Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sermon: "Good News and Bad News"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 5, 2015 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13

“Good News and Bad News”

On the night of April 18, 1775, two men set out separately on horseback and rode from the city of Boston towards Lexington MA.
The men were given instructions to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were planning to raid the ammunitions stores in Lexington and in Concord.  
To ensure that at least one of the riders got through the British check points along the way, one man rode the northern route, and the other rode the southern route.

The southern route – through the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, and Waltham – was ridden by a man named William Dawes.
The northern route – through the towns of Somerville, Medford, and Arlington – was ridden by Paul Revere.

In the towns that Revere passed through, the local militia was alerted, church bells rang out, and additional riders were recruited and sent out to warn those in the countryside.  
Before he left Boston, Revere instructed the sexton of the North Church to send a signal by lantern to alert colonists in Charlestown - an act that is known today by the phrase "one if by land, two if by sea".
The news of the impending attack spread like wildfire.
Men grabbed their muskets and flooded into Lexington and Concord, and the next day the British were soundly defeated and pushed back to Charleston by the colonial militia. 
Militia that came mostly from the northern towns alerted by Paul Revere.

In contrast, the local militia in the southern towns that William Dawes passed through were not informed about the impending attack and thus only a few men from Roxbury, Brookline, and Waltham turned out to fight.
In fact, so few men turned out from Waltham that some historians concluded that the town was pro-British.   
It wasn’t.
Waltham didn’t find out the British were coming until it was too late.

The difference between Paul Revere’s and William Dawes’ midnight ride is that Revere stopped in every town on his route to Lexington, while Dawes rode straight through.
Historians speculate that Dawes may have thought it was more urgent to get to Lexington as quickly as possible to bring the news to Hancock and Adams, while Revere took it upon himself spread the news himself along the way.

It’s also worth noting that Revere was a known political activist who had more social networking connections than Dawes. Revere routinely rode through Boston’s surrounding towns while doing business as a silversmith, so on that fateful night in 1775, he knew where to find the town officials and the leaders of the local militia, he knew which doors to knock on first, and he was careful to code his message to avoid tipping off those who might be spies for Britain.

We might say Paul Revere was a colonial-age prophet.
The kind of prophet who takes his message to the masses and risks knocking on the wrong door and finding himself arrested or worse.
The kind of prophet who risks his own reputation if the news he has to share is deemed to be ridiculous, scandalous, or just plain wrong.

These are the same risks taken by many of the prophets that we read about in the Bible.
The rabble rousers who stood on the fringes of society and climbed up on soapboxes to warn everyone that dark days were ahead -  
or to offer reasons why the dark days were already upon them.  

The biblical prophets were often harbingers of bad news.
The most common message was that the people had done something to incite the wrath of God.
But this prophetic bad news was often tempered with some good news.
Through gritted teeth and fervent fist shaking these prophets assured the masses that they could avoid God’s wrath by changing their evil ways.
Renounce sin or suffer.
Turn or burn.
Repent or die.

These may be harsh words to our ears but the sentiment rings true.
The further away we move from God – the force of love, compassion, mercy, and grace in our world – the more disjointed and unfulfilled our lives may become.
We may not believe that we’re risking eternal damnation in the Biblical sense, especially if we put our faith in a loving and merciful God,
but perhaps we can see how wallowing in anger, hate, resentment, and fear can make our lives a living hell.
We may feel trapped in our misery....until we take a step – any step – that moves us towards healing.
And if we’ve ever felt controlled by the forces of addiction, fear, or despair, then we may already know what hell on earth is like.

The threat of eternal damnation may inspire some of us to find a way out of whatever pit we’ve fallen into, but for many of us piling a fear of God on top of our other overwhelming fears does not move us towards healing, and it rarely results in a real or long-lasting change in our lives.

This was true in Jesus’ day as much as it is in ours.

The prophets of old with their frantic turn or burn message didn’t seem to be making much headway in the world until Jesus came along and turned the message on its head.

When Jesus stood up to speak, the bad news became the Good News.

