I Samuel 8.4-9, 19-22

Matthew 28.16-20

Fake Good News

Fifth Sunday after Easter

            Let’s begin with a quick lesson in Greek this morning. How many of you have heard of the word “evangelical?” It’s a word that’s used a lot to describe a segment of Christianity that we’re going to talk about this morning. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke, he stands in the temple and opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reads, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor [and then Jesus describes what that Good News is]: he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, and all the eyes in the synagogue were on him, and he said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This “good news” encapsulates Jesus’ entire message and ministry; the Greek word for good news is evangel, so anything that is evangelical both describes and proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

            For those who don’t receive our weekly email blasts, something extraordinary happened in American Christianity a week ago Monday, and so far as I’ve been able to tell, it has received little national attention. Sojourners magazine reported it last week, and the online edition of The New Yorker provided an account by one of the participants. On Monday April 16 approximately fifty leaders of American Evangelical Christianity, pastors, professors and seminary leaders, gathered at Wheaton College in Illinois to discuss how they have allowed a large swath of their own church to be coopted by the current social and political crisis engendered by the 2016 Presidential election. This was not a political gathering; in fact many of the leaders who participated were pleased with the way the election turned out. But the evangelical church, by which I mean a more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist strain of Christianity than the place you and I occupy, in its cozy association with current national leadership, has found itself drawn into a morass – a swamp, if you will - of racism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism and greed. And friends, these are not my words, they are the words and terms used by those evangelical leaders themselves, about themselves. It was a collective and astonishing mea culpa.

            I want to share a story of something that has happened to me on multiple occasions; this particular version of it took place at a Lion’s Club picnic about 25 years ago. The Lion’s Club picnic is an all-day affair, a big fund-raiser for the Lions with lots of great food – raw clams, steaks, planked salmon, corn on the cob, hot dogs, hamburgers – and plenty of liquid refreshment to wash it down. Late in the day I found myself in conversation with some people I had only just met, and I don’t even remember the topic any more, but the conversation was loud and opinionated and blustery and liberally seasoned with coarse language and jokes. Now that kind of thing doesn’t bother me, and I’ve been known to speak the language myself in unguarded moments. But then the conversation turned, and one of my new acquaintances looked at me and said, “So where do you work? What do you do for a living?” What happened next has happened more times than I can count. “Oh, I’m the minister of a Congregational Church.” And I can literally see everyone replaying the conversation in their heads, and their jaws slacken as they recall every four letter word and questionable opinion that peppered their speech, and they begin stammering their apologies, and I try to convince them that it really doesn’t bother me, but the conversation never really returns to normal, and everyone is much more circumspect in their choice of vocabulary, as they look for the first opportunity to escape. Now, I recognize and appreciate the respect that is revealed in those moments, but I also recognize the fact that a lot of folks just don’t know what to do with clergy, and for that matter, a lot of folks don’t know what to do with people who take their religion seriously.

            I found myself in another one of those conversations not too long ago with someone who genuinely wanted to know more of what it was like to be a Congregational minister. And their questions were both thoughtful and revealing: What’s your take on gay marriage? Do you think other religions are equally valid? Do you support #MeToo? What about the kids marching for gun control? And I know where these questions are coming from, because in today’s America the church is sending a lot of mixed messages. For every United Church of Chester, for every United Church of Christ that stands for being open and welcoming, that understands that following Jesus means following him among the poor, the captives and the oppressed who so acutely desire the good news, there is another expression of the church that stands in judgment against the poor, the captive and the oppressed, against the immigrant, against marriage equality, against people who believe or look or live differently than they do. And yet they too claim the mantle of Jesus Christ. So that great unchurched segment of American culture is suspicious of religious folks like you and me, and one of the big reasons is what the American Evangelicals came together to both examine and lament two weeks ago. Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, gave the keynote address at the Wheaton conference, and told his colleagues that some of the loudest voices in American religion belong to those who “display an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power.” And in what can only be described as “corollary damage,” you and I, as people who go to church, are unintentionally painted with that same same broad brush.

            I think the story we heard in I Samuel has a lesson for the church today. For generations the Hebrew people had been led by charismatic leaders: individuals like the prophets and the judges who led the Hebrews during critical junctures of time, and then, when their job was done, receded back into the general populace. But Israel looked around, and saw that neighboring nations had a new and shiny and different style of leadership: the other nations had royalty. So Israel decided they too wanted some of that royalty. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then a king to govern us, like the other nations.” Now Samuel tried to warn them that becoming like all the other nations would lead them away from their allegiance to God, but they insisted: “No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” It was a case of be careful what you wish for, because God relented, Samuel selected a king, and it was all downhill from there. The sad story of King Saul, however, is a story for another day.

            But I think this is what has happened to some aspects of the church that have become so seduced by power and authority, of the temporal and political kind, that they have lost sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news, the evangel, and have turned to follow false gods and proclaim fake good news. The self-assessment of America’s leading evangelicals is brutal; Dr. Labberton said, “The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, or abortion, or LGBTQ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake.”

            But I want to be careful this morning. I don’t want to be heard saying, “Look, the rest of them are doing it wrong and we’re the ones who are doing it right.” I leave the pointed finger of accusation with the evangelicals themselves. Rather, I think the occasion of their own self-assessment could also occasion one of our own. One of the truisms of evangelical Christianity is that its membership tends to be more concerned about their own personal salvation through Jesus Christ and not so much about Jesus’ concern for the welfare of others, or even of creation. Although it’s kind of a short-hand assessment, I think it’s true. But I also think that for many of us in the progressive church, it’s the other way around. We are very good at feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, demonstrating for gun control, attending rallies for equality and marching on Washington, but the progressive church, our United Church of Christ included, is not so good at talking about Jesus. I know I could do a better job of this. And I would guess that many of us are probably much more comfortable talking about justice than about Jesus. But if the evangel, the good news, the gospel means anything, it is because in that moment in Luke when Jesus read about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and letting the oppressed go free, he embodied that very good news: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The fact that you and I engage in such good work - and we do, in spades - is both salutary and salubrious; the fact that we engage in such good work in the name of Jesus Christ is what makes that work sacred and holy.

            At the end of Dr. Labberton’s address, he names the hope that he sees for his church, and I think it can be our hope as well. He talks about our New Testament reading from the end of Matthew that Nancy read. It is the final piece of Matthew’s Easter story, appropriate for this Fifth Sunday in the Easter season. Labberton pointed out that while we are all familiar with the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the peoples... teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” we often miss the sentence just before which simply reads, “When the eleven [remaining] disciples saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So when Jesus gave the Great Commission, he gave it to believers and doubters alike. God uses us, God uses all of us, regardless of our level or strength of belief. To put it another way, sometimes God uses us because of who we are; and sometimes, I would suggest more often, God uses us in spite of who we are.

            We are all works in progress. Many years ago there was a button that a lot of church folks were fond of wearing; it read, “Please be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet.” On this Eastertide morning, let this be our Good News and gospel, our evangel and our hope.

            Amen.

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