon to anti-semitism and scripture later this year so will not say more today other than to simply note that while the cross is a powerful symbol of hope and salvation for us, many of our Jewish brothers and sisters see it as a very powerful symbol of oppression and hate for them.

Other examples named by Cobb for which Christ has been bad news at various times in history include native peoples of various lands conquered by Christian nations, Africans taken as slaves for Christian masters, destruction of the environment under the guise of dominion given by God to humanity, women forced to remain subject to men, even when abusive, because that was God’s plan for a Christian household and homosexuals accused to this day of committing an abomination before the Lord and, therefore, undeserving of basic civil rights. 

In sum, Christ is seen not as the good news we proclaim, but as bad news by many people today.  I have had many a long conversation with those who have a deep hatred for the church, including many people of faith, not for things that occurred years ago, but things that are being done this very day in the name of Jesus.

Now here’s the real kicker.  Even if we disagree with the merits of Cobb’s claim about this group or that, the point is that for Christ to be good news for any of us, Christ must be good news for all of us.  If the message we proclaim is to have any relevance for the world today, we must be able to show how Christ can be good news for the entire world and that means demonstrating real salvation to real problems from the troubled marriage to the troubled environment.  When we offer real hope to people and new possibilities for change in their lives and change in the world, people take notice.  When we give not just lip service but hand and foot service, people notice.

Epiphany is the season  when we celebrate the coming of God’s light to the world.  It is a good time for us to reflect on what it would take to shine new light on some of the problems we face in our lives, our community and our world. As the Christmas bills come due, many of us will be struggling with personal debts and burdensome financial commitments.  Others are fighting addictions and problems at home.  Some are pondering career choices while others make end of life decisions.  How can the light of Christ illuminate the really important issues in our lives?

We saw this past week another woman murder by an abusive husband.  We don’t seem to be making much progress on solving homelessness. The Dining Room operated by Food for Lane County has reached its capacity for serving the hungry and is looking for new venues.  Our mayor is looking for new ways to support and encourage sustainable businesses in the area. What would it mean to shine light on any of these issues from the perspective of Christ?

Our government reports modest gains in the economy while at the same time  is cutting health care services for the poor and raising rates on student loans.  Votes of our elected officials in Washington appear to be for sale.  Past and present cabinet members met this week to discuss the war in Iraq while possibilities for peace in Palestine hang in limbo as Ariel Sharon fights for his life.  The President of Iran calls the Holocaust a lie and Israel an illegitimate nation while pursuing the ability to produce nuclear material. How does our faith bring light to such critical issues in the name of Christ?

 If Christ truly is good news, then Christ must be relevant and helpful in all of these issues.  But given the church’s checkered history and certain prominent preachers’ problematic pronouncements, the hard question we must ask with Cobb, is, can Christ become good news again?  He says, and I would agree, that the future and the relevancy of the church hangs in the balance.

It is not so much a yes and no question as it is a how and when question.  The how is precisely what we have been talking about for some time here and the when is what we are putting into practice now.  It is what we have been calling “the emerging paradigm” for progressive Christians.  That paradigm places its emphasis not on a set of beliefs and doctrines as the essence of Christian faith, but a way of life and being in the world as demonstrating by Jesus.  For those for whom Christ has been seen as bad news, the first good news comes when we liberate Christ from all of that oppressive baggage from judgmental doctrines and narrow interpretations of scripture.

Word is getting out that the TV preachers who capture headlines with harsh judgment against the latest enemies of God who voted the wrong way on this issue or were victims of that hurricane, that they do not speak for most Christians and certainly not for Christ.  More and more folk are coming to us, expressing absolute delight to discover a church which has a different sort of message.  We hear continually from others in the community who are appreciative of the openness and inclusiveness of this congregation, even though they do not attend here.  A few of those even send us contributions from time to time, one this week for $500, of which we are most appreciative! So we can proclaim without hesitation, Christ is good news for the civil liberties of all!

The second good news comes when we instead of imposing our understandings and beliefs on others, we open ourselves to listen and learn from others.  Indeed, it is precisely through such listening in the last 50 years that the church has radically changed its view of Judaism in particular and with the exception of a few remaining denominations, has officially renounced anti-semitism and has accepted Judaism as a living and legitimate revelation of divine truth, thereby making conversion of Jews to Christianity no longer necessary for salvation. 

As the divide which separated Jews and Christians for 2000 years slowly begins to close, new bridges are being built to other faiths which offer hope for greater understanding and unity across cultures and traditions.  One of the exciting things for Christians to discover in this process, long known in other faith traditions, is that you can be very passionate about your faith without calling into question the faith of others.  Now we can say at last, Christ is good news for Jews and other people of faith!

This way of being a Christian yields yet a third good news which comes from our freedom from doctrine and our openness to listening and learning.  When folks debate the merits of evolution v. intelligent design, we don’t say, “if the Bible says it, that’s good enough for me.”  Nor do we say, “if it can’t be proven by scientific method, it can’t be true.”  Our approach is to ask, what does the Bible teach, what can we learn from science and how can each inform the other?  We don’t expect people to give up critical thinking when they enter the church.  To the contrary, we encourage it!

Because we don’t pit doctrine against science, we are free to engage in scientific inquiry without fear that it will undermine the teachings of our faith.  And because we believe deeply the words of Jesus engraved above the entrance of the Knight Library at the University of Oregon, “the truth will set you free”, we welcome all quests for truth.  Thus in a very real sense, Christ is good news for science and philosophy!

Indeed, many are the ways in which Christ can and is becoming good news again for all people.  But not only for people.  Progressive Christians associated with groups like the National Council of Churches have long been outspoken on the need of Christians to take the lead in advocating for the environment in our role as stewards of creation.  One of the more exciting trends of late has been the addition of large evangelical groups and denominations which have joined with the National Council in calling for greater protection of endangered species and actions to reduce global warming.  The Evangelical Environmental Network includes prominent evangelicals across the country from Multnomah Bible College to Oral Roberts University, from Youth for Christ to the Southern Baptist Church, and is actively engaged in promoting more sustainable federal policies and personal choices, including a campaign on “What Would Jesus Drive” to change our automotive habits and selections.  We can now affirm, Christ is good for the environment!

As the author of Mark’s Gospel proclaimed nearly 2,000 years ago, we can say that this millennium is the beginning again of the Good News of Christ.  But I take exception to one claim made by my friend and mentor, John Cobb.  He said at his retirement back in 1989 that “to live in Christ, the true Christ, is to be free and to know the peace and joy that are so hard to discern in our churches… Because Christ is alive, I have hope that the church will find again the good news it now obscures.”  You see, I do not believe it is so hard to discern the true Christ in church any more.  What may have once been obscure in many churches is plainly evident here and in more and more congregations as we break free of past doctrines and embrace the way of Christ that liberates all and furthers the goodness of creation.  This is the Good News we proclaim as the light and salvation of the world!


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