The Good News is that God loves us unconditionally.

The Good News is that God mercy and grace is available to all.

The Good News is that in this Kingdom – this new world that God longs to help us create -  there will be no more tears, no more suffering.
Barriers will be broken down, the oppressed shall be liberated,
the last shall be first, all will be welcomed at God’s table.

When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world two by two he gave them explicit instructions to carry this Good News to everyone they encountered.
Like Paul Revere on his historic ride, they were to enter every town and village they came across, and seek out those who were willing to listen.

But unlike Revere, they were not meant to blow quickly through town, shouting their message and then leaving.
Which is why Jesus instructed them not to carry anything with them except the sandals on their feet, the staff in their hand, and the cloak on their back.

With no bag to carry supplies and no money to buy food or pay for lodging, the disciples did not have the option of being self sufficient.
They had to rely on the hospitality of strangers, who would hopefully take them in, feed them, give them a bed to sleep in…and it was through these trust-building interactions that they would ultimately spread the Good News that Jesus had commissioned them to share.

Jesus didn’t intend for his disciples to be just another group of traveling prophets shouting warnings about God’s impending judgment to strangers on the street,
rather he wanted them to take the time to get to know the people they were teaching and ministering to –
to eat with them and spend several days and evenings with them,
to learn their children’s names,
to listen to them talk about their joys and their frustrations,
their hopes and their pain.
Because we’re much more likely to listen to what someone has to say,
and trust that their words are spoken with sincerity, when we’ve taken the time to get to know them, and when they’ve taken the time to get to know us.

These new prophets sent out by Jesus did not use fear and intimidation to get their message across, instead they sought to build relationships and inspire hospitality.  
They sought to heal rather than harm.

Two weeks ago I traveled to Washington D.C. with 28 teenagers and 5 adult advisors from our Senior High Youth Group.
We spent a week meeting and serving people who’ve experienced enough bad news in their lives. People who have no homes, who struggle to feed themselves and their families, who’ve had their lives spiral out of control because of a lost job, a debilitating medical condition, an abusive relationship, an addiction, or mental illness.

As is usual on our mission trips, our teens from Amherst had their eyes opened to the struggles that many of our fellow human beings wrestle with on a daily basis.
But they also witnessed the resiliency of the human spirit.

One evening the teens cooked and served a free meal to local community members, most of whom bedded down in shelters at night, lived on the street, or simply didn’t have enough money to eat on that day.
Before we ate together, we played board games with the guests and shared stories about where we were from, the passions that move us, and the people who’ve inspired us.
In the midst of this the teens heard some heartbreaking stories.
But what amazed them the most about that evening was the laughter.
That people who seemingly had nothing came in smiling and laughing and willingly sat at tables with nervous teenagers from New Hampshire, played a game of chess or Uno, and shared a sacred piece of themselves. A story, a fear, a hope, or surprising words of wisdom for teens facing struggles that many of these adults had faced in their lives as well.
What the teens and the guests experienced that night was hospitality.
Offered and taken by all.

Hospitality requires vulnerability and letting go.
It asks us to give up control and to be willing to take a risk.
It anticipates rejection at every turn and inspires us to continue to reflect God’s love regardless of whether the door is opened or slammed in our face.

Jesus asks us to carry the Good News into this world through hospitality.
We’re called to knock on closed doors and fling our doors wide open and build relationships that are woven from our experience of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

When Paul Revere road through the streets of sleepy New England towns, knocking on doors, and informing the residents that the British were coming, he did so with the urgent belief that he could not afford to keep this news to himself.

And neither should we.
There are many people out there, living behind closed doors and standing outside of OUR doors, who need to hear that God loves them, just as they are.
They’re longing to know that regardless of who they are and what they’ve done in their lives, the grace of God is theirs for the taking.
They NEED to know that God is not a wrathful God who sends suffering into our lives and holds our feet over an open flame to get us to bend to his will.
They need to know that God is so much bigger than our fear.

If that is not urgent news, I don’t know what is.
This is the Good News of Jesus Christ…
May we carry it with us into the world.


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