How Will Your Shed Your Latch (Matt. 23:1-12)

•December 20, 2011 • 1 Comment

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and guard it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, and lay them on the shoulders of others … but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the seats of honor in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.

8But you … you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Prayer of Illumination: God who is our parent, our teacher, and our savior: Stretch us with your truth, that we may become more fully human, as you have created us to be.  For the sake of your kingdom. Amen.

This text kind of has me in a pickle…

For anyone who doesn’t know who I am, or why there is a strange man standing in the pulpit, my name is Will Norman.  I grew up here at Eastminster, and after 19 years, went away to college and began working in another Presbyterian church in Atlanta.

A few years after graduating, I decided to pursue ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church, and so I enrolled in grad school at Columbia Theological Seminary, where I am currently a 2nd year student, and where part of my course work is a supervised ministry internship with a local congregation … You!

And so I’ve come full circle.  I’m back at EPC and am really excited to be here and appreciative to all of you for helping me to walk on my path towards my call, some of you since the day I was baptized in this very spot. [update: while at lunch with my parents after the worship service, I was informed that I was not baptized at EPC, but at a Methodist church in Tucker, GA.  Oops!]

As luck or providence would have it, however, my first sermon text, assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary for Christian Worship, is particularly applicable to my current situation, and not in a good, upbuilding way, but rather with a sharp criticism, which frankly, leaves me a bit befuddled.

Let’s look again at verses 7 & 8: They love … to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi …

I’m not really sure how to weasel my way out of this one … Jesus is talking to his followers … Of whom I would count myself as one … And he’s talking about positions and titles denoting religious status and authority … Which is precisely what I am currently in school pursuing!  And as if that weren’t enough, he’s specifically forbidding the title “Rabbi,” which literally means “one who teaches,” and I have to stand at the front of the room and “TEACH” this passage while you all sit out there and listen to me.

Can you feel my tension with this sermon?

We don’t call our religious teachers Rabbi, we call them Reverend in the Presbyterian church.  Matthew didn’t know about that title when he was writing his Gospel story, but I imagine its no better than Rabbi … As a matter of fact, I wonder if it may be worse.

The word Reverend actually derives from a 15th century adjective meaning, “to be worthy of respect, so that logically speaking, we who are Christians may go to school for 7 years, pass some tests, and receive a call from a congregation all on our journey to becoming “worthy of respect” … That is, if we can afford to go to school, and if we are able to read and write … If we are Christians, and if we are called by God into the ministry … Then we can be greeted with respect.

My question is this: what of everyone else?  Are people who haven’t jumped through all these hoops … People who weren’t borne into the “right” family situation … People who with all their heart know that they are called to some other equally important, but less revered work …

Are these people any less worthy of respect than a preacher?

Reverend is a convenient place to start because it actually means respectable, but one could argue that the practice of putting titles in front of our names at all is acknowledging a kind of social hierarchy built on the idea that some people deserve more respect than other people.  We want to know what role a person plays in the world so that we know how or whether to greet them in the marketplace.

Walking around the halls of an institution, for instance, there are always certain professors whose doctor is of the utmost importance, and it would be disrespectful to call them otherwise because they have borne such a heavy burden in pursuit of those letters.

We humans tend to do this thing where we take functioning society, with all of its pieces and its people and its positions, and we start to build a totem pole, carefully placing those deemed to be more respectable or valuable on top, and leaving those less respectable, less valuable people at the bottom … Bearing on their shoulders the heavy burden so familiar to people without a title.

That’s tough, and there are a number of us in this room, and I am often one of them, who would be willing to contest that idea of social hierarchy as I just laid it out.  We don’t like, or dont believe that people are arbitrarily placed on the top or on the bottom of the totem pole, but might suggest, instead that the people who are on top of the totem pole, at least in most cases, are there because they have earned their way to the top … Those people have usually worked harder and longer, bearing the heavy burden of climbing the corporate or the academic ladder.  They have learned to function within our set of social norms and deserve to be given a place of honor and a title that commands respect.

At the same time, not always, but at least in some cases,  people find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, without a title, and excluded from places of respect because they have “earned” their disrespect; They have acted immaturely, made thoughtless, selfish decisions, failed to learn the standards of self-control necessary to function in our society, or were just plain lazy … And so these people are on the bottom, and their burden is not one that is unfairly placed upon them, but rather is simply the prize for their labor …

There are different ways of talking about our social totem poles that may be called liberal or conservative or progressive or practical; we have the categories that we use.  I would suggest that for the purpose of reading and understanding the words from this gospel, that our political/social categories are actually insufficient, and will only leave us confused.

