I recently heard a true story about a minister who sent an urgent message to everyone in his church – “no matter what you are doing, no matter what your excuse, no matter what you have to cancel to make it happen – make sure you are at church on Sunday, January 20th.” As you might imagine, this created all kinds of wonder and anticipation among the congregation. On the appointed Sunday morning the church was standing room only.
When it was time for the sermon, the minister ascended the pulpit. People were on the edge of their seats. The eyes of all the church were fixed upon him. What special word from God would he have for them? What happened was this. The minister proceeded to rip into the congregation. He chastised them for their irregular church attendance. He challenged the sincerity of their faith.
“Why can you take your children without fail to cotillion or to lacrosse tournaments but cannot take them to youth group? Why can you afford a country club but not afford to tithe to the church? Where is your commitment? How do you expect to get anything out of the church or your faith if you won’t put anything into it? God is faithful to do His part, but you know that you must do your part.”
And with several other such harangues the minister reduced the congregation to tears with guilt and shame.
The immediate effect on the congregation was increased attendance and higher giving. Guilt works well in the short run. But after a few months, of course, everyone settled back into the status quo. That’s because guilt and recrimination can never affect lasting change.
The minister probably thought that the Lord had called him to preach a prophetic sermon to convict the lukewarm masses. He was probably encouraged to do so by some eager staff and vestry members. He was likely congratulated for his courage and moral vision. After all, he was doing his duty to right the rails of the congregation that had clearly lost its way. He was the captain and it was up to him to right the ship.
This is the way the world thinks – we all know this. But this is not the way the gospel thinks. From the gospel perspective, it was not the congregation that had lost its way; it was the minister who had lost his way. Not that I can’t sympathize with his frustrations. But, the Christian minister had abandoned his calling. He had turned the church into a lecture hall and the pulpit into a judge’s bench. At his ordination he was set apart as an evangelist; that Sunday he forsook his vows.
The word “evangelist” may strike you as a little cringe worthy. That is because it has flown far away from its etymology. Evangelist has become co-terminus with a kind of wheedling moralism, usually bound up with a standard set of political causes. When you think about the guest list for your dinner party, not once does “evangelist” cross your mind.
Yet, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek word “evangelion”, meaning, simply, literally, “good message or good news.” “Eu” means “good”, and “angelion” means “message or news.” So when a preacher gets up into a pulpit to preach, you have every right to expect “good news” rather than a tongue lashing, a pep talk, or a to do list on how to get your life in order.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus gets into a pulpit for the first time in his career as a preacher. I would imagine people were on the edge of their seats. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus preaches his first sermon, saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now, that…..is good news. Jesus was anointed to bring “good news.” And that is all He said. After that short sermon, Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Then, do you know what He did? He started going to dinner parties with people who drank too much and told dirty jokes. He healed people who could not get help from respectable doctors. He helped people who had burned all their bridges. He fed people. He befriended people. There was a good reason that He was known as the “friend of sinners.”
Our Christ Church group returned last week from our medical mission trip to Haiti. The non-medical types, like me, were assigned to charts and vitals. We welcomed people, took temps and blood pressures and weights. We recorded the info on charts for the doctors. After doing this about 80 times a day, we got fairly proficient. We joked that we should take vitals in the narthex as people come in for church. Just set up a little station back there. We thought we would take before and after church blood pressures.
Someone said that the sign of a good sermon would be a higher blood pressure post church. People need to be challenged, he said. I told him that I thought the opposite is true. You’ve got enough in life to raise your blood pressure. An effective sermon may not give you a to do list to fix your life, but it will lower your blood pressure. It will leave you comforted and assured. That’s the sure sign that you know the gospel – the good news – has been preached.
The people of Haiti have some fabulous proverbs, many of which, for some reason, have to do with naked people. One that I don’t quite understand is “Laugh at a short person, but not at a naked person.” O.K. One that I love and think I understand is this: “A postponed ceremony accommodates the naked person.”
A postponed ceremony accommodates the naked person. This means that if you don’t start your event on time it really helps the people that are unprepared – the people that can’t even get it together enough to put on a pair of pants! What a beautiful gospel proverb!
Jesus says He brings good news to the unprepared. As the text says, the “poor” and the “blind” and the “captive” and the “oppressed” are unable to get prepared. They are the naked who need the ceremony postponed so they can get to it. Jesus takes it a step farther. He brings the ceremony to them. Meaning, He brings the ceremony to us, who need daily help to lower our anxiety-ridden blood pressures.
The poet Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry Magazine. He’s coming to Christ Church on March 6 to read his poetry and give a talk called “Hive of Nerves – Modern Anxiety and the Meaning of Faith.” A definite Not-To-Be-Missed Event. The title poem of his latest book of poetry is called “Every Riven Thing.” The recurring line is this: “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”
A riven thing is a rent apart, split open thing, a thing broken into pieces. In the most profound way, God belongs in the riven thing, because He was riven Himself. His palms were riven by nails, His feet were riven by spikes, his side was riven by a spear, his brow was riven by thorns.
A riven thing is a poor, blind, captive and oppressed thing – a thing naked and unprepared. It is a thing that needs the healing and comfort of good news and favor. The good news today and the good news everyday is that God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
Including you. Amen.