“The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin….” In the earliest years of my impressionable theological awareness–long before I knew or had ever heard any of the three words I just used (“impressionable,” “theological,” or “awareness”)–I knew by heart the whole first stanza of the hymn whose opening words with which I began a minute ago. Needless to say, and yet I do, there would be some undoing that would have to be seen to in order for me to find the fresh air needed to get me to places of spiritual wholeness. You can well imagine that getting to that fresh air wasn’t accomplished overnight.
Since children had to “set,” as we said at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, in big church from age 6 and on I heard plenty of sermonic support for this notion that there was a point in time when the whole world was lost in the darkness of sin. Did I believe it? You bet I did, and so did everyone else I knew. No wonder a 12 Step program came into being called Fundamentalists Anonymous.
(The remainder of Sermon Segment One is not available in any written form. You may hear it by using this link to the audio recording of the Gathering and fast forwarding to a point just beyond the Service at the Seekers’ Table.)
Christian evangelism–the traditional yet prevailing perspective. It is not an innocuous concept or practice.
God created the skies and the ground and humanity. God called humanity “good.” Nonetheless, the first humans rebelled against their Creator, and God reacted punitively. Other humans didn’t take the hint, and finally an enraged Creator destroyed, through the fierceness of a flood, the whole of humanity and all other creatures except for a minuscule remnant.
That remnant included representatives from the animal kingdom and a single human family–a husband and wife and their three sons and their three daughters in law, one wife per son since at that point in time the widespread polygamy to come had not yet arrived. And there were no third generation humans at that point. It isn’t funny that anyone ever believed this to be literally the case in terms of how God became a punitive God and how the world was nearly wiped out because that’s what God, given God’s disappointment with how humanity was turning out, called for. Nonetheless, given the story, there are some reinterpreted possibilities that could cause someone to laugh a little bit. For example, my friend Frann Anderson sent me a cartoon the other night, and it showed two little dinosaurs sitting on the tiny bit of dry ground that was left as they watched the Ark moving ever more completely away from them. One of them says to the other, “Dang! That was today wasn’t it?”
After the flood was over and humanity all but wiped out, this family had the responsibility of starting all over again. Wasn’t long until the first vineyard had been planted and harvested, and the apple of God’s eye, Noah, became drunk by overdoing it with the earliest-to-ferment grapes. Now, many people who read this story believe that the sin that would lead to further problems between humanity and God was Noah’s drunkenness. Actually, that is not the case. It contributes only because his drunkenness had something to do with contributing to what was erratic and irresponsible behavior on Noah’s part–namely, lying around his tent naked. One would think that if somebody wanted to lie around naked in the privacy of one’s own tent it should have been just fine, and I suppose theoretically it was.
The problem, though, was that one of the sons walked in unwittingly to his father’s tent, and there before his eyes was his naked father. In the ethical standards of the day, to behold a parent naked was at the top of the list of defilement possibilities–that is, defilement of a parent’s dignity by a child including an adult child. It seems not to have mattered that seeing naked old drunken daddy was an absolute mistake, but it happened; and apparently this pushed God over the edge in divine frustration and anger. Humanity will never be sterling in God’s eyes again. It is a good thing that God had at the end of the flood put a rainbow in the sky to remind Godself never to punish humanity with a killer flood again.
Not infrequently you will hear me mention my brilliant Hebrew Scripture professor from college, the late Ben F. Philbeck, because his interpretations were so insightful and amazing and memorable. He taught us that the summary of the flood story and the Noah debacle after the flood is very simple: there is no return to paradise. Apparently God did not notice that reality until the divine trial and error experiments had failed. Human beings in the minds of the ancient storytellers were simply incapable of long-term, consistent good.
Once blame had been squarely placed where blame was due, namely on Eve and of course not on Noah or his son, Ham, or Adam or the serpent or God. The theological thinkers of the day left that pervasive assessment of humanity as the heritage of all monotheists. Some few moved away from it. Some tried to make uncomfortable peace with it; most have fully embraced it and taken it to extreme interpretations.
Now, what to do about those
people who are evil and sinful and alienated from God. The first answer was the one given by the ancient Hebrews: keep all the laws, and in so doing you will purify yourself and make yourself right for God’s embrace.
