Good News

A sermon preached by Christopher  L. Webber on St. Paul’s Day (transferred) January 30, 2011, at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut.

“I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.” St. Matthew 10:18

You come to church week by week to hear good news. The word “gospel” means “good news.”  So what was the good news this morning?  “Jesus said, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Then the Gospel goes on to tell us that Christians will be flogged in the synagogues and dragged before governors and kings, that brother will betray brother to death and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death and you will be hated by all because of Jesus’ name. Good news?

How do we handle it when we hear stuff like this in church? I wonder whether an automatic adjustment machine kicks in and translates it, if I could put it that way, and tells us, “This is history; this doesn’t apply to us; this was the first century when the church was persecuted and, yes, that’s how it was for them but that’s not how it is for us. Don’t worry about it.”  But how is that good news?

Well, I guess it’s good news that we don’t have that kind of trouble but I have to wonder, when I think about it, whether the difference between them and us isn’t so much that the neighbors are friendlier but that Satan is smarter.  The fact is that the church grew in the first 300 years in spite of the persecution. Christians were crucified and thrown to the lions and beheaded and burned at the stake and starved and drowned. They did everything they could think of to persuade people that Christianity was bad for your health but the church grew.

Arlene was cleaning up files in the church office recently and gave me copies of some old diocesan yearbooks. It’s fascinating to look at the numbers just 25 years ago.  Not just St. Paul’s Bantam but every church in the state had large congregations and large church schools.  There were four churches in Litchfield and now there are three. There were 186 churches in the diocese and now there are 172 and I haven’t heard about any persecution.  Nobody is crucifying Christians.  But not just the Episcopal Church, all the churches have the same problem. Back during the Depression the churches grew. Back during World War II the churches grew. Back during the early days of the Cold War the churches grew. But not anymore.  No, we haven’t solved all our problems but comparatively our problems are small and surely there is nothing to keep people from going to church on Sunday except the fact that it’s too easy.  I really think that after almost 2000 years of trying to wipe out the church Satan has gotten smart and relaxed the pressure.

I remember years ago meeting people from Sri Lanka where there was a new government that was Buddhist and was doing everything possible to make it hard for Christians. They instituted a ten-day week so you never knew when it was Sunday and Sunday was almost never a day off. That meant that Christians had to go to church before going to work and church attendance grew. During the worst days of communism in China the church grew faster than anywhere else in the world. During the worst days of communism in Russia the church still grew. And maybe Satan finally figured it out: leave them alone and they’ll get bored and give it up. And it’s working.

This is our day, St. Paul’s day, and this is St. Paul’s Church, and we could learn something.  Paul learned something by persecuting Christians. He learned that it doesn’t work; and when he couldn’t beat them he joined them. He talks about it in the first reading this morning. “I’ve locked up many of the saints in prison.  I cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death; I pursued them in foreign cities.” And it didn’t work. Paul gave up and joined them.

We are here today to have our annual meeting and maybe we ought to be asking ourselves if we can find some way to get ourselves persecuted. What can we do to build up this church? Christians everywhere are asking that question and I don’t know that anyone has good answers. There are indeed growing churches but it seems to me that many of them follow one of two different strategies. Some of them do what a friend of mine calls “entertainment evangelism.” They bring on rock groups and popular music and sit you down in comfortable chairs and make it easy for you. I wonder how well that would last in a time of persecution. What is there in that to die for? Others find a way to pretend they are persecuted: they rave against the government and claim our liberties are being taken away. But I don’t think St. Paul would have been impressed. Lots of Christians in lots of places would be happy to be persecuted the way we are.

No, I think we need to begin to imagine a new kind of evangelism that does two things. First, it analyzes what Christianity really means in a world like ours. It asks for a really clear definition of what it means to be a Christian. It asks each of us to be able to answer the question, “What difference does it really make? Could I live without it?” And second, it looks for the challenge, the places where Satan is at work and confronts him, faces up to conflict if necessary recognizing that change isn’t easy.

But where is the challenge?  Let me be controversial.  I see any number of places in our society where the gospel is ignored and we don’t face it. What about gun control?  Why are the laws not enforced? There are laws to prevent the wrong people from getting guns but it’s easy for them to get them and the gun lobby scares our legislators out of doing anything about it. More policemen were shot in one recent period this month than in many years. Do we have to accept the death of members of Congress and policemen? The president made his State of the Union speech with an empty chair in the chamber and expressed his regret and made no proposal to do anything about it.  Polls show that 80% of the population wants stricter gun control but it’s too controversial for our politicians to act.  Are Christians also afraid to speak up?

What about the economy?  The richest people are richer than ever and more people are unemployed than in many years but nobody dares raise taxes on the rich. What would Jesus do?  We know what Jesus would do because there are stories in the Bible about it.  A rich man came to him and asked what he should do and Jesus told him: Give your money to the poor and follow me.

What about the amount of money we spend on weapons and bases we don’t need?  Aren;t Christians calledto be peacemakers?  Who challenges our priorities?

We could take a stand on some of these issues and insist that if we are faithful to Jesus, we should do something about violence and poverty and we could get ourselves persecuted and it might be good for us and maybe the neighbors would see that there are people here trying to make a difference. Some of them might make it hard for us but some of them might join us.

Okay, I’m trying to be controversial because I think we need to be thinking about the reason we are here and you are welcome to disagree with me and we can find out whether our commitment to Jesus is greater than the differences we may have.  I think we need to be willing to challenge each other and disagree with each other and work through our disagreements to come to a faith that matters, that makes a difference, that changes the world the way St. Paul and the early church changed the world.

Now let me make a few other suggestions that ought to be less controversial but maybe even harder to act on.  What about prayer?  Why aren’t their prayer groups — plural: prayer groups— in this congregation or Bible study groups? How many of us meet with others of us during the week to share our faith, to strengthen each other to make a difference?  What about stewardship? A bishop I knew many years ago had a very simple standard: “Give till it hurts” Do we?  Does our giving make a difference? Does it deprive us of anything important?  In most parishes if people were all at the poverty level and tithed Church income would go way up.  I will have some things to say later about all of this but I don’t want to get too centered on our immediate parish situation.

The sermon is to proclaim the Gospel, good news, and there is good news. God in Jesus Christ has acted to give us life – – eternal life – – and following him is not always easy but it brings a depth of peace and joy not to be found elsewhere.  But that life and peace and joy are not for the casual Christian, the Christmas and Easter Christian, the drop-in-on-occasion Christian who acts as if it doesn’t make a difference because it hasn’t made a difference. Many of them have not become real Christians because they have never met a real Christian. They have never met anyone who made them ask, “How can I have what you have?” Paul had met people like that and eventually it got to him and he was changed.

This church needs to be the kind of place that not only gives thanks for St. Paul but seeks to make the same difference he did in the world today

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