Matthew has some regular motifs in his writing, and one of them shows up just three chapters earlier, in a familiar parable picturing what the Kingdom of heaven is like.  As you hear this, listen for how Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of heaven challenge our social and our economic categories.

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

You know the meat of the story … the owner goes out at 9 and at noon and at 3 and at 5, hiring more workers each time, and then at the end of the day, pays all of them the whole day’s wage. No one gets more and no one gets less than anyone else, though people gave more and people gave less … Its a frustrating parable, isn’t it.  But listen to the way it ends:

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, or are you envious because I am generous?

This … According to Matthew’s Jesus is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Each person is valued equally, regardless of his or her productivity; regardless of what a person may or may not have earned; regardless of who has borne what for how long. What probably feels unfair to some … not be recognized as “more valuable” than other … is actually generosity to the others.  It’s a new way of seeing the world, and it isn’t very effective at building these totem poles that we have grown so fond of … and Jesus has the nerve to call it the Kingdom of Heaven.

We may call it generous, or we may call it unfair, but we cannot in the same breath call Jesus our Lord and say that “no, the kingdom of Heaven is not like that.”

This term, “Kingdom of Heaven” is one of Matthew’s favorites: mentioned 32 times in Matthew’s Gospel, which is 28 chapters long.  17 of those 28 chapters contain at least one reference to the Kingdom of Heaven … So it would be reasonable to suggest that Matthew thinks that this Kingdom of Heaven is important for people to learn about … Jesus seems to really harp on the Kingdom of Heaven as if it is of particular importance to his reason for living, and teaching, and dying.

And though our lectionary text for this morning doesn’t actually contain the phrase, the verse immediately following does, and as is so often the case, the “very next verse” might be the key to the twelve that came before it.

Matthew 23:13 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

The scribes and pharisees, as we remember are the people who are so concerned with their status … They love to be greeted with respect in the grocery store, or in bass pro-shop; love to have the best seats at parties and in church; they demand much from others, but won’t belittle themselves with tasks which could be considered “below” them … And in so doing, they are locking people out of the Kingdom of Heaven …

Because the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who sees all of her workers as equally valuable … equally worthy of respect, even though they didn’t all show up at the same time.  She is unhindered in her generosity by the fact that many of them have been standing around idle all day long, unhindered by fulltime or part time, unhindered by veteran or rookie, unhindered by anything resembling a title or distinguishing mark.

The kingdom of heaven values people, not because they are producers or because they are popular; not because of their position on the totem pole, but because they are people.  This is why Paul can say with such boldness in a hyper-nationalist, status-conscious world that there is no longer Greek or Jew, male or female, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, but that Christ is all, and is in all.  Someone must ahve unlocked the kingdom of heaven for Paul … and he now sees the world as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven … no longer Saul of Tarsus.  That person, upon encountering this Jesus was blinded, you remember, and then given new sight … and a new name … new citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven always acknowledges what is true about a person, regardless of what the totem pole says … And what is true about every person that you will ever meet is that Christ is all and Christ is in all.

Or as Matthew lays it out for us here in our text, contrary to the world of titles and totem poles, “we have one teacher, and we are all brothers and sisters … we are all students”

For this reason … because the kingdom of heaven is radically and scandalously unbiased, and egalitarian, we, who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, are not to be called “rabbi” {…walking out of the pulpit…} … or reverend.

We’re not to be called Doctor, or Judge, or Father or Mother.  Because we, all of us have one teacher, and we have one instructor; we have one parent, and we have one judge.  We’re not to be titled in this way, because in addition to misinterpreting our place in God’s world, titles that buy into the totem pole system of social hierarchy too easily become the latch … A latch with which I can and do lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And what Jesus suggest is that we aren’t just locking those people without titles out, but that whenever we lock anyone out of the kingdom of heaven, for any reason, that we have locked ourselves out as well.

Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle … this is not a statement, in the end, about money … but about the easily exploited status and power that so often comes along with money.

And confused, his disciples ask “who then can enter the kingdom of heaven?”

And Jesus’ response is this “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

According the rules of the world that is run by human beings, we must lock the door because certain people are not welcome in our world.  But according to our passage today, when we lock the door for any reason, we have locked ourselves outside.  We have blinded ourselves to the world as God sees it; blinded ourselves to the world that values people because they are people, not because they have earned our respect.

