Keep your hands and arms inside the ride…

“There is no more fundamental way to talk of God than in a story”
(Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 25).

I like to visit cemeteries.

There is a quiet in graveyards that I find helpful. It is easy for me to see why early Christians (and especially monastics) would retreat to catacombs. Being in these “cities of the dead” brings me closer to acknowledging myself–closer to living in and with the Mystery of God.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to make death grand. Death in years past was commemorated by retelling the narrative of life, condensing a person’s personality or contributions to a pithy epitaph. Over the years of visiting cemeteries, I have read memorials that were inspiring, humorous, insulting, and even downright scandalous.

Literature from times past records musings by living individuals on what their epitaph will be, and I am convinced that we do not sufficiently reflect on life and death–and our place in the grand narrative of the world and God and our family.

Many claim (explicitly or implicitly) an authorship role in my life: ethnicity, language, nationality, regionality, education level, religious structures, churches, family systems, biology, genetics, government, and so on.

I recently read “The Boy in the Moon,” by Ian Brown, and was profoundly moved by this honest telling of one’s story. Ian is the father of a severely disabled child, and he confesses in the very first chapter that “I often wanted to tell someone the story, what the adventure felt and smelled and sounded like, what I noticed when I wasn’t running through darkness. But who could relate to such a human anomaly, to the rare and exotic corner of existence where we suddenly found ourselves? Eleven years would pass before I met anyone like him.”

Eleven years of isolation. Eleven years of thinking you are the only one. Eleven years of hard labor carried out in solitary confinement. As he relates later in the book, it was through his telling his story that he began to connect with people around the world, some of whom are kindred spirits battling the same demons, and some of whom (like me) are eager to drink deeply from the waters of wisdom.

Some in this world live their lives as though they were reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, or playing a text adventure game (remember Zork, anyone?). We mistakenly believe “tomorrow” is severely limited in terms of options and possibilities. We forget our God is capable of transforming death into life.

I believe we are called by the Author to co-author our own chapter of the grand narrative. We simultaneously live and tell the story.

Ze plane! Ze plane!

A modern-day, real-life observation-esque parable:

My young daughter was at the park when she pointed to the sky and said “Look! An airplane!” Now we had flown recently, so she had been eagerly pointing out every plane she saw ever since. This time, however, we couldn’t see any plane.

We tried to patronize her–“Yes, honey, that’s nice”–but she was onto us. She insisted there really was a plane. We looked everywhere, eventually sighting down her arm like a gun barrel before my spouse noticed a tiny dark speck in the sky that was decidedly plane-shaped and definitely not a bird.

“Wow,” my spouse reflected aloud, “she really has great eyes!”

“Hmmmm,” I thought, “there’s something to learn here.”

I have long been accused of thinking too much, and I confess in advance that is the case here.

I remembered learning somewhere along the way that due to minuscule defects of the retina and cornea, we only see something like 80% of what we think we see.  The rest of it our brain automatically photoshops for us based on the surrounding colors/textures/brightness/etc.

I started wondering whether or not my spouse and I really saw the plane to begin with.  Perhaps our brains, I wondered, conditioned by decades of “fixing” our vision, saw a tiny black speck in the sky and colored it blue to “correct” it. Perhaps my daughter’s brain–still raw and forming–isn’t as “good” at replacing those defective areas of our sight; as far as her brain goes, she could see ANYTHING in the sky. The possibilities for her are endless.

How limited are the possibilities I can see? How many planes are colored over because they don’t fit the constraints of my expectations? What else do I miss because I am too grown-up, too well educated, too stuck in my ways?

Rogue thoughts on the playground…

Where’s the Beef

The Gospel.

You know, the one with the capital G. . . .

The one that Jesus proclaimed throughout Galilee. . . .

The one the Apostle Paul talks about all the time. . . .

The one that is proclaimed repeatedly in the book of Acts, always followed by enormous numbers of people becoming saved. . . .

The one that served as a driving force behind the expansion of the early church. . . .

The one that almost every Christian church today claims it is their purpose to preach. . . .

That one. . . . . . . . . . . . . What is it?

The easiest way to get the average Christian to squirm is to ask what is meant by the religiously loaded language that we all use without understanding. Define salvation, atonement, sanctification, propitiation, the Trinity, biblical inspiration, biblical authority, the Gospel . . . . .

