The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

First Congregational Church, Anchorage

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Psalm 119:97-104

II Timothy 3:14-17, 4:1-5

Luke 18:1-8


The Word:  Preach It!

Good morning.  The passage from II Timothy today is of some interest to me because it addresses the responsibilities of preachers.  Timothy is the preacher and Paul is his mentor. Paul is in prison and the second letter to Timothy represents his last instructions to his friend before his own execution.  We tend to attach a special significance to ďlast words,Ē so I read the passage several times, trying to discern how it might pertain to my ministry and the ministry of this church.

Paul is telling Timothy, as a preacher, and possibly all preachers after him, to proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching, but the assignment is The Word: Preach It, Sister.

I want to take these instructions seriously, I always have.  But as Iíve confessed to some of you already, I sometimes find myself uncertain as to just what the message is, or should be. Perhaps, it changes at different points in our lives. So I go into deep meditation.

I come from enough of an evangelical background that I think I know what the Message, or the Good News is:  Jesus died for my sins, and for yours, if you want to take him up on it.  If you believe this Message, accept Christ as your savior, you will avoid punishment for your sins, and will live with the Lord in heaven forever and ever.

This understanding of the Good News, or the Message, or the Gospel, or The Word, or even the Old, Old Story, is based in the ancient belief that by providing a blood offering, a sin offering, of a dove, or a lamb, or a first born child, the blood of that offering washes away our own sin and we are made clean in Godís eyes.  God offered his own first born Son, we are told, to pay the price for us.  This is called atonement theology.  Jesus atoned for our shortcomings in a horrific way, and the bottom line is that, if we believe this, we are saved from endless punishment, and receive everlasting life.

Christís resurrection, personal resurrection, hope, are all a part of the Good News.  The fact that Christ lives, God is with us always, all part of the Message. But this ďdied for our sinsĒ part is what Iím thinking about at the moment.

Now many of you did not grow up in the same Christian faith tradition as I did, so you might not be as familiar with this interpretation of the Good News as I am, or have been.  My little neighborhood church when I was a kid was as fundamentalist as they come.  The preacher preached it.  And I believed it.

I am here this morning to confess that I have my doubts about atonement theology.  Today, Iím more of a grace person.  My view of God does not include a God demanding blood sacrifices, but rather a God who freely gives out undeserved, unearned forgiveness. I have to believe in such a God because itís the only way I have a chance.

Another reason I have personally moved away from atonement theology is that it is pretty self-centered and gives me no guidance for the rest of my life. But this does not mean that I have given up God.  Kate sent me an e-mail earlier this week with a story entitled:  Is believing in God evolutionarily advantageous?

The answer is yes. In the history of the world, the article says, in every culture in every location at every point in time, people hve developed a supernatural belief system, a belief in a higher power outside themselves.  And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright.  That is, something so helpful that the people who have the trait thrive, and the people who donít slowly die out.  But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?

When we believe in God, we tend to be nicer to one another. When you believe someone is watching you and cares about what you do, be it your deceased grandmother or a God-figure, well, you behave better.  People cooperate, share, follow community-wide rules, when they feel that these are Godís rules and God will not be pleased if they are broken.

There is a fear factor here, I admit, but it can be as gentle or as harsh as your experience and understanding of God dictates.  But, according to research, a society benefits when its people believe in God.

That too is Good News. But itís one thing to believe in God and another to seek to be the kind of person God wants us to be.  Weíre told that God wants us to love our neighbor, but that brings up questions, too. Loving oneís neighbor means befriending that neighbor, standing up for that neighbor when the neighbor is in danger or being mistreated.  How far does a friend go for a friend? 

ďGreater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.Ē            

John 15:13.    We already know what Jesus would do

So Iím here this morning to "preach the word,Ē to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  But the love of Jesus has some special considerations. We canít just hold on to it for ourselves, we must pass it on, we must use it in our daily lives, share it with our neighbors. The Good News becomes a little more complicated when you look at it this way. 

And questions come up, at least for me. How well, how accurately, how boldly are we, am I, telling the story?    And are we staying safely in Biblical times or are we moving our faith to action in todayís world, applying it to todayís issues and crises?

 John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church. Iím no John Wesley, but I was fascinated with a series of entries in his diary of the early years of his ministry:

Sunday morning, May 5
:   Preached in St. Anneís. Asked not to come back.
Sunday evening, May 5
:    Preached in St. Johnís. Deacons said, "Get out, and stay out!"
Sunday morning, May 12
: Preached in St. Judeís. Canít go back there either.
Sunday evening, May 19
:  Preached in St. Somebody Elseís. Deacons called special meeting, and said couldnít return.
Sunday morning, May 26
: Preached on street. Kicked off street.
Sunday morning, June 2
:   Preached at the edge of town. Kicked off highway.
Sunday evening, June 2
:    Preached in a pasture. Ten thousand came.

I have no idea how accurate this story is.  I asked a Methodist about it this morning, and he assured me that he had heard the first part of the story, but heíd missed the pasture part. I figure that the 5,000 people listening to Wesley in the pasture was probably true, too, since there are so many Methodists today. No matter if the details are squeaky correct, you have to admit that the story encourages persistence and a consistent message. Letís try such a message: Love your neighbor, even if it hurts.

Letís apply this thought to a current real life, tragic situation. Six boys in their early teens have killed themselves in recent months because of homophobic abuse at home and bullying in their schools. Itís become an epidemic. But something is happening. The internet is buzzing with messages from older gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered adults saying, ďHang in there, kids.  Times will get better and you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality.Ē

Many of these loving and accepting individuals, even most, will be straight. Youíll know who they are because they will be wearing purple, the color of the Spirit, the color of Hope. In our tradition, purple is associated with Advent, with the preparation for the coming of Christ, and with repentance.

So today and this coming Wednesday, October 20, Iíll be wearing a bit of purple in solidarity with my young, troubled neighbors.  Itís better than a sermon, way better.

Why would I do this?  Because I believe in God.  I believe the Good News that God accepts us all and that salvation, however we define it, is for everybody.  I believe in Jesus Christ who already paid the blood sacrifice, if such a sacrifice was necessary.  No one else need die. No more Matthew Shepherds, and no more Tyler Clementis, Asher Browns, Seth Walshs, Justin Aabuergs, Raymond Chases or Billy Lucases.  The debt is paid.  We are all loved unconditionally, through the grace of God.

And because I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that works to heal families, to watch over schools, and to civilize communities and societies, calling us to repentance, calling us to stand up and befriend the friendless, and in turn, giving us the gift of grace, and the power and majesty of civilization itself.  Without this Spirit, I believe we are, indeed, doomed to everlasting savagery.

The pulpit is only one place where we proclaim this Gospel. We pass on the Good News when we sing to our children about the love of Jesus, but also when we teach them that bullying is not allowed.  We share the Word, when we share our food with the hungry, provide shoes for troubled children. We telegraph the Message when we comfort and encourage the sick, when we pray for those in distress, and when we welcome the stranger.  We envision the Kingdom of God when we seek to become a civilized society. We proclaim the saving grace of our Lord Jesus when we save one child, or one man, or one woman from Ö despair.                                                                                                       Amen

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