And left to our own devices it would be impossible to escape our blindness, but we are not left to our own devices.  We have a God who has chosen to reveal truth to us in this Jesus.

We have a god who has seen our latch and has raised us a key.  That our scales might fall off and that our latch might be shed, and that we might enter and see as God sees and as Paul began to see…

How will you shed your latch?

People will call me Reverend; People will call you Doctor or Boss, Madam, Sir or Ma’am; Mother and Father …

But just as Jesus’ way doesn’t allow for valuing possessions or paper, over people, neither does it allow our positions to name us or shame us.

If you have a title … you have a latch.  If you have money, you have a latch.  If you have the respect of even one person … you have a latch.

We all have  latch.  How will you shed yours.

I can’t answer this question for any of you, but we can choose to be a community of people that is committed to opening the door to the kingdom of heaven for all who would seek it.  We can be that kind of community.

The Gospel of Matthew flows well together in a number of ways, and I don’t think that it is coincidental that Jesus uses language of keys and gates, when he gives the responsibility for starting the church over to his disciples.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

We all have a latch … but we have also all been given the key …

… for we have one teacher; one key …  and we are all sisters and brothers in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wild Goose Synchroblog … more like Linkroblog!

•July 6, 2011 • 1 Comment

other bloggers participating this month with reflections on the festival or on the wild-goose-on-the-move:

Back from the Wild Goose Fest

•June 30, 2011 • 17 Comments

This past weekend I was in Shakori Hills, NC. Until a few months ago I had never heard of Shakori Hills, and apparently, neither had a number of North Carolinians. In any case, Shakori Hills is a little farm town in North Eastern NC that is complete with pigs, well-water, Wi-Fi service, and at least for the weekend, and bunch of pinko lefty practitioners of Christian Spirituality. We slept under the stars and didn’t shower; we sat around camp fires drinking cheap alcohol and playing songs that we’d written in critique of the church followed by two-hundred year old hymns; we made statements and asked questions about the church creeds that would elicit fire from the eyeballs of the guardians of “orthodoxy.” David Bazan sang us to sleep with his perfectly-broken, low-range melodies laying forth haunting inquiries of our God:

when job asked you the question
you responded “who are you
to challenge your creator?”
well if that one part is true

it makes you sound defensive
like you had not thought it through
enough to have an answer
or you might have bit off
more than you could chew

These were my people! For four days, Shakori Hills, NC felt like Heaven with a broken AC unit … and maybe it was. At the very least it was a glimpse of hope for the future of the Church in an increasingly post-denominational, post structural America.

It took me a while to get over the initial sense that I was at a Christian conference; I couldn’t help but scan the crowds for goatees and fanny packs … and while the stereotypical Christian conference elements were there, the fanny packs were touting things like organic, local-harvest bread, and the goatees were spewing fiery declarations that equal rights around sexual orientation should be understood as a justice issue, in line with racial discrimination and gender inequality.

We wandered around the campgrounds together, meeting new friends and running into old; having our minds stretched and prodded by the likes of Irish theologian, Peter Rollins, and Episcopal Priest, Paul Fromberg. Conveniently enough, Peter and Paul were my two favorite presenters of the weekend (totally a coincidence). Collectively, though not together, they explored ideas about Christology, the Eucharist, Belief, and Doubt.

What does it mean when we say things as part of a ritual that we actually don’t agree with or believe? If God is Love … what is God not? Are we simply trying to seduce a god who is revealed to be a fake when the temple curtain is ripped in two? And if so, what implications does that have for our worship? My mind is taken to the fifth chapter of Amos:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

If God will not be seduced, but rather, is Love … this text seems like it has a lot to teach us … like it has a lot to teach me.

This is the beginning. I process my experiences at the pace of a three toed sloth, and those questions are the ones I have been sitting with (along with Bazan’s lyrical genius). And to tell you the truth, I’m left with doubt. Upon climbing into bed last night, it felt as if the existential prosecutors had planned an ambush under my sheets. As I listened to David question God over and over I started (or rather, continued) to question God. I even believed that this was all a farce … a human need that we fulfill by creating god in our brains … that real enlightenment ceases to need the self-motivating creation that we mistakenly name “the Creator” …

This doubt will upset people. It will not be exciting for my Committee on Preparation for Ministry to read. It will make my mother and father sad. It will discredit Peter, Paul, and David in the eyes of much of the Church. This doubt really terrifies me … and this doubt really is me.

