Sunday, February 05, 2012

Epiphany 5B

“…woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.”

Those words rung in my ears on a viciously hot July night in 1999 at Christ Lutheran Church in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, when this scripture passage was read and preached by my bishop before he invited me to kneel, laid hands on my head, and I received the rite ordination.
It was like I was being joined – stitched – to a long line of preachers who held this message in their hands so reverently that they couldn’t help but share what had been so lovingly entrusted to them.

And while this journey of preaching the gospel has taken me on many adventures – including the one I am on now – I still wonder, in those quieter moments, if I am up the task that is put in front of me. I worry that the words I use and the words you hear are saving words that we call “gospel.”

As many of us know, the word “gospel” means “good news.” And those of us who’ve been around the church for a while might think we know what that word means. But I’m not sure that’s true. Because I find myself asking, “Good news” for what? From what? What is the bad news that is in your life, and then what is the good news that I am called to proclaim as a response to it?
How would you define the word “gospel”? What is “good news”?

For my master’s thesis I had to come up with a definition of the gospel. And because I allowed four years of graduate study in theology to get the better of me I defined the gospel as this: “The gospel is the eschatological fulfillment of Israel’s messianic expectation.”

Doesn’t that just warm the heart?

As I look back I’m embarrassed by how much of a pompous jerk I was. And while that answer might be academically satisfying it is also spiritual barren. Which was why my thesis advisor handed back my paper with the words “Make it simpler!” scribbled in angry red ink.

The exercise isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are as many definitions of “the gospel” as there are Christians. There is no real consensus as to what that word means.

Some may say such a disparity is evidence of Christianity’s lack of intellectual cohesion, or the result of factions fighting one another rather than looking for a common proclamation.
But I see such diversity as the natural result of a faith that is deeply personal. Good news isn’t universal in the sense that it’s the same for everyone. Every person has their own needs, their own challenges, their own struggles, their own bad news to which our God in Jesus brings good news.

The apostle Paul knew this instinctively.

“For though I am free with respect to all,” he writes, “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul knew that good news could only be heard as a response to bad news. Good news isn’t a once-and-for-all proposition. It’s personal. It’s specific. It zeroes in on peoples` unique challenges and provides a soothing balm.

For us as a church, as we reflect on our future, I think the question, “What is good news for us and for our community?” is an important one to ask.

This past week I met with some other pastors of English-speaking churches, and I gained some useful insight.

Most, if not all English-speaking churches have ministered to ex-pats. And that seems like an obvious outreach. And we, ourselves, have identified ex-pats as the core community for outreach. And historically that has worked.

But things have changed. As we reach out to the foreign community we are still relying on Christianity being the dominant religion in the west. And as Christianity is dying in Europe and North America, the pool of western ex-pats looking for a church grows smaller.

Also, many ex-pats who DO come to Tokyo to live and work, only stay for a year or two. And since they know that their time here is limited they use their weekends and holidays to explore the city, th country, or other parts of Asia. And they don’t want to connect too deeply with any groups because they know they won’t be staying here long enough to make it worth their while.
So where does that leave us?

That’s hard to say. And that’s something that we’re asked to discern together. Just as Paul listened to the voices around him to learn how to make his message heard, we too are called to listen to our surroundings to get a sense of what our mission will be to our community.

And just like Jesus laid hands on people seeking healing, he put his hands on their heads with no other agenda other than to love them. He didn’t tell them what their needs where. He didn’t preach to them. He simply listened. And let them speak. And that’s how he could offer them the good news of their healing, at that moment.

Maybe that’s what we’re asked to do. Maybe our outreach begins, not with our needs and our agenda, but by listening to the voices that surround us, to hear the bad news for which our good news would be welcome.

We know that what worked in the past does not work today. We know that our world is changing. We know that the hurts and needs and sins of today may be different from those of yesterday.

But we know that God still has a future for us. As Isaiah says in today’s first reading,

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Because of what God has done for us, we have strength to move forward, we have wings to fly toward God’s future for us, and we have feet to climb any mountain that’s put in front of us.
So “woe to us if we do not proclaim good news.” God has given us everything we need to be faithful in that proclamation both as a church and in our lives. May we listen to the voices that surround us, and may we act with bold faithfulness.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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