Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sermon: "Remember the Good News"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 13, 2013
Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

“Remember the Good News”

In my first year of seminary, we were warned that our faith might be tested by what we learned in our classes. When we take a peek behind the curtain of Christian history and look at scripture with a critical eye, we encounter inconsistencies and uncertainties that cause some of us to question beliefs we’ve held since Sunday School.

If we grew up believing that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were firsthand accounts written by Jesus’ disciples, it can be disheartening to discover that these gospels were actually written 40-80 years after Jesus’ death and most likely not by the disciples themselves.  
Even more unsettling, when we look at the gospels side by side we see that they contain discrepancies. Each presents a different image of Jesus, has conflicting details in the stories, and we find evidence that each was embellished or shaped by its author to appeal to a specific audience in a specific setting in specific time.

Looking at the gospels with a critical eye can be disheartening, yet we can reconcile these differences from a faith perspective.
As we mature in our faith we learn that the Good News is found in the message of the gospels, not in the details of the stories.
And having these four different gospel perspectives – these four different images of Jesus in light of the good news - adds richness to our faith.
But as we continue to peak behind the curtain of Christianity we may have our faith challenged once again – when we consider the Christian scribes who gave us the gospels we have today.

These scribes were monks who diligently copied the books of the New Testament in the days before we had printing presses and spell check.
For over 1400 years, these men of God worked by candlelight day and night with their quills and ink bottles, hand copying every page of the Christian scripture – approaching this tedious task as a spiritual practice just as they did when they sang the psalms or tended the monastery grounds.

But in the multitude of copies of the Gospels and Paul’s letters that have surfaced over time we find evidence that the monks were all too human.
We don’t have the original manuscripts of any books of the Bible, what we have are copies of copies of copies.
And when we compare those copies we discover mistakes - missing words, duplicated sentences, and entire paragraphs added or left out.
We run across margin notes and inline commentary made by previous scribes that were later inserted into the text as if it were the gospel truth.
And we find mistranslations and misspelled words that change the entire meaning of the text.

Some of you may have seen the cartoon that pictures a group of present day Catholic priests studying an original first century manuscript of one of Paul’s letters, suddenly one of them looks up with a horrified look on his face and shouts out:  “It says CELEBRATE not CELIBATE !"

Thankfully, as people of faith we can accept that our human fingerprints are all over our Bible, and also believe that the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus brought to us, is the Word of God and is true as it stands.

Paul reminds us in his 2nd letter to Timothy to remember the Good News – to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead - To look into the face of hardship and remember the new life we find in Jesus and the promise of God’s unconditional grace and love given to us all.

Paul supposedly wrote these words while he was chained to a prison wall. Like many of the early church martyrs, he managed to hold onto the optimistic promises of the gospel while facing his own inevitable death.

To have such faith may seem unfathomable to us. Many of us today take the word “gospel” and the unshakable promise it offers for granted.
For us it’s just another word we hear in church on Sunday and we have a hard time connecting it to the lives we live out there in the real world.
But when we look at the story of Paul’s life we see just how much power the Gospel contains.
The Good News took hold of Paul and transformed his life in ways that he never would have imagined…..and it has the power to do the same to ours.

Paul was born to Jewish parents in the Greek city of Tarsus.
There he was more commonly known by his Hebrew name, Saul.
He lived in the same time period as Jesus but the two never crossed paths.
Saul was a Pharisee and had been appointed as an overseer of the Jewish law.  
In the two years following Jesus’ death, Saul was especially vigilant.
If you were a follower of the Jesus movement known as “The Way”, Saul of Tarsus was not someone you wanted to run into in a dark alley… or even in the light of day.
Saul had been charged with the duty of flushing out and arresting anyone who was even suspected of being a follower of Christ. 
He listened in on conversations in the synagogues, intercepted personal letters, and was known to drag men and women out of their homes and into the streets.  Some were led off to prison, tried, and executed; others were stoned to death on the spot.

At first glance, Saul didn’t appear to be a threat. One source describes him as a man of short stature, with thinning hair, crooked legs, large knit brows, and an oversized nose.  Not exactly an intimidating presence in any era.
But Saul was an angry and violent man…and he had power, which allowed him to inflict his violent temper upon anyone he despised.

This portrait of Paul as Saul is one that stands in direct contrast to the man we Christians have come to know as the founder of the first Christian churches. The Paul we know preached about the inclusive love of God and the welcoming and saving presence of Christ. He transformed the faith by opening it up to Gentiles, declaring that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or master, no male or female, for all are equal in the eyes of God.

