Wednesday, February 01, 2012

January 22, Epiphany 3; Passionate Spirituality 3: Sharing Your Faith

by Jakob Steinhardt

Jonah3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:6-14, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

Some of you remember (we’ll call him:) “Harold”. He started coming to Old First about eight years ago. He had just moved to Brooklyn from Atlanta. He had come to New York to work for an activist organization called “Freedom to Marry,” which advocated full marriage equality for everyone, no matter what their sexual orientation. After a couple years he took a job with the Human Rights Campaign, and he moved to Washington DC, so he left our congregation, but I stayed in touch with him.

For the few years Harold was with us, he was a leader among us. He was like an extra pastor. He led us in Bible study, he preached for us, and he taught us to understand marriage equality and embrace it. Harold is prophetic and challenging, but he’s also a born encourager, and we loved having him around. In his youth he was called to the ministry. He had gone to seminary and fulfilled the requirements, but then he was denied by his denomination because he was open about being gay. He was disappointed and discouraged, but he never held it against God.

Why did Harold come to Old First? Why not an activist congregation more outspoken on the issues of sexual orientation? Well, several reasons, but he said that the first thing that brought him through our door was a sign we had out front. The sign we were running that month was very simple. All it said was, “The Bible is on your side.”

I remember having some internal hesitation when I put up that sign. Am I making it all too easy? Am I too much appealing to the Park-Slope feel-good self-indulgent consumer spirituality? What about repentance, what about God’s judgments? Well, anything can be misinterpreted, but what are we doing here, after all, if we don’t believe the Bible is on our side? The gospel is “good news.” That’s what it literally means. Yes, there’s bad news too, but the news that is bad is bad for what is bad, and it’s good for what is good.  It’s even good for what is bad, whether really bad or only thought to be bad. The news is good for what we don’t expect it to be good for, and that’s what makes it “news”. It’s “news to us!” we had not expected it, it was not in our estimation of the world.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In that simple statement there are two strange things. The first is that the arrest of John the Baptist would seem to be bad news. A bit unfeeling on Jesus’ part — and wouldn’t a Messiah try to get his cousin out of jail? Or maybe this is like our epistle, “Let those who have [cousins] be as though they had none, and those who mourn, be as though they were not mourning.” Like soldiers in the army. When a lieutenant goes down in battle, the captain does not stop to grieve but only fights the harder, because they are both committed to their common cause of victory.

The second strange thing is that Jesus was announcing “the good news of God.” That’s rare in the Bible and unique in the gospels. Usually it’s “the good news of the kingdom” or “the good news of Jesus the Messiah.” Here it is just “news of God.” Jesus had new facts to tell about this God, he was announcing that God was starting to operate in ways they did not expect.

The people of Galilee believed in God, and they knew they were supposed to love their God, but they’d had no news of God for centuries. They had begun to doubt that God was even on their side. The Sadducees taught that there was nothing more for them; just do the rituals and support the temple hierarchy and make the best of it until you die. The Pharisees taught that God was angry with them for their lack of holiness, and that a holy God would not forgive their sins until they earned it by keeping scrupulously clean. Another opinion was written up by Josephus, that God had rejected Israel and gone over to side with the Romans. Just check the military news.

Jesus comes with other news. But in the Gospel of Mark, he does not explain the news, as he does in the Gospel of Matthew. What Mark shows is how he acts it out. He demonstrates the news of God — he models it. We will watch him do this in the coming weeks, as we read the lessons from Mark. By watching what Jesus does we learn what God will do. By watching what Jesus is like we learn what God is like. And by extension what God wants.

We know that among the things God wants are chiefly two: that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we love God most of all. Last week I said that to love God is the ultimate purpose of your spirituality. I said that your spirituality is the distinctive gift of our species of Homo sapiens, and I said that it simultaneously is given to us and has evolved in us in order to connect us to God and the things of God. Two weeks ago, in a sermon which I opened with a list of fifteen issues facing us, I said that our spirituality is also for engaging with the world, and for bringing healing and justice to the world. That kind of healing and justice depends on what God is like, no less than our loving God depends on what God is like. Spirituality goes both ways, to God and to the world, and if the goal of spirituality is love, then it I guess it should be passionate.

Let me remind you one more time why I keep on talking about this phrase, “passionate spirituality.” For the last few years the consistory of Old First has been using a tool for long-range planning called Natural Church Development. NCD is based on the eight characteristics of a vital, growing congregation. By means of surveys of the congregation, we determine which of those eight characteristics is the weakest at our church, and then we address that characteristic to strengthen it. We have done three surveys now, and every time our weakest characteristic is “passionate spirituality.” We are supposed to address it, but we have found it hard to get a handle on. Myself included.

This last time around a couple of our elders have suggested that the survey itself may be part of the problem, because the survey assumes some things that might not fit Old First. The survey questions suggest that passionate spirituality takes the form of energetically sharing our faith with other people. If not preaching to sinners like Jonah, then at least being “fishers of men” by witnessing to our neighbors and recruiting our friends. Well, how shall we do this when we put such a premium on our hospitality to everyone without conditions?

As of today I do not have a nice solution to this dilemma for Old First. I can feel that it has to with that combination in our Psalm today, that “power belongs to God, and steadfast love is yours, O Lord.” That could be a headline for the good news of God that Jesus demonstrates. I can feel that we in this congregation will share it with others by our actions and attitudes as much as by our words. I think of the example of “Harold”. But I also think it has everything to do with our view of God, the God who is the ultimate object of our spirituality.

What is God like, I want to know what God is like. And that will be my focus for the coming weeks. What is this God like whom Jesus demonstrates? I’m inviting you to stay with this, and contemplate what God is like.

Three weeks ago, on January 1, I preached a sermon on the circumcision of Jesus. I said that Jesus was circumcised to be a Jew, which means that one of the three persons of the Trinity is a Jew, and that in Jesus God was circumcised. I had almost scrapped it beforehand because it felt so impractical and irrelevant, but Melody read it through and told me to go ahead with it. I gave it up to God and preached it and I let it go. Two days later I got a call from California, from the president of a university. He had read the sermon on my blog and he wanted me to come out and preach it at a meeting of his board. What? He said he had never heard these things before, and he thought people need to hear them. He is a Jew, and he lost his family in the holocaust, and he had been called a Christ-killer in his youth. He told me that when he read my sermon he wept. He told me that most sermons tell us to be good, but what he wanted to hear is what God is like.

I am not going out there to convert him. I am going to share my faith, but not to convert him. That’s not the point. I am going out there to share the “news of God” as we read it in the gospel, and to celebrate that “the Bible is on his side,” and experience some healing and the love of God. That’s what I am passionate about, the love of God.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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