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Heard Any Good News Lately? ~ Mark 1:1, 9-14

I don’t know if this is “good news” but it is funny news and that is always good to hear. Pat Jeffreys was on the phone on Tuesday and a call came in and after Pat said: “Forest Hill Church, may I help you?” the caller asked “When is Happy Hour?”

What are we, a tavern?

Perhaps the caller had the wrong number, or perhaps she was referring to the tiki bar that is going to be set up outside during our Love Boat celebration to make smoothies? I would like to think that Sundays from 11-12 are pretty happy, or at least joyful.

Just think. Driving home from work from 4-8, you would stop by the church to get happy – maybe not on alcoholic beverages – but somewhere to take the load off and feel welcomed – maybe like Cheers – where everybody knows your name. Not a bad mission for a church. That is a good feeling, when you are welcomed and accepted for who you are. That would be good news for many. That is good news for me.

The first words of the Gospel of Mark are: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” And in verse 14 we read; “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 has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Greek word for “good news” is “euangelion” – which is the root of the word evangelical and evangelism. And so, you and I as followers of Jesus Christ are by definition evangelists – called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ by our words and our lives.

But so much of what is labeled Christian these days makes me squirm. It doesn’t sound very good or happy – sounds more critical, judgmental, limiting, unimaginative, not very relevant, frankly. It may come in the guise happy language – but there always seems to be a catch.
Paul in his letter to the Romans writes: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.”(1:16) And Jesus in Luke’s gospel declares: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory…” (9:26)

But sometimes I am ashamed of what is lifted up in the public arena as “Christian.”

When I was handing out my business card at the Sustainable Cleveland Conference a couple of weeks ago, I wondered what many would think of me after reading the small print “An intentionally inclusive, progressive, Christ-centered church.” I was fine with inclusive and progressive… it was the “Christ-centered” that made we wonder.
What are people going to think?

Sometimes I am ashamed when some Christians read the bible as a science book. When some Christians declare that homosexuals will go to hell. When some Christians declare that salvation, is really about where you will spend eternity, or when some Christians seem to assume that everyone who bears that name agrees about abortion, or about any other political issue.

Or when some Christians declare that America is a Christian nation, Or God doesn’t hear the prayer of the Jews. And I find myself being just as judgmental as those that I accuse of being judgmental. I am ashamed of myself.

But do you know what I mean? My experience of Jesus Christ is simply not shaped by the above. I describe my faith often as “I am a Christian, but… not a Christian rear end… although that too may sometimes be the case, but as a Christian who is cautious to let other people know how central my faith in Jesus Christ is, lest I be judged or grouped or labeled.

I am a Christian but not like one of those people…. I am a Christian but I don’t believe that…

And so sometimes it is just easier to not say anything, or question my own faith and turn elsewhere. And nagging below the surface sometimes is that sense of “what if I am wrong? What if it really IS about saying the right words? What if God really is a stern judge who cannot look upon sinfulness and if I have doubts then I am doomed? What if it really is all about me? What if gay marriage is an abomination before God?”

Frankly, one of the reason that mainline churches like ours are struggling to grow in membership, and to be taken seriously is that we are too timid to be bold in our faith, our experience of grace, of hope, of joy, of community, of transformation. We are too apologetic – wanting always to qualify. Sometimes timid to look for and recognize the hand of God in our own stories. We may have a vestige of faith that is very powerful – but it is so hard to talk about, to describe, let alone to share.

In Peter’s first letter, chapter 3 and verse 15, he writes: “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Isn’t that wonderful – how can we talk about the hope that is in us. Not the cynicism, not the fear, not the judgment, but the hope. That is what faith is, isn’t it – a sense of hope, a trust in the larger purpose, a willingness to see connections that are grand and awesome, creative and good?

The Greek translated “defense” is apo-lo-Gia. It does not mean to be apologetic, saying “I am sorry.” making excuses in hushed tones for your faith. It means to speak about your faith in rational terms – to be confident in what you know; to speak your truth in love.

I have been reading a new book by David Kinnaman, entitled UnChristian. Kinnaman is, himself, an Evangelical Christian and a wonderful researcher and observer of culture.

The first sentence of the book is “Christianity has an image problem…Just what exactly do people think about Christians and Christianity? Why do these perceptions exist?”