Some of these concepts are complex, and pastors and writers of Sunday School literature have largely used this vocabulary without ever getting into the meat and potatoes of what is actually meant.

But the Gospel . . . . It is unconscionable that we as Christians have so lost touch with the very message that birthed us. . . . .

But, as the saying goes, that’s the fact, Jack.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about what the Gospel is not.

The Gospel is not “heaven.” That is not to deny the existence of such a place, but an exclusive focus on reward and retribution in the next world is at odds with the teachings of Jesus–who healed in this world, who forgave in this world, and who declared that the Kingdom of God was here and now.

In addition, our world does not need another utopian vision–we stopped believing in them a long time ago. We are skeptical–since the flawed utopias of authors of the last centuries have intentionally served as social critiques that are often just as sharp today.

The Gospel is not “Do good and good will come your way.” This new-age reinterpretation of karma is often referenced in the same breath as the Golden Rule teaching of Jesus: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31; Matt 7:12).

It is true that the Bible–OT and NT–strongly advocates treating others as you want to be treated; this is not unique to Christianity–and even more importantly is not the same as expecting your good deeds will somehow bring about good things. We say that Jesus lived out the Golden Rule in his life, but somehow we forget that Jesus states that following his way of life involves selling all you have, leaving your family, not having a place to sleep, and being persecuted in a variety of ways.

The Gospel is not “If you obey God, God will bless you.” There have been many throughout the centuries that try to distill the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, and the message of the Gospel into an economic equation: If you do “X,” your bank account will increase. This theology is called the “prosperity gospel,” and it has been the stock and trade of televangelists for years. It gained particular prominence in the 1990’s, and has the suspicious result of making only it’s leaders wealthy. Hmmmm. . . .

The Gospel is not “God is on your side.” God doesn’t take sides. The ancient Israelites kept forgetting this, thinking they could wield God as a weapon to guarantee their success in battle. They frequently thought that with God on their side, they were politically unshakable. But the falls of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the 8th and 6th centuries BC were stark reminders that their thinking was false. They–like us today–frequently fail to remember that being God’s people and bearing the name of Christ is a responsibility, not a privilege.

There are plenty of people who claim to know what the gospel is, but hold to a watered down version of it–or pretend the gospel is what they wish it to be.

But the thing is . . . it’s no secret.

So now let’s spend a moment or two talking about what the Gospel is.

Since Paul contends that the gospel was announced to Abraham, it is clear that “Gospel” is a wide-ranging concept in the Bible. In our world today, however, “wide-ranging” is almost a synonym for vague. It is true that an all-encompassing definition of “Gospel” will be necessarily broad, but that does not mean it will not have teeth.

So–if I have sufficiently teased this out long enough–let me define the Gospel:  The message of the Gospel is: God is at work in the world. In its broadest sense, the Gospel message is “God is doing something in, around, and through us in this world.”

In Galatians 3:6-9, Paul tells us that the Gospel was proclaimed to Abraham, and the Gospel was “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” This is a quotation of Genesis 12:3, in which God announces–for the first time–that God is doing something new in the world . . . that now God will act through one family for the redemption of the whole. The Gospel is that God is at work in the world . . . “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Jesus roams the Galilean countryside, proclaiming the Gospel. In Jesus’ telling, proclamation of the Gospel is almost always equated with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaims “the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15) and “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The Gospel proclaimed by Jesus–the new work of God in the world–is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

As in the case of Abraham, scripture records a description of this new work in the parables and teachings of Jesus. For all of us who are “nutshellers”–we like concise, to the point descriptions–Jesus made sure to give us his theme verse, that passage of scripture that defined his ministry. Luke 4:16-21 records Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll and identifying himself as the fulfillment of the passage that reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

and to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

God is doing something new, Jesus proclaims. God is creating a new way of living in this world, a way that is currently being lived out by Jesus called the Messiah.

Moving through the NT to the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, the term “Gospel” begins to be more closely associated with the resurrection of Jesus. In these books, the new work of God is that God has now conquered death, the last enemy for humanity. There are many verses I could reference, but for the sake of time, let me reference two.

Paul proclaims the Gospel in 1Cor 15(3-4, 12): “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead.” For Paul, to proclaim the Gospel is the same as proclaiming Christ, which is the proclamation that Christ is raised from the dead.