And it really is you. Believe it or doubt it, you can’t have one without the other.

In my opinion, this is why the Wild Goose Festival is critical to our future as practitioners of Christian spirituality. Because if true faith in the God of Israel, who is the God of all people and all things, is going to continue, it must continue amidst great doubts. Indeed, faith can only be true if it is holding hands with doubt. May we never be ashamed of our doubts.

A great thank you to the appropriately named Peter, Paul, and David, and to the rest of the crew of people who made the 1st annual Wild Goose Festival a reality in such a way that our true reality was laid naked before our very eyes! May we never again be ashamed of our nakedness!

Grace, Peace, Love, Faith, Hope, and Doubt to ALL

Sermon: Romans 5:15-6:2

•May 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The Wonder of Salvation

•April 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:42-43

 There is this really beautiful thing about the stories and letters and poems in this book … but I don’t find the beauty at its purest in intense academic study … and I don’t find beauty by reading the Bible like a newspaper—trying to extract from its pages without bias every detail of every story.

No, what is beautiful about this book are often its holes … the questions that simply refuse to be answered in the text … and whether we want to or not; whether we think that it is heretical or not … this book simply does not allow us to engage it without the use of our imagination … without the use of these two words that open so many doors:

“I wonder …”

And here, in Luke’s telling of the story of the cross, I wonder what the next line of dialogue would have been … what did the criminal think? How might he have responded?

Here we have this menace to society who is literally in the process of being executed for crimes against humanity.

I know you’ve all probably experienced this before—It’s as if once he had crossed the threshold of opening his mouth, more ended up coming out of it than he had intended to actually say.

It is only after the other criminal has begun hurling insults at Jesus that the co-crucified finds the courage to speak. The criminal’s first words are spoken to the other thief … in defense of Jesus …

“Do you not fear God…? We have been condemned justly … we are getting what we deserve … but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And then, I imagine, he turns his head … or maybe he doesn’t … maybe he’s too ashamed of himself even to look Jesus in the eyes …

In either case, our nameless criminal has opened the floodgates and out come the words that I doubt he had intended to speak, but once he had started …

Addressing the crucified King more intimately than anyone else ever does in any of the gospel stories … simply calling by his first name … “Jesus, remember me…”

Not, “get me down from here” … Not, “Jesus, save me” … because certainly that would be too much to ask for a sinner such as he was.

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom”

And then, this dying, condemned criminal receives the grace of becoming the last human being to whom our Lord speaks before giving up his spirit.

Wonder at these words with the condemned:

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise

The text simply moves on here … as if there was no response given.  Maybe he was awestruck … maybe Luke just chose to leave it out … or maybe upon hearing Jesus’ word the criminal actually died …

We don’t know … its not in here … but something had to have happened …

Think about what he had just heard from Jesus himself.

His wheels had to be spinning … we read it now and can’t figure out what Jesus meant … and we’re not hanging on a cross … waiting to die … wondering at our fate … or maybe we are.

Jesus … are you really talking to me?  I … a condemned criminal… will be in paradise? That’s too much … I don’t deserve it and I wasn’t asking for charity … I couldn’t … what is it like … is today really today?

But its simply not there … it is a hole … and Luke isn’t stupid … it is a hole on purpose.

Because when Jesus talks about salvation, which is what Jesus is doing here with his very last breaths, the only appropriate response is Wonder.  You can’t describe it …

What is paradise?

I don’t know … but I know its good!  Jesus didn’t explain it, He just promised it, and in that promise of salvation, the criminal receives the invitation … and the freedom to wonder.

And when you are hanging on a cross, waiting to die, maybe the best thing that anyone could do for you is to take your mind on a field trip to paradise.

I wonder what it’s going to look like … and smell like, and feel like and taste like …

I wonder …

What Draws us Together…

•April 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I was driving up to Buckhead today to meet with a friend of mine who was in town from California for a few days.  I used to work for Scott at a Presbyterian church out there, and since then we have developed a great friendship, even if it is somewhat infrequent.

Often, as I drive I look around at the buildings surrounding my car–I’m more intrigued by architecture than I am knowledgeable concerning it–and today received a bit of a revelation in my gazing.  As I pulled up to the red light, there was  large, brick church building to my left that looked like it was probably one of those churches that fills up with stuffy rich people every sunday.  I located the church sign and (this is about to get confessional) my attitude toward the people who (in my mind) inhabit the pews was immediately set: “BAPTIST”

I don’t know what it is about that word … maybe it’s the people I knew in high school who were associated with that word … but in my head I had quickly decided that those were Christians who really didn’t get it (I told you this was getting confessional).  I figured that they were probably close-minded, elitist, insensitive, old-people along with all their brainwashed children … then I shifted my gaze from the sign back to the building itself.