Kinnaman relates that there is a significantly growing percentage of the US population that is unchristian and downright negative about Christianity. To the outsider, Christians are perceived as anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in right wing politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive, boring and not accepting of other faiths. (p.28)

Many respondents said that they had had a bad experience in a church or with a Christian that gave them a negative image of Jesus. (p.32) That Christians are more concerned about being right than listening. In fact, these negative images are shared by many who are in-side the church.

So you and I need to re-claim our faith, re-claim our vocabulary, re-claim our humility and ability to listen and to welcome and to hold all things loosely, and to go forth into this world interested and inquisitive about others – not to convert, but to respect, letting the spirit work. Not because we are ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ but because this is how Jesus Christ was.

I am really passionate about this – how we become better witnesses not of what we don’t believe but of what we do? How do we become more powerful disciples of the Christ who is presently active in this world, ahead of us, calling “Come and see!”

What is the good news? It may be different for you and that is o.k. For me, at least for starters the good news of Jesus Christ begins and ends with love. You are loved. I trust that God is incarnational – fleshly, among us – Emmanuel. Not just a good idea. But actively caring for the neediest, those on the fringe. That God is among us and in you and with us and in YOU calling you to do the same, and to follow Jesus.

Faith IN Christ can be confusing but you and I can have the faith OF Christ – seeking to love God and love neighbor.

I trust that we can’t get outside of God’s love for us.

I trust that God’s kingdom is not in the by and by but in the here and now, if we would be open our eyes, and treat each other as we believe that God has treated us. (But maybe that is the problem?)

I trust that my salvation is NOT about where I will spend eternity, but HOW I will spend the next moment.

Jesus declared from the beginning of his ministry that the kingdom of God has drawn near. He wasn’t talking about chronological time – that the time was growing short and soon God’s judgment would come like fire … that was John the Baptist’s message and Jesus separates himself from that. Christians have forgotten that since the beginning. The quality of God’s kingdom is near, present, as close as breathing – if we would breathe deeply.

I trust that Jews and Muslims and Hindus and all God’s children are equally loved and on a path – Jesus himself declared “I have sheep not of this fold.” They don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.

I trust that it is not about right or wrong answers or exact words, but about seeking the right questions, and being inquisitive and open.

I trust that the gospel is about radical hospitality – the prodigal, the prostitute, the prohibited are in … and the ones who judge, well they are in too, but they don’t realize it.
I trust that the Bible is the story of faith – of people’s reach for God as God reaches for them- it is a living word, not writ in stone, but in our hearts and so we engage and question and wonder and disagree.

I trust that Jesus is activated in me, I am Christ’s hands and feet in this world – and so I have particularly concern for those who outside.

I trust that God’s hand is far more powerful than the invisible hand of the marketplace;

I trust that God is using you, your stories, your lives just as they are – that nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it…. even the mistakes are holy, even the horrors are not outside of God redemption; Faith for me is no “opiate” it is totally agitating.

I trust that love casts out fear and that God has the whole world in his hands.

I trust that God loves our enemies and so should I.

I trust that God gave us minds to think, and hearts to feel, and imagination to bump up against the divine and to be in a constant state of awe and wonder.

I trust that God is calling us to be humble – I COULD be wrong, that is that o.k.
For as Thomas Merton says, the desire to please God really pleases God.

I trust that even when I don’t believe any of it, and doubt it all – I can’t get outside of it … even if it is all a lie, it is a good lie, a better foolishness than cynicism.

I believe, I trust, that this is good news – this is good news that will transform the world, that will bring sense out of madness, and humility from hubris, and thoughtfulness from mindlessness. And will be very pleasing to God.

What do you believe?

As for me, I don’t come to any of the above faith claims simply by observation, or simply by wishful thinking, but I , “declare to you what was from the beginning, what I have heard, what I have seen with my own eyes, what I have looked at and touched with my own hands, concerning the word of life….” I have come to believe this because I have been named and claimed by a faith tradition, I have been nurtured by many who have pointed me to Jesus. I have had experiences that convict that there is no other way for me. So I am at peace with that.

If what I have said is uncomfortable to you, good! If you think that I am not really a Christian because I am a universalist, or someone who wants to ordain homosexuals, or think that Darwin had it right – so be it, go in peace, really. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” as St. Paul writes. But I won’t apologize any longer.

This program year is the year of evangelism; of spreading good news of God’s kingdom by word and deed. Of growing this church in depth of spiritual experience and in numbers… equipping you, the saints, to claim your faith with words that mean something … and in actions that are so profound that both the powerful AND the powerless will notice and wonder.

Good news indeed…Image problem readjusted… and we actually may be taken seriously.

Amen.

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