Sunday, September 29, 2013

Phil Kniss: The preacher-hood of all believers

Holistic witness: Words
Luke 10:1-9; 1 Peter 3:13-17

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This morning I am engaging in a no-holds-barred defense
of my beleaguered profession,
as a preacher of the Gospel.

Now, I know, you’re not all against me.
In fact, I hear you often thanking me,
and thanking Barbara, and others,
for the sermons preached here at Park View.
You seem to actually appreciate our profession as preachers.

But preaching, as forthright proclamation of the Gospel,
has, in fact, come on hard times in the last generation or so.
The reasons are multi-layered.

There have been some pretty bad preachers.
Preachers who proclaim the good news in ways
that make it sound like bad news.
Preachers who are strident, manipulative, even coercive.
Or preachers who, in contrast, proclaim a sugary-sweet,
pie-in-the-sky, prosperity for the faithful.

But there are bigger reasons, than bad preachers.
The church, that is, a traditional organized church like ours,
has fallen into disfavor.
People see the church as not helpful or relevant,
in addressing the problems facing the human race.
They see the church as judgmental, adversarial,
fixated on a select few social issues.
And the preacher has become the primary symbol
of this negative view of the church.

Another factor is the religious pluralism in our communities today.
To preach very loudly the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ
sounds to many people—Christians and non-Christians—
as a tad presumptuous,
or insensitive to persons of other religions.

Another factor rises from the church itself.
In our post-modern, 21st-century culture,
there are various church renewal movements,
going by names such as emerging church,
organic church,
simple church . . .
movements I strongly support, by the way.
They attempt to fashion a different form of church,
not centered around big gatherings like this one,
but gathering in homes, around tables,
in third spaces like coffee shops and bars.
So the sermon is often done away with,
and replaced by open discussion.
Sermons smack of institutional church,
so they are frowned on.
Questions are good.
Proclaiming is bad.

These reasons are quite understandable,
and some of them are even good reasons.
But I wonder what we have lost in the process?

Is clearly proclaiming the Gospel
necessarily intolerant, judgmental, or coercive?

Well, given what I just said at the beginning of my sermon,
it’s obvious I think the answer is “no.”
Otherwise, I wouldn’t be defending my profession.
I would be tendering my resignation.

But I will go even farther than that.
I want to do more than just defend the right for a pastor to preach.
I want to claim that proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
is at the heart of holistic witness,
and that proclamation requires words . . . preaching, if you will.
And since Jesus called all his disciples to be witnesses,
the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, with words,
belongs not only to professional preachers,
it belongs to all who say they follow Jesus.
The church is not only a priesthood of all believers.
We are a preacher-hood of all believers.

It has become popular in church circles lately, to quote St. Francis,
who is reputed to have said,
“Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”
We don’t know if St. Francis actually said this,
because it hasn’t been found in any source associated with him.
But regardless of that fact, the sentiment is a noble one:
our deeds—as deeds—comprise authentic witness.
And sometimes our deeds speak louder than our words.
St. Francis would certainly have believed that.
As would Pope Francis, who took his name.

But I think both Francises—Saint and Pope—would also say
that Christian witness to the Gospel is incomplete, at best,
without the building of relationships and mutual understanding
that happens only with extended, honest,
respect-filled conversations.
Words are necessary for holistic witness.
Evangelism requires an evangel (messenger)
which requires an evangelion (message).

Let’s take apart that word for a second—evangelism, or evangel.
The first two letters—EV, or in Greek EU—
simply mean “good.”
As in eulogy—saying “good words” at a funeral,
or euphoria, or eugenics—making good genes.
So take off the “ev,” and what’s left is, “angel,”
which means literally, messenger.
So an “evangel” is a good angel, good messenger.
The evangelion is the good message they come with.
And evangelism is the process of bringing good messages.

Who wouldn’t want to be known as the bringer of good words?
the bearer of good news?
the proclaimer of the Gospel?
the evangelist?

I happen to believe we have a very good message to share.

