Here’s the story of how the church got started. Jesus sent out his twelve disciples in this radical itinerant ministry. He sent them into the villages and cities. They went without protection and without economic security. He gave them a message: Tell people to change the way they are living and enter the kingdom of God. This is our story and mission. Clear, concise, with a game plan and a mission statement. God has always had a storied people.
Something has haywire. The press secretary couldn’t keep up with all the changing messages, missions, and the crazy fringes that led to heresy. Attempts at control led to persecutions, drownings, beheadings, and a church drowning in anger, recrimination, and desperate for more control. And look at us now. Out of control. Angry. Confused. Attacked from every side. Liberal and conservative Christians at one another’s throat. What has happened to the good news? Liberals are arguing about whether or not the story is true. Conservatives have become the the big bad wolf, huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the house down – the guardians of the galaxy of human behavior. One part of the church is producing skepticism the other anger and disgust. It’s a mess and we are up to this mess to our steeples. Somehow we have to get back on message and back in our basic mission. Jesus sent his people out two by two to tell the story.
Imagine this announcement in the order of worship. “This afternoon, we will gather for a blessing, some minimal instructions, and we will go out two by two to share our story with the community.” The crowd drawn by that note would fit in a Volkswagen beetle with room in the back. We would fight over the budget even though Jesus said to bring no money. We would fight over what to pack even though Jesus said not to bring even an extra pair of sandals and only one coat. We would fight over what time we were eating even though Jesus said to bring no bread. We would worry about people not liking what we had to say and about people thinking we were a bunch of fanatics. Finally, we would have an argument about whether or not we should even go and then decide to make a recommendation to send out a postcard inviting people to church. Then we would go home and watch television.
If we are honest, we will admit that our country could use some good news. We are a people so far off the road to well-being that we qualify as illegal aliens in a land that our forefathers and mothers wouldn’t recognize. We have been asleep at the wheel so long, like Rip Van Winkle we have allowed racism to go public once again with white nationalists spewing their hatred of everyone. We have been protecting vested interests so long that we can’t build a national consensus to protect the environment or our national parks. Look at our country. Once we were “America the Beautiful.” Look what we have done to the pristine country that we stole from the Native Americans and Mexicans. We turned paradise into a shopping mall. That’s right – the mall is the Temple of Mammon. We have made it a concrete slab with a coast to coast shopping mall. We are one giant shopping mall and eating buffet. America’s got talent all right: the talents of shopping and eating. Major malls and mini-malls and discount malls. They put food courts in the major malls so we can eat when we get tired of shopping. They put the mini-malls between the major malls and they put the mini-marts between the mini-malls. And in between all the malls, we got the car lots, the muffler shops, the auto parts stores, the fast food places, the dirty book stores, laundromats, cheap hotels, strip malls, restaurants, and gas stations (George Carlin).
Someone must have told us that the way to heaven is shopping and eating. Fast Food is not a restaurant category; it’s a statement of our spiritual condition. There are 35,000 McDonald’s and 12,000 Starbucks. If a group of educators go to a conference anywhere in America, what’s the first thing they do? They all go to the mall, especially if the conference is in Minneapolis because that’s where the Mall of America is located.
But now there’s trouble in the concrete paradise: Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a horde of social media start-ups are endangering the American way of life. Now that we have social media and online shopping, our entire way of life is endangered. The malls may soon go the way of the dinosaurs and land-line phones. You can now shop, eat, and go to the doctor (WebMD) online. You can live your life and never leave the house. Amazon drones will soon be hovering over your neighborhood. Imagine those mixed-up orders when a drone drops something in your back yard that you would never order. If you want an education, you can get it online and never attend a class or interact with a live human being. If you need religion, you can get it on television: From crazy old Pat Robertson, to sexy, savvy, smiling Joel Osteen; from sweet Paula White to one angry white woman named Joyce Meyer, from the big bible-toting Charles Stanley to the miracle healer, Benny Hinn. Oh, you can get religion on television.
Expectations have been lowered to the extent that someone stepping over a two-foot barrier thinks she’s a high jumper. And there is a symbol of how reduced and inane we are. TWITTER! I first preached a version of this sermon in 2015 before the president became the world-wide symbol of Twitter. Back then I mused about the use of our language as I tried to figure out what to call people who sent tweets. I wondered why the senders of tweets were not called twits. The word “twit” is in the word “twitter.” As is the word “wit.” Twit wits! I am confused by it all.
Twitter symbolizes the reduced, shell of our way of life, the emptiness of our culture. For example, I read that a harebrained Florida man has 270,000 Twitter followers. His hashtag is @_Florida-Man. Here are few nutty examples: Florida man tries to walk out of store with chainsaw stuffed down his pants. Florida man falls asleep during sailboat burglary with gift bag on his head; can’t be woken by police. Florida man accidentally shoots himself with stun gun while trying to rob the Radio Shack he also works at. This is crazy talk but you know what’s really crazy? This twit has 270,000 followers.
By now, you should be asking, “But what does Twitter have to do with theology?” Long before there was Twitter, Christians were speaking half-truths in the form of slogans. A little Christianity is a dangerous thing. Tweet-like slogans have been with us from the beginning. St. Paul had to deal with the biblical version of tweets in Corinth and Colossae. The more I sin the more God’s grace can be shown. Handle not. Touch not. Taste not. 13From libertines to legalists – slogans.