Lest we forget, Paul was still a man of his time. In practice, he still supported systems of power, slavery, and patriarchy…but the message he embraced of the world that was to come was one where all these systems would be defunct.
This was a radical belief for its time.
This was the good news of Christ. The liberating message for all.

So what caused Saul to become Paul?
How did he come to experience such an extreme change of heart?

The Book of Acts and Paul’s own letters tell us about his dramatic conversion experience.
We hear of the vision of the risen Christ he had on the road to Damascus that caused him to fall on his knees and pledge allegiance to the cross and the freedom it offered through Jesus.

There aren’t many of us who can claim to have had such a dramatic conversion experience, so how might we relate to Paul’s story and the infusion of hope he felt when he heard – really heard – the Good News for the first time?

It might help us to know that Paul’s life didn’t change overnight.
It took him years to arrive at the point where we encounter him in the Pastoral letters of the New Testament.
It took him years to gain the conviction and the trust that he needed to speak of the promise of the Good News, and to have others truly listen.

Paul was a Pharisee who once dragged Christians to their death.
He had never met the living Jesus.
Yet here he was suddenly making the claim that he was an apostle in the same vein as the disciples Peter and James. He insisted that he had turned over a new leaf and no longer was a threat to the followers of the Way.
On the contrary, he had become their biggest advocate.
We can imagine that there were many who dismissed him as a fake, a pretender, or worse, a wolf hiding amongst the sheep, just waiting to strike.

But despite the opposition to who he had been and what he had done in his past, Paul continued to remember the Good News and trust the power that God had to change hearts.  The gospel had changed his own hardened heart….imagine what it could do for those who are not so far gone.

Years before I had ever dreamed of going to seminary I experienced my own change of heart.
As a lapsed Catholic I had spent 20 years searching for a new spiritual home. I truly felt lost. I was a Christian, and I longed to be a Christian in community, but as a gay woman my church shopping options were severely limited.
As we know, many churches say they welcome all just as Christ does, but the reality is that the welcome sign is often marked with an asterisk….and GLBT folks are among those listed in the footnotes as “unwelcome”, whether explicitly or implicitly.

And then one spring day almost ten year ago, I saw a television commercial for the United Church of Christ.
The commercial featured the tag line, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” and it ended with a montage of images of people of diverse races, differing physical abilities, and gay and straight couples alike.
I saw that commercial and immediately I broke down crying.
I never dreamed that such a church existed.
Here was a Christian church that would welcome me as I am.  Explicitly.
This was my Good News.
The news that broke my heart wide open and brought me down on my knees before God.

The Good News is that God loves us all unconditionally.
Even when we feel unlovable.
Even when we fail miserably.
Even when we can’t stop crying, or shouting, or holding it all inside.
God loves us when we feel messed up and stressed out.
God loves us when we keep walking down the same road that leads us straight into trouble.
God loves us when we’re mean to each other and when we’re cranky.
God loves us even before we’ve had our first cup of coffee, as writer Anne Lamott so aptly puts it.

The gospel – the good news – is what reaches down into the hole we’ve fallen into and tells us that we’re not alone.
The good news is what gives us the strength to reach into the holes that others have fallen in and let them know they’re not alone as well.

But as Paul demonstrates, the good news is not meant to be a feel-good pill that takes our troubles away.
Often remembering the gospel involves hard, hard work.
It pulls us towards change.
It pushes us outside of our comfort zone.
It urges us to take risks.
It prods us to confront ideologies, systems, and people who stand in opposition to what we believe in our heart of hearts to be true and just.

Sometimes when we remember the gospel we end up like Paul.
Shouted down, run out of town, thrown in prison.
But remembering the gospel doesn’t have to be about picking up a protest sign, or preaching on a street corner, or confronting the people in power to change….although a big part of it is.
Remembering the gospel also involves much more personal and everyday choices.

We remember the gospel when we grudgingly show patience with a family member or coworker who knows just what button to push to send us spinning off kilter.

We remember the gospel when we encounter people whom we deem as being beneath us – socially, economically, culturally – and look them in the eye and call them by name, treating them as a child of God just as we are.

We remember the gospel when we put items in our grocery cart to donate to the local food pantry, even though our own cash flow is tight or uncertain for the future.

We remember the gospel when we listen with an open heart to someone who stands on the opposite end of the spectrum to us ideologically and politically, and seek to understand the passion, desire, and fear behind their words….and in turn recognize how OUR words are likewise rooted in our own passions, desires, and fears.

Remembering the gospel is about taking the unconditional love that God gives to us, and spreading it around so that others may feel it as well.

Have you heard the Good News?
It will change your life….God guarantees it, for us all.