We know there is a lot of pain and brokenness in this world.
Plenty of violence and estrangement and despair.
And we have no reason to believe that will end any time soon—
either for us individually, or for the world.

The prosperity Gospel preachers have it wrong, sorry to say,
if they think God is determined to remove all poverty
and suffering and violence from our lives now,
if we but have enough faith.

But . . . God, the one who created this world in beauty and wholeness,
sees the way it is now,
and sees the bigger picture,
and is on a mission to save and redeem and restore the good creation.
God says, as I quoted the prophet Isaiah last Sunday,
“I will make things whole again!”
“No more will the sound of weeping be heard in the city.”
“I will save my creation from violence.”
“The wolf will lie down with the lamb,
and no one will hurt or destroy,”
because I will do this!
That’s pretty good news.

That means the suffering and brokenness we see,
and experience first hand,
is only part of the picture.
There is a bigger picture.
There is a God-directed, saving, shalom-building work going on.

The peaceable Kingdom pictured by Isaiah, and other prophets,
the vision of re-creation pictured by John in Revelations,
is a reality at the heart of the Good News.

And God invites us to notice
where signs of that Kingdom are already breaking out here,
and to participate in God’s project of shalom-building even now.
We are invited to be God’s hands and feet now,
announcing peace,
incarnating peace in our life together,
always pointing toward the new creation,
that is already and not-yet.

We proclaim the good news that God is a saving God,
and demonstrate what salvation looks like
in the midst of our real broken lives.
We do not proclaim a life of constant cheer.
We proclaim a life of being loved
by God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
We proclaim a life of God being with us,
and our being with God, here and now.

We have good news to preach.
The question is, do we believe it enough to announce it?

I understand why preaching and proclaiming has a bad rap.
There is plenty of poor preacher-hood—
where motives are suspect and words poorly chosen.
And there is plenty of well-intended preacher-hood,
that comes off poorly
because we haven’t thought carefully enough about the context.

So let’s think about what good preacher-hood looks like.
How might a local community of faith like Park View,
embrace our identity as a preacher-hood of believers—
a group prepared and willing
to follow Jesus as proclaimers of the Kingdom?

It might look a little like Luke chapter 10,
which we read this morning,
wherein Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs to preach and proclaim,
in villages throughout the region.

But how did they do it?
They did not lead with their message.
In other words,
they didn’t walk into the village with their megaphones blaring.
They first observed and lived among.
They looked for people of peace,
with whom they might stay,
and eat at their tables,
and sleep in their homes.

Only after doing what Jesus encouraged, that is,
eating and drinking whatever was placed in front of them . . .
were they then able, with sensitivity, integrity, authenticity—
to proclaim, “the Kingdom of God is near.”

The Gospel is not abstract.
The Gospel is not a list of logical propositions
or “four spiritual laws.”
The Gospel is the story of Jesus, as it intersects with our story.
In other words, the Gospel is always a narrative,
and narratives always have a context.

It is our job to discern the context.
To discern where God’s story connects with our story,
and the story of our neighbors.

But the story will not connect,
unless our telling of that story is preceded, like it was in Luke 10,
by careful listening, being with, eating with,
opening our lives to the other,
and receiving the hospitality that the other offers us.

It’s perhaps some divine irony that just yesterday afternoon,
while I was putting finishing touches on this sermon,
I was on the receiving end of some Gospel proclamation,
by two people who seemed uninterested in the Gospel as story,
and who were entirely oblivious to my own story and context.

They appeared at my front door with a tract.
And no, they weren’t from either of the two usual religious groups
that go around ringing doorbells.
These were from a small local evangelical Christian church.
A mature woman, with a clean-cut teenage boy at her side,
whom she introduced as her grandson.

They started by handing me the tract,
that outlined, in a list of propositional truths,
“God’s simple plan of salvation.”
They said, “You’re welcome to come visit our church . . .
unless you already have a church home.” [pause, question mark]
I answered, “Yes, I have a church home.
I’m the pastor of a local church.”
“Oh,” she said, “and may I ask,
have you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

I may not have done very well at hiding the surprise on my face,
and answered quickly, “Yes, indeed I have.”
“Good,” she said, “because a lot of pastors have never done that.”
I thought about it later that I was wearing a Notre Dame T-shirt,
that Sharon gave me for Christmas.
So maybe she thought I was a Catholic priest,
and my spirituality was even more suspect.