A little knowledge, like a little Christianity, is a very dangerous thing. When frying a Cajun turkey for Thanksgiving became the rage, people all over the country thought they could fry a turkey. So 2,000 people a year are seriously hurt because they forgot the first step in deep frying a turkey – rent a Cajun cook. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And that’s what we mostly have – a little Christianity. When your world is turned upside down with ambiguity, misunderstanding, and difficulty, you want some assurance that what you think is what others think. You want to hang out with people who think the same way you think. You will hunker down and refuse to listen to any dissenting point of view.
In Denying to the Death, we learn that people will simply refuse to believe the truth if it goes against their limited understanding and knowledge. “Time after time, we make decisions about the health of ourselves and our families based on emotion rather than on analysis of the scientific data.” For example, the people who teach that immunizations are harmful insist that immunization causes autism. These are really smart people but nothing could be further from the truth. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine, having eliminated from our lives deadly diseases such as smallpox, measles, polio, and diphtheria. It is based on the best scientific practices, has a remarkable safety record, and absolutely does not cause autism.”
We are often trapped by the illusion that we can be absolutely, 100% certain about almost everything. It is hard for people to admit they are wrong. Ask the Apostle Paul. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: As to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Saul resisted with all his might. When you are told one day that everything your grandfather and father told you is no longer the way it is, you will be bitter. When you are told that everything you learned in Sunday school and from your preacher is wrong, you will not be happy. You will resist and this resistance is hard-wired in human brains. We don’t like to be wrong even when all the facts make it plain as day that we are wrong. Moving from one religious understanding to another is like a sparrow in a hurricane. It is frightening and hard. I moved from fundamentalism to liberalism and it was a daunting journey. I am always attempting to explain how this happened because it is not a cut and dried experience. So it was that Saul was enraged at the new ideas about Jesus and he fought this new religious paradigm with violent intent. It is never easy for a Saul to become a Paul. That’s why there are a lot of people named Saul in our churches. They have just enough religion to be dangerous.
Slogans are powerful. Ask the advertising gurus – the high priests of the Temple of Mammon – the shopping mall. They make millions devising slogans that persuade us to buy. Ask musicians about the power of short quips and slogans. For some reason a song from the 1960’s got stuck in my head last week. All I could remember from the song were two words: Wooly bully! When I googled the lyrics, I realized why I only remembered “Wooly bully!” That’s basically the entire song.
In our greatly reduced culture, there’s a religious slogan that packs more power than it deserves: “The gospel is simple.” Once we go down the simple road, we reduce until there’s nothing left but suspicion of education, suspicion of complexity, suspicion of scholars, and suspicion of university professors. Make it simple and suspicious sprouts up like kudzu. How odd that attempts to make it clear only muddy the water.
When Spanish explorers finally crossed the Atlantic, a harrowing and dangerous journey, they were on the edge of dying from thirst. Their ships had sailed from the ocean into the mouth of the Amazon River, but it was so wide they thought they were still in the ocean water and would not let down their buckets for the fresh water that would have quenched their thirst because they thought the water was still salty and undrinkable. Is this our story? We have the living water of life in the good news of Jesus but can’t resist attempts at changing it, reducing it, resisting it. I am reminded of the lament of Jeremiah: “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
How odd that the most difficult, the most demanding faith in the world should be subjected by people to this half-truth. The simple gospel was produced by people who were trained to skim for easy content, but the Bible doesn’t lend itself to that kind of reading. I am not saying that the kingdom of God is for scholars only. I am challenging the half-truth that the gospel is simple, easy, and like saying the A, B, C’s.
If the gospel is simple, it should provide a consistent interpretation that everyone with common sense will understand and accept. But this is not what we have. We have people all over the map with it comes to interpreting the Bible. All these variant interpretations make it clear that the Gospel is not simple.
The irony is that attempts to simplify the faith tend to complicate it even more. In the last 2nd century the church was trying to find a way to fight off the accusations that God was the cause of evil. And so the church, mostly Irenaeus, came up with the doctrine of creation from nothing. This idea, rather than making theology simpler, made it more difficult. If God created from nothing, and there is evil in the world, then God is the cause of evil. Instead of getting out of a jam, the church went from the frying pan to the fire. Be careful of simplifying to the point of complicating.
Or read the scripts of those who promote a 6,000 year-old earth and a literal six-day creation. The scripts are designed to give all the answers, but with each answer, thoughtful people have more questions and the script soon is a clanging gong, a piano without keys, a woodwind instrument without a reed. There’s noise but no melody.
If the gospel is so simple, why are the churches in such a mess over homosexuality, the ordination of women to the priesthood, abortion, immigration, and how to best help the poor? If the gospel is so simple, why is it so easy to get twelve good Southern Baptist deacons on a jury that votes to have a defendant killed by lethal injection? If the gospel is so simple, why is there so much disagreement among the churches? If the gospel is so simple, why are we struggling to love our enemies? Because the gospel is not simple.
Look, we have a story. It’s an old, old story. We don’t need to reduce it or simplify it or codify it or reduce it to a system or pack it into 21 impossible doctrines that must be believed. We need to tell and live our story. Jesus sends us into the world to be a witness to the word. Jesus sends us into the world to call the world to repent – change its mind about how to live. The world is splintering like a piece of cheap pine plywood and we need to make it a neighborhood. Sure it will be hard but if someone refuses to listen shake the dust from your feet and go to the next door. This is our story!
Somehow we must have the courage to expose the half-truths, distortions, and lies. We are called to go into the world and tell the story of the gospel. Tell it straight! Let the chips fall where they may. Expect to be rejected. Let’s go!
dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –