Tell the Good News, the Gospel Spread

Rev. Scott L. Barton
March 23, 2014
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

So, it turns out that Fred Phelps has died.  He was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church that has been in the news for so many years for their brand of faith, which is all about condemning what they decided is the sin of America.  I don’t need to describe their brand of tormented hate which you’ve all read about it.  Before Phelps died, I read posts on Facebook by people who, against all common sense and reason, were holding him in their prayers, trying to put aside the hate they had felt going both directions. Trying to live Jesus’s radical notion of loving your enemies, proclaiming the good news of an all-loving, all-loving God.

It is, of course, people like Fred Phelps who have helped to give Christianity a bad name among a growing segment of the population that sees the sensational news that comes from hate in the name of religion. That growing list of the unaffiliated has come to be called the “nones,” n-o-n-e-s, because “none” is what more and more people seem to be answering on polls of religious affiliation. An important study by sociologist Robert Putnam and others came out a few years ago that discusses one big reason for the growth of the nones as a reaction to conservative Christianity, which, while not the same as the Phelps brand, can be seen as related to it. A fundamentalism seen as empty of compassion and grace is growing less appealing. Who would have thought that once when a lot of us feared that the conservatives were taking over, that it’s actually the nones who are becoming the biggest segment of the population?

Could it be that we who stand in the line of what was once the dominant religious force in the country still have a message to tell?  And could it be that we might find the message in the book that is both maligned for what people don’t understand, and which the mainline church has been, wrongly in my opinion, maligned for having ignored?

You don’t to have to be a fundamentalist or even a religious conservative to love the Bible. I don’t think people who may think of themselves as religious liberals need to be afraid of saying that.  My Bible is as worn out as your average Bible thumper’s, and I’m far from a conservative. I’ve had this copy for 24 years and have to keep repairing the cover.  I don’t know it as well as a lot of people do, which probably includes people in this congregation.  But I like it because there is always something new in it. I don’t know everything here. But when we get rid of our preconceptions about what it says, and actually dare to crack it open in anticipation that God might speak to us, we can find some very eye-opening revelations. And I don’t mean the last book!

Too often the charge against people of our ilk is that we are a club of relativists.  We cave in to the culture and ignore the plain meaning of scripture. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. At least when main-line church people like Hadley Congregationalists dare to read the Bible, we see it, I hope, as the testimony of how God absolutely opens people’s eyes and prods us to act differently towards people who were strangers. But I’m not sure that we always understand how pervasive that attitude in the Bible is.   

We are the people of a subversive book.  We’re not a club of people who like each other because we’re all similar. As fun and unique as they may be, we’re not defined by the asparagus supper or the fall festival or the Christmas sale; not by the wonderful sermons that came, or that still might come, from this pulpit, or a faithful choir and organist, or Sunday School program, or even the clock on the tower.  We’re defined by a counter-cultural direction, as hard as that is to point to or quantify.

What I mean by that is that there is always a movement even within the Bible from what people think ought to be true, to what, by faith, comes next. 

Let me describe an example from the Original Testament. Isaiah says, Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off  [56:3-5].

This is such an important text because it describes a tension that the people of faith have always experienced.
Eunuchs were a class of people who, for one reason or another, were cut off from being full and participating members in Israel’s community of faith.  They were a class of people willingly made impotent, or unwillingly made as children, or homosexuals. One side of Israel’s faith had to do with maintaining a purity of the culture in order to be a reminder of the purity of God. At one point, that purity of culture excluded not only people obviously disfigured in one way or another, say, by leprosy, but also those who couldn’t have children. At the risk of being gross (but I trust you are a forgiving bunch!) that included excluding from the community, “one whose testicles have been crushed.”  That’s Biblical – Deuteronomy 23!  But Isaiah is also Biblical. There is always a tension in the Bible between what had become the law, or the norm, something observed at first for the sake of faith, and, a wider vision that God revealed. It’s as if at first, God has certain rules in order to express love for a people who need to establish their identity as God’s peculiar people. But then God’s love seems to widen to include others whom the community has excluded, even in God’s name. It’s a shift, but it’s not the shift of cultural relativists. It’s a shift by faith. The community begins to see the first rule as no longer God’s gift to help them be a people, but something that has become an example of lording it over others. So Isaiah calls Israel to see God doing something new and widening the blessings of belonging.

Here’s another example. Leviticus, that book everybody loves to hate, describes expanding love beyond your immediate family. 

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord [19:17-18]. 

That’s where Jesus got that line, love your neighbor as yourself.

Leviticus also has this idea, in its version of the law that came from God:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family (25:10).
It was sort of a get out of jail free card. Every fifty years, people who had been forced to mortgage their land in order to make ends meet, got it back.
But then Deuteronomy goes further:

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. 3Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. 4There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy. (15:1)

Now we’re talking about everyday debts, not just the land. The good news was that God didn’t want the balance between those with and without wealth to become lopsided. Imagine that! But watch out.

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor [15:7]. 
It was a hard ideal to maintain. Apparently it became the practice when the seventh year was approaching for those who had money not to lend it to those who needed cash to get by, because before the debtor had a chance to repay, the loan would be forgiven.  So Deuteronomy said, no; you can’t be tight-fisted with a member of the community even then.

They are always improving – in the text! – on what they see as God’s vision for the community.

