Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
I made a conscious decision when writing the liturgy for this week to include significantly more scripture than we typically read or hear during worship at Good Shepherd. I hope these readings help us reflect on how we live as children of God in this world. And even more specifically, children of God who are called to live out our faith and life in Christ – in community. That’s right, I just said a word that some of us may think is quite nasty, especially spoken in church – community.
More often than not, it seems to me that our life in Christ today doesn’t focus nearly enough attention on that word. In fact, I believe that the Americanized form of Christianity that we see so often today has little to do with living in community. Our relationship with God is about choices we make individually to love God or ladders of success that we try to climb so that God will notice us more than the person sitting next to us in the pew or at school or at work. Our relationship with God is about how hard we can pray in order to get what we think we deserve. You and I want to make sure that we’re looking out for number one after all. And we want everyone to know that our sins are not nearly as atrocious as the ones our neighbor next door is committing!
I offer a challenge to each of us as we receive these scripture readings today. I hope and pray that you open yourself up to a relationship that God is painting in our community of faith through these holy readings. This relationship is a much different picture than what we see if we only look at the world around us. The picture of relationship with God through our savior Jesus has little to do with your own accomplishments or spiritual achievements. The picture of relationship with God has everything to do with God’s unconditional love, mercy, and grace calling you and I in every time and in every place to live as God’s children in community. A challenge like that is usually easier said than lived out.
Professor Amy Oden of Wesley Theological Seminary says that, “Mark’s Jesus warns that finger-pointing and scrupulosity (meaning our guilt over moral or religious issues) about others can distract us so that we do harm and cause others to stumble. Jesus returns the focus back to our own behaviors, the ways we speak and live good news, and the ways we place obstacles in the way of that good news.”
But what does that mean? Good news. What is this good news that you and I hear about so often when we come to church? And how do others who are not active in the life of a Christian community see and hear this good news proclaimed and lived out through us? Especially when, I’m not sure that you and I, who are active in a Christian community, know what this good news is or how we are called to live it out in the world?
The cover story in The Christian Century a few weeks ago has caused me to wrestle with that a lot lately. [“The Gospel in Seven Words”, The Christian Century, September 5, 2012, pg. 20-25] The article was called, “The Gospel in Seven Words.” I think it offers great insight and connection with our scripture readings today.
In the article, dozens of pastors and theologians from across the country were asked to do something. To proclaim the Christian message, the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ, using a maximum of seven words.
In our first reading from Numbers, God has freed the Israelite nation from slavery and captivity and provided for them all they need as they journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. But that’s not good enough. They think they need more. Manna alone isn’t enough. They want meat. Even as the chosen and freed people of God, they still live life in captivity.
“He Led Captivity Captive” is how Professor Carol Zaleski describes the gospel in that Christian Century article. “God has broken our fetters (our chains);” she said, “it remains for us to shake them off and enlist in the service of self-giving love.”
Centuries later, the writer of James offers a bold call to action for early Christians regarding what self-giving love is like in Christian community. The letter challenges the Christian community, in the years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus, to pray for one another, to forgive one another’s sins, and to hold each other up as united and equal parts for the common good of the entire community. I believe that same call to action can transform Christian communities still today. I don’t know about you, but holding each other up as equal can be incredibly difficult for me to live out from time to time.
Princeton Professor Beverly Roberts Gaventa says, “In Christ, God’s Yes Defeats Our No.” “We belong to God’s love,” she said, “from which we cannot finally flee. Grasped by that love, we are enabled to love God and one another.”
And how about today’s exchange between Jesus and the disciples in Mark’s gospel. The disciples seem to be pretty concerned with someone stepping into their spotlight as members of the elite Jesus country club. They’re not celebrating the fact that the gospel of Jesus, the good news of life in Christ is beginning to spread. They’re concerned that it’s being spread by someone who’s not a member of their club. With that kind of concern, they actually get in the way of Jesus ministry to serve, bless, and save the world.
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “We are Who God Says We Are.” She goes on to proclaim in the name of Jesus that “we are the forgiven, broken and blessed children of God; the ones to who God draws near. Nothing else gets to tell us who we are.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, what seven words describe your life in Christ and who you are as part of the body of Christ? Presbyterian Pastor M. Craig Barnes only needed four words. “We Live by Grace” is what he said. “By grace the Holy Spirit binds us to this savior, includes us in the church, moves our chaos over to create beauty, and interrupts our plans with God’s dream that we too become gracious.”
What words, in the name of Jesus, would you place in the seven blank spaces that are the sermon title this week? Those seven words paint a picture of the good news of Jesus Christ that is alive in our world today through you? For those words we give God thanks anAmen.