But I just nodded politely,
and put my hand back on the doorknob.
She smiled and thanked me, and they left quietly and graciously.

I did a lot of thinking about that conversation.
I really do not want to make light, in any way,
of how this woman and her grandson were spending their Saturday.
I respect and admire people
who see their own identity and mission so clearly,
in relation to the world around them,
that they are willing to spend leisure time going door-to-door
reaching out to strangers in hopes that maybe one in a hundred
might engage their message long enough,
that they can proclaim the Gospel as they understand it,
and introduce someone to God’s saving power.

They had nothing but noble intent,
and they were gentle and respectful.
They believed they were being obedient to God,
and kind to their neighbors.

But I have to say,
I think their understanding of the nature of the Good News
is very different than mine.
In reality, I don’t think God has a “simple plan” for our salvation.
Sure, in term of propositional truth, it’s not overly complicated.
Believe and accept God’s saving love.
Yield in obedience to God’s will.
And let God do the rest.

But it’s not simple in the least,
in terms of living into this way of salvation.

I could have—and perhaps should have—
offered a very long and complicated and even tentative answer
to this woman, when she asked me,
“Have you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

How is it really honest,
to answer that question as if there is a simple yes or no?
I, Pastor Phil, am still trying to figure out, every single day,
how to live into the reality of Jesus as Savior.
Yes, I have, indeed, opened myself to Jesus and his saving work.
But there are areas of my life still needing to be uncovered,
and offered up to my Savior,
for transformation.
And I am still trying to figure out
what a life yielded to Jesus as Lord,
actually looks like in the everyday realities I live in.
I need for Jesus,
through my regular interactions with fellow disciples,
and through the ongoing power and presence of the Spirit,
to show me where I am still living in rebellion,
and self-orientation.

Yes, there is good news of salvation for me and for all people.
God has a plan for our salvation, and the salvation of all creation,
in fact, for a new heaven and a new earth.

But that plan can in no way be contained on a 3-by-5 piece of paper,
even in an 7-point font.
This Gospel we are called to proclaim
is contained in a rich and deep and truthful narrative.
That narrative was played out once upon a time
in the land of Palestine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,
as Jesus lived in obedience to God and God’s purposes,
as expressed in his own Jewish peoplehood,
living under Roman oppression.

Now, that Gospel narrative is getting played out
in very different contexts.
The story is just as rich and deep and truthful.
And the story lives, here and now.
God still loves the world, and all creation.
God still wants to save it, save us.
But if the Gospel proclaimed, is going to sound like good news,
we need to take the time to listen to the story of our lives,
the story of the lives of those around us,
and then discern how the Gospel story speaks.

The Gospel is Jesus Incarnate, God come to be with us.
But the container for that Gospel is story.
And stories are told with words.
We need to choose the right words, and truthful words.

We need compelling words,
because the world we live in follows a different story,
than the story of Jesus.
That story of greed and ambition and violence
is often the antithesis, the exact opposite,
of Jesus’ story of self-giving love
and forgiveness and faithfulness in suffering.

But we also need real, honest, intimate communities
where the story is being lived out, day by day,
so the telling of it has integrity.
And those communities become the “preacher-hood of believers”
telling their story, together.

We do not proclaim the Gospel in the abstract,
we proclaim it out of our history.
We do not proclaim in order to prove or convince,
we proclaim out of our own real life situations,
and into the life situations of others
that we dare to be with long enough to know.

Gospel proclamation, if it is Gospel, is not coercive.
It is not removed from real life.
It is not abstract.
So we should not be hesitant to preach it.
Always humbly.
Always with gentleness . . . as we heard in 1 Peter.
And always with the invitation to speak back.
We have gifts to give, and gifts to receive.

That, sisters and brothers, sounds like good news to me.

—Phil Kniss, September 29, 2013

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