Friday, June 16, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 6

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,“Your God reigns!”
                                 -Isaiah 52:7 (NIV) 

So, if the ubiquity of information in our world means that it’s less significant than ever for making important decisions, the church has an obvious problem. Whatever else it may be, the gospel is information. 
     The word itself denotes “good news,” and we know what news is. And our struggles with news as a culture actually makes my point. How do we know what’s real news and what’s fake news? And from what perspective is the news reported? When the church proclaims the gospel, we can expect the same questions: “How do I know this ‘good news’ is real?” “For whom is it good?” 
     The gospel, however, isn’t just good news. It’s surprising news. Startling news. And perhaps part of our problem in communicating it is that we aren’t surprised by it anymore. We’ve domesticated it. We think it’s information that we’re supposed to master, and when we’ve mastered it we can communicate it to others. Like a proof in geometry, or a sequence of events in history. 
     It’s more a stunning, out-of-left-field announcement. It’s the Miracle on Ice. It’s the PEACE! headline in The New York Daily News on August 15, 1945. It’s the breaching of the Berlin Wall. We don’t master it; it masters us. We don’t make the gospel good news any more than the media created good news out of any of those stories. It just comes crashing into the world and redraws our maps. 
     That’s what I mean when I say the gospel is surprising and startling. Look at Isaiah’s “good news,” for example. The next chapter begins, “Who has believed our message?” Well, who could? Israel is suffering under foreign rule, so it doesn’t look much like her God is reigning. But that suffering is actually the means of God’s action. Through his servant’s punishment, Israel is given peace. The suffering of Israel’s righteous ones is brought to its full measure. The unrighteous are given the chance to see how their actions have added to the servant’s wounds. In all of this, somehow God is returning to Zion to comfort his people and redeem his city. No, it isn’t easy to believe. But, if you can believe it, it changes everything.  
    This was the gospel of Jesus: “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Again, tough to believe. It didn’t jibe with the facts on the ground, and still doesn’t. But that’s why Jesus said “repent and believe the good news.” It isn't the kind of news that claims to add something to an already pretty good life. If believed, it changes the way we see the world, ourselves, others, God….everything.
     Here’s where, perhaps, the church has made a misstep. We’ve made the gospel into a nice additive to our lives, a way to have our cake and eat it too. We’ve boiled it down into something that can coexist happily with our jobs and marriages and stations in the world, as though God is acting merely to redeem our own choices and save us from our own bad decisions. The problem with this gospel is that it doesn’t reorient anyone. It doesn’t call into question the assumptions of the world around us. It doesn’t rebel against the status quo, and it certainly doesn’t require real repentance to believe. It doesn’t ask us to see the world differently, to buy into a new vision of reality where God’s reign has commenced, his kingdom has come near, and everything is new.
     Our salvation is not just protection from the consequences of our sins. It’s being startled and shocked into seeing all the ways in which we’re complicit with the powers of the world, and not the kingdom of God. This is the repentance needed to believe the good news. We must see our world, and ourselves in relation to it, more like God sees these things, and this requires that we be startled out of our comfort with the way things are.
     But we tend to arrange things so that we’re not surprised. Take, for example, the American church’s association with a particular brand of right-wing politics that wants to preserve the majority culture’s stranglehold on the privileges and wealth of our society. Or its association in other circles with a particular brand of left-wing politics. In both cases, the church suffers blind spots in which we can’t see how our political philosophy of choice takes the place of God’s work of salvation in the world. We’re not shocked, we’re not startled, in fact we’re quite comfortable and at peace with the main assumptions of the world around us. And so there’s no repentance and thus no believing in world seen through God’s eyes.     
     Or we see poverty, for example, as a plight endured by those who haven’t been able to secure their own lives. And, if we’re being honest, we might even entertain at least a sneaking suspicion that there are moral causes: they aren’t smart enough or good enough or hard-working enough. And if someone showed up in our churches to say “blessed are the poor,” we’d be puzzled. And that would turn to outrage if this person said to us, “you have your reward, and it has nothing at all to do with God’s kingdom.” 
     And that, of course, was Jesus’ gospel.
     And that suggests something of a starting point. 
     If the gospel we proclaim in our churches is more often than not the message that Jesus has made it possible for good folks to go to heaven when they die, then perhaps we need to be startled. And, if our world thinks that the church has nothing to offer and has in fact sold itself to political expedience (and they do, in increasing numbers), then they need to be startled too.
     And the way we do this is by preaching the gospel. 
     Not some “good news” that affirms that things aren’t so bad, and all we need is a little help to make ourselves all we can be. Not just “good news” to the wealthy, but to the poor. Not to the religious insiders, but to the perpetual outsiders. Not to those who have it all together, but to those for whom it’s all falling apart. The gospel of Jesus is the startling, surprising news that the kingdom of God is for folks just like that. 
     To preach that convincingly, though, we have to make sure that folks like that are the centerpieces of our churches. For most churches, though, they don’t feature on our websites. They aren’t represented among the leaders. They don’t figure in our planning, they aren’t asked to teach or to lead ministries, and their stories don’t get told. They sit, week after week (if they will), and hear talk of God’s blessings from people who look on the outside like paragons of success and wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and “Do I have a place here among these people?” They suffer silently, hoping that maybe one day they can get it together enough that God’s blessings will be for them too.
     And the gospel shocks us all: God’s blessings are for them, right now. 
     And they don’t know it, because the rest of us don’t make it concrete and real in their lives.
     “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus. “And blessed are those who weep, and who are hungry, and who are hated and excluded and insulted. Yours is the kingdom of God.”
     And Isaiah says, “blessed are the feet of those who run to them, bringing that good news.”

     May our feet be blessed.

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