Neither Jesus nor Paul harangued people and held them over hell to get them to buy into the Way that would eventually be called Christianity. Jesus sent out his disciples to minister as well as to preach and teach. We know that we have some stirring words, called the Great Commission, words of Jesus to his followers about going into all the world to make disciples of all nations and so forth.
Passed Jesus and into the ministry of the Apostle Paul, repentance by all humans came to be regarded as a necessity; therefore, the need for evangelism sprang up. Paul took it to the next level, and he envisioned that one of the special spiritual gifts God bestowed upon certain people was evangelism, meaning in this context a call to turn away from evil, to repent, and to start walking in a new direction. The model of evangelism has to be to go out to those who are separated from God and try to find ways to bring them back into the fold.
Interestingly enough the Jewish religion of which Jesus was a part from birth to death was not a proselytic faith. You do not go out and try to convert people to Judaism. You may share insights about God saying in conversation with those who inquire, but you will never find yourself knocking on a stranger’s door trying to get her or him to embrace your brand of faith.
Moving words sometimes attributed to Francis Xavier:
My God, I love Thee–not because
I hope for heaven thereby;
Nor yet because, if I love not
I must for ever die.
Then, why Bless’d Jesus
Should I not love Thee well?
Not for the hope of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast lovèd me,
O ever-loving Lord!
So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
And in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my eternal King.
The very first book I read as a seminarian way back in the summer of 1978 was for a class called “Contemporary Preaching.” Little did I know at that point that preaching, the whole field of homiletics, would become my fascination. The book was by brilliant novelist and theologian, Frederick Buechner. It was the published version of the lectures he had given at Yale Divinity School not too many winters previous to that summer school course. The title of the lectures and the subsequent book was Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. I knew I had fallen into the hands of the liberals there. The gospel as fairytale indeed!
Well, it is an evocative read, but not as unsettling as one might have expected. Still, in Buechner’s Presbyterian influenced theology he makes the point that the gospel, which literally means good news, is bad news before it’s good news–thus, the first word in his subtitle, “tragedy.”. That could be taken in a number of ways, and if I read knowing what I know about Buechner more broadly I’m not terribly put off with that though it could be traced back to the founders of such theological thought leaving us at a very untenable place. I’m very concerned about those who believe there must have been a divinely mandated necessity for bad news, meaning the execution of Jesus, before there could be good news.
What I want to say today, and I think the most important thing I have to say today, is this. Progressive evangelism rests on the reality that there is no bad news
involving God or regarding God at any point–past, present, or future. One does not seek truth or seek out a connection to God in order to get a reward whether that is promised prosperity in the present world as dramatized by the TV evangelists or whether that is life after this life. There’s no threat; there’s no condemnation; there’s no fear. Similarly, there is no coercion.
The pastor at my home church who guided me through my early struggles to understand my leaning to a career in the preaching ministry took me into his confidence as a young friend–I would flatter myself to say protégée–as Paul did to Timothy. He prepared me for lots of things in the world of church work, not everything, but all he wanted me to know. He told me one day about when he had been a young pastor, I think somewhere in Kentucky, and he came upon a hitchhiker. Though few drivers allow this in our crazy time and place, I was forbidden to pick up a hitch hiker. When I started driving I had a number rules given to me by my father. One had to do with curfews. Another had to do with driving and alcohol. Another do with not picking up hitch hikers, and he said if he ever heard of it I would never drive another mile as long as I lived under his roof. He meant business.
Anyway way back when it was perhaps not so dangerous, and my pastor picked up a hitch hiker. Fairly quickly as conversation progressed Jerry Hayner’s career became known to the hitchhiker; turns out the hitchhiker didn’t feel that he owed his driver any special support just because he was getting transport. And he was clearly a theological skeptic. He challenged Jerry saying, “You have no idea if there is a god. How could you invest your life and career in trying to represent a god that you can’t even prove exists? What if you’ve wasted all of your time and you find out there’s no God or afterlife anyway?”
My pastor being the sharp guy that he was said, “Well, it is still thoroughly enriching in the present to have a connection to what I think of as God and to try to live by the teachings of Jesus so even if there’s nothing after this life nor a God it will still will have been worth it.”