There on the wall facing my car were five stained glass windows with five different scenes: Jesus at the Table with his disciples; Jesus in Gethsemane; Jesus carrying his cross up the hill; Jesus on that same Cross; Jesus, alive and outside of the tomb.

And I was suddenly made aware of my ironic sinfulness:

I am close minded

I am elitist

I am exclusivist

I am certainly going to teach my children what I believe to be right

But our reality is that no matter how fractured we may appear as a body, we are unified in our depravity, and more importantly, we are unified in Christ at the table where we are undeservingly invited to dine with Jesus as well as with other disciples who deny and betray our savior.  We are unified in Christ on the cross, where even thieves are promised paradise and mockers are prayed for and forgiven.  We are unified in Christ in the resurrection, where we find hope in Jesus as the first-fruits of God’s plan for all of creation.  And even though we are splintered, we are unified in Christ as members of the holy catholic church because it is Christ who established the church.

My friend Scott works for a church that stands on the other side of a fight within our denomination … as matter of fact, most everyone who has had a significant impact on my spiritual development is on the other side of this fight.  And yet, they are my brothers and sisters and mothers.  We are one family and I am united to each one of them, not by our shared rightness, but by our shared Lord and Table.

I am thankful for the Baptist Church and for its windows; for my Baptist classmates and professors who have allowed me to begin redeeming my ideas of that title; for my brothers and sisters and mothers of all expressions of faith who share in the ongoing work of Christ in our world.  I’m certain that we will continue to fight, but I hope that we can hold one another to identifying first as family; loving and respecting one another in the name of Christ, who was given without prejudice for the redemption of all.


So Good it Needs A Warning Label

•March 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Romans 5:15-6:2

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through Adam’s sin, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.

And the free gift is not like the effect of Adam’s sin. For the judgment following ONE trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following MANY trespasses brings justification.

If, because of Adam’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one man, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

But law came in, with the result that sin multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?

This is the Word of the Lord

Thanks Be To God

February 26: a video is uploaded to YouTUBE. That same day, a blog is written in response to the video.

On February 27, a well-known and respected pastor tweets 15 characters + a link to the blog that was a responding to the video.

And by the end of February 28th, the quickly penned blog had received over 250,000 unique page views. And yes … I was one of them

And so, the fight had begun. Countless blogs and tweets and facebook posts and sermons were written about the church’s soteriological doctrines … and because this is a seminary, I can use the word soteriological in a sermon and you all now know, if you hadn’t already figured it out, that the video that set this whole firestorm off was Rob Bell’s promo video for his new book: “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived” … the blog called Bell a heretic, and the tweet bid him farewell … presumably from the church universal? Or from what is getting called “Orthodoxy”in America these days. Either way; he was out … of something … according to someone …

What is orthodoxy anyways? Is it a term that only applies to doctrine,or does it apply to behavior as well?

Is it always clearly defined in a way that any given statement of belief can be declared right or wrong, black or white, in or out?

Is it something that needs to be defended with a sword? With fences? Or both?

Does it need to be defended at all? And who get’s to stake out the plot and build the fence? Who gets to wield the sword?

In this example, when a new book questioned a popularly held doctrine of Hell, we got to hear from—or read—a number of people who unashamedly answered these questions from a firmly rooted position inside their fence, some of them indeed clutching their weapons of choice.

Now we’ve got a newly declared heretic, we’ve got all kinds of articles about “the importance of Hell” and we’ve got at least one REALLY CONFUSED SEMINARIAN …

Even if we do want to say that Rob Bell is a sinner for his thoughts, questions, and teaching … I thought that where sin increased grace abounded all the more.

I thought we were supposed to ask questions … I thought we were supposed to wrestle with God and explore the free gift of new life in Christ.

It seems instead like much of our church has responded to one man’s probing and questioning and wrestling … not with justification and life … but with anger … and with fear.

We don’t denounce someone’s teaching or throw someone out unless we think that they are a threat. And the church has been doing it sincebefore there was a church … and maybe we’ve been right to cast certain people out at certain times.

