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
"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!"
beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
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.’
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
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.
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
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
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
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!