In 2Tim, the Apostle Paul mentors Timothy, a young minister and his apprentice in many ways, on the challenges of Timothy’s pastoral role. Included in 2Tim 2:8 is a concise statement of the Gospel, as Paul has taught Timothy. He indicates that the gospel is “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.” Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. This is the Gospel–the key proclamation of Paul’s ministry.

This is the gospel–the new thing that God is doing in the world:  In Jesus, God has conquered death.

As a matter of closing, allow me to suggest why it matters.

On January 10, 1984, lifelong Chicago resident and octogenarian Clara Peller changed the world. The diminutive and unassuming Peller assumed the role of a cantankerous old woman for a new Wendy’s ad campaign. Unquestionably, Peller is due the credit for the success of the campaign, as it was her line that became a buzzword that took on a life of its own: “Where’s the beef?”

No one could have expected how rapidly Peller’s inquiry permeated our culture in 1984:

It appeared on T-shirts

It was the title of a song written and performed by DJ Coyote McCloud

It was repeated in television shows, films, magazines, and other media outlets

Walter Mondale referenced the ads and quoted the catchphrase in debating Gary Hart while seeking the democratic presidential bid (1984)

“Where’s the beef” became a cultural idiom questioning the substance of an idea, event, or product. It is a question that critics of the church have been asking for some time. Where’s the substance? Where’s the evidence that there is some meat in your theology? What’s the point? What makes the church different? Where’s the beef?

That first “Where’s the beef?” commercial depicted three elderly ladies examining an exaggeratedly large hamburger bun topped with a minuscule hamburger patty. The other two ladies poked at it, exchanging bemused comments:

It certainly is a big bun.

It’s a very big bun.

It’s a big fluffy bun.

It’s a very big fluffy bun.

before being interrupted by Peller’s outraged, irascible question: “Where’s the beef?”

I am inspired by Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in our NT lesson today. Our story is located in Matthew chapter 14, after the death of John the Baptist and before Jesus walks on the water.

Jesus learns in v.13 of the death and burial of John the Baptist–telling Jesus was the first thing John’s disciples did. He responds to the death of his cousin with grief. . . an authentically human response.

Jesus tries to withdraw as he processes and works through his grief, but the crowds follow him wherever he goes. He even tries getting in a boat and sailing to the other side of the lake to get away from them, but they merely walk around the lakeshore until they find him again.

Moved with compassion at their insistence and devotion, Jesus relents to being present with them, hearing their needs and healing the sick among them.

Before long, the day is spent, and it is dinner time. The disciples urge Jesus to send them away so they can buy food in the towns. Jesus, who was reluctant to be present with them, now refuses to part with them. Instead, he instructs his disciples to “give them something to eat.”

“Give them something to eat,” Jesus says.

“Our resources are too meager,” the disciples reply.

“Let me try anyway,” Jesus says.

And more than 5000 are fed, with more leftovers than start-froms.

That’s not a bad message for our church to hear today, either. Heck, it’s not a bad message for any Christian to hear today.

“Give them something to eat,” Jesus says.

“Our resources are too meager,” we reply.

“Let me try anyway,” Jesus says.

Give them something to eat.

To a world that asks the church “Where’s the beef?”, Jesus tells us “Give them something to eat.”

We must be for something substantial if we are to be for anything. And by substantial, I mean something larger than ourselves.

Our world doesn’t need told they ought to behave themselves and be good little girls and boys.

Our world doesn’t need to hear another pyramid scheme that seeks to build or maintain beautiful buildings but doesn’t benefit anyone but the top.

Our world doesn’t need a God who grants political licenses to nations to act on God’s behalf.

Our world does need to know that God is at work in the world.

Our world needs to hear that God has already removed the obstacles that stand in the way of life, hope, reconciliation, redemption, love, possibility, and peace.

Our world needs to see that the God who has conquered death–who has transformed death into life–is able to rebuild any brokenness, reconcile any conflict, expose any injustice, remove any hate, and transform anyone.

We have a responsibility to look around us, see what God is doing, and join in. It isn’t hard, but it requires thinking differently. It requires living in the Kingdom of God and abiding by its values rather than living in the USA and its values.

We are called with Christ’s name. We have a mission, and it is the same one Jesus had:

to proclaim good news to the poor

to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind

to set at liberty those who are oppressed

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Let us pray.