…When he was sleeping with his father’s wife, or when they believed that the Holy Spirit descended from the Father, but not from the Son, or when she served communion that one time before she was ordained, or blah blah blah … I really don’t know when we’ve been right.

Bad behavior, questionable doctrines, improper sacramental reverence, … is this really a list of the things that we should fear? And further … do we really believe that those things are at the core of our fear? Or is it something deeper.

Maybe our fear is that sin really does still have dominion. And so we need to always be prepared for battle with our tyrannical Lord.

Maybe our fear is that if we haven’t figured out how God brings about this good news that we might not get to participate it in. And so we logic our way to whatever doctrinal statements make the most sense; and we root ourselves in these doctrinal statements; and we declare even the slightest departure from them or questioning of them to be heretical … because what would happen if we were wrong about God?

Maybe our fear is that the body and blood of Christ might fall into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t that be horrible? And so we take this piece of bullet-proof plate-glass and distribute bread and juice through a hand-sized hole, exclaiming proudly that “everyone is welcome at my table …

you’ve just got to stay on that side of it.”

I get it … I really do. Those are really scary things and there are really scary people in the world whose presence really does merit fear and fences. I don’t want to be exploited or taken advantage of. I don’t want to get to the pearly gates and find out that I misunderstood God’s purposes and hurt God and God’s children. And I have literally made myself nauseous by deciding that someone else mishandled the Lord’s Supper.

… BUT …

It is in my fears that I really believe that I must join my voice with the father from Mark who says “I believe; help my unbelief”

How often do we hear in scripture the commandment “do not fear”or “do not fear, only believe?”

After all, it certainly sounds like Paul thinks that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is infinitely more Good than any bad news is Bad …and it is precisely because the Gospel allows itself to be exploited and taken advantage of. It is a FREE GIFT!

I don’t know if the ‘bad news’ is trespass, or if it is sin having dominion, or if it is that we are being dangled over a hell of eternal torment … but I do know that whatever the bad news was … it doesn’t matter … it’s obsolete! Because the Good News that Jesus is the Christ trumps the bad news.

Paul, even though he just got through eloquently proclaiming the freedom of the Gospel, also seems to share our fears … because he knows that nothing that we can do will trump God’s good work … that it is so good and so freeing that it needs to be packaged with a warning label … “What then, should we go on sinning that grace may abound?

[Because, make no mistake, Grace will abound … it’s really that good! And there is room in this gospel for even the worst sinners and heretics out there] …

So let’s go on sinning, right?

Of course not!” Exclaims Paul! “Your life as a slave to that tyrant is over … dead! Why would you keep living like you’re a slave. That is a ridiculous response!”

But it’s not ridiculous because the freedom of the gospel is only an illusion …

That freedom is real.

The bad news is no longer to be feared.

Sin is no longer our lord.

The Law is no longer our lord!

The fences have come down and everyone is invited in and has been given the free gift of grace and of new life. And it is a life where we can and should:

  • live and make mistakes
  • be creative in seeking to know and be known by God
  • smash our idols & replace them with new, still-incomplete ones
  • ask questions that we don’t have answers to
  • dislike and challenge the answers that we have been given, and finally …
  • get nailed to and hoisted up on a cross, maybe even by the ironic hand of leaders of our churches.

The pastors and leaders who are verbally excommunicating Rob Bell… aren’t really concerned with getting rid of Rob Bell … they are really concerned with trying, with every ounce of strength and spittle they can muster, to contain God.
But God will not be put in a box. God is Free. And we have been given the free gift of getting to share in that very freedom of God and trust that it is God who has given us that gift, and that it is God’s love … not
our rightness or our morality … that will finally usher us into eternity …whatever that may end up looking like.

So what the hell are we so afraid of?

The body of Jesus has already fallen into the wrong hands. The blood of Christ has already been shed on the shameful and foolish cross.The veil has been torn, the presence of God is on the loose, and the free gift has finally trumped the trespass.

In an earlier letter, Paul quotes a hymn that the early church had been singing in worship and it goes like this: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ … who gave himself over to be accused, betrayed, abused, mocked and finally to be killed … all so that we might walk with our creator in the newness of life.

This is the charge: Go preach a gospel that is so good it needs a warning label – that is so freeing and selfless that it can and will be taken advantage of. Go preach a Christ who is so good he needs a warning label – who is so freeing and selfless that he can be, and has been, and will be taken advantage of.

To say that the bad news it bad enough to keep us in line is no gospel at all!

But the free gift is greater than the bad news. Thanks be to God.