By Jesus’ day, it was clear that Samaritans, the tribe that had developed their own worship and customs north of Jerusalem, were no longer kin. People around Jesus despised their Samaritan long-lost cousins. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, were once eager to call down fire from heaven on Samaritans (Lk. 9:54). But less than one chapter later Jesus, a good Jew, describes a Samaritan who is a good neighbor (Lk. 10:33-36).  In Acts (8:14-16) it appears that the Christians in Jerusalem were concerned with Philip’s preaching in Samaria. They sent the “senior apostles,” Peter and John, to check up on Philip. It’s as if they hoped such preaching would stop, because Samaritans were outcasts. But they find good things happening. And on their return, Peter and John “proclaimed the good news to many villages of the Samaritans” (8:25). It came slowly, but people previously rejected came to be accepted and baptized.

Later in Acts [10-11], an angelic messenger speaks to Cornelius, an officer of the occupying army, obviously an outsider, but as a Gentile, he was a double enemy. And Peter has a strange dream about a sheet loaded with creepy-crawly creatures, things that Jews aren’t supposed to eat. “Take and eat!” Peter dreams, and he hears it three times! And Peter sees it as a metaphor. “God has shown me that I should not call any person undesirable or unclean” (10:28). “In every nation (the Greek word is ethnos [εθνος]), anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (10:35).  Eθνος is any group of outsiders. In the Bible it is often translated as “the nations,” always non-Jews. Anyone, from any identifiable human group, you name the group, who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable, Peter learns. After baptizing a bunch of these non-Jews, Peter has to defend his actions again and again to the church at Jerusalem. It’s as if what has been revealed to him is bad news to the people who thought they knew where God stood; but the good news is unstoppable.

People are always changing standards - in the Bible! Even Jesus changed.  

Take the Samaritan woman at the well.  She was minding her own business, coming to the well to get water. This Jewish man, Jesus, was there.  She knew her place. He wasn’t allowed to talk with her publicly, not only because she was a woman, but a Samaritan woman.  But he asks her for some water.  Now -- instead of minding her own subservient business, and just giving it to him, she dares ask him how it is that he asks such a thing?

Now, I wonder, why should she care?  What did it matter to her if he defiled himself by talking with her and sharing her bucket?  The reason the picture of the Rembrandt painting is on the bulletin cover this morning, even though we miss a lot in black and white, is so you can see the expression on the woman’s face.  Look at that expression and tell me she wasn’t ripe for a fight.  I think Rembrandt (or maybe one of his students) hit the nail on the head. Jesus’s request brings out her anger. First, he’s going to get away with this. Nobody’s around.  I can just picture her saying, to a man who has broken the law, but won’t get caught, “Now that nobody’s around, you ask me for water.  Isn’t that against your high and mighty law?”  And then, she doesn’t stop when he answers, but keeps pushing him about his gibberish. I think that’s what it was to her, all this talk about living water, water without a bucket, water so you’ll never be thirsty again, not water to draw with a bucket but an artesian well of it. He just doesn’t get it, does he, is what’s going on in her head:

You’re so puffed up in your great religious ideas that you don’t know what real need is, real pain, real hopelessness because of who, quote, “you are.”

Call your husband and come back, he tells her.  “I don’t have one,” she answers. And then he tells her that he knows.  He knows all about the five husbands.  Now, there’s no implication of any failure here. All we can assume is that one husband died, and then the next of kin had to marry her; that was the law. And then the next of kin, when he died, had to marry her.  And then when he died, the next of kin had to marry her. And then, a fourth death, and a fifth husband.  And then a fifth death.  She wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor! It was for her protection.  But now, it may very well be that there are no more male kinsmen who will marry her. Or maybe there’s a sixth kinsman. But he won’t marry her. He’s the one she has; but he’s not her own. And now she’s trapped by a legal system that once was meant to protect her, but has enslaved her.  She can’t choose whom to marry.  And there’s nobody to choose her, or nobody who will. And Jesus understands. In a world that even then was quick to put a reason on everything, and a solution according to the law, Jesus says, in essence, “I know. I get it. What you have said is true.” Well, that surprises her. And so she asks about this Jewish-Samaritan thing. Who’s right about where to worship? And Jesus realizes, and tells her, that it’s how you worship that counts.

And she knew from how he said it, that he really believed it, and lived it. Worshiping in spirit and truth means recognizing the truth that everyone is welcome to the kingdom of God.  Worshiping in spirit and truth means broadening the scope of those who receive good news. 

Missing the Message (by Thomas John Carlisle)

We miss the message
Jesus emphasizes –
His revelation
Of his plan and purpose
And person. 

Why does he choose
A woman at the well
To tell the new, new story
Of his Christhood?

Why is she
The first to preach
The Gospel of his coming?

Why are women
entrusted and instructed
to go and tell
when he is risen?

Why are we
So dense to the import
Of his words and deeds?

She is the first evangelist, this low-class, damaged goods, cousin. She gets it. She gets what the whole trajectory of faith is all about. She gets what Jesus is all about.

How ironic that Fred Phelps, who preached the bad news of exclusion, was excommunicated from his church for “advocating a kinder approach to church members.” No one is lost. The next time you have a chance to tell somebody about this Hadley Church don’t be afraid of saying that our central message is a Biblical one, which means, always pushing the boundaries. Always reaching out in ways we never expected, because God expects something more. Always telling the news of God’s ever-expanding love. Tell the good news, the gospel spread. You can’t stop it flowing.

That’s why the church is here!