You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster.
The Old Testament prophets like Zephaniah often warned of a Divine reckoning. God would come upon our troubled and broken world in judgment and rectify all that was wrong, bringing justice and righteousness. In the New Testament this Divine reckoning was often understood as the return in glory of Jesus. That is what Paul is talking about in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians.
So here we are a couple of millennia later and our world is still troubled and broken, but our expectation of an imminent Divine reckoning has waned. As a preacher these warning texts present a challenge. They usually come at the very end of the church year, like today, or at the beginning in Advent. You know these texts. They warn: “Be alert, be prepared, watch and wait. Something’s coming and we don’t know when!”
Without the urgent expectation of a reckoning it is hard to know what to do with them, but sometimes, new contexts bring to life to these old texts, after all, a sermon is a conversation between text and context.
For example, for many years the warnings of Jeremiah about the destruction of Jerusalem seemed irrelevant to me, but then in 2001 they appeared in the lectionary for several weeks after 9/11 and suddenly his words about the burning city and the falling tower and the weeping widows were eerily relevant. I could see people in the pews were totally engaged with the ancient words.
When I started out in ministry I tended to avoid such difficult texts, the so-called “hard parts” of scripture. After all, I reasoned, many peoples lives are hard enough without being too troubled in church. Reinhold Niebuhr once called this pastoral tendency to spare people bad news “tempering the wind to protect the shorn sheep.”
But I came in time to realize that people don’t need protecting. People know that life is often difficult and has its own share of hard parts. And if sometimes the scriptures seem full of bad news we also live in a world that daily delivers us all sorts of bad news.
“Gospel” literally means “good news.” But in my own life I know that I have often only been able to hear God’s Good News in the midst of bad news. The Good News that God is real and loves us with an unsurpassed love may not seem very important when all our other news is good; when we have a decent paycheck, a roof over our heads and our health is good.
But in times of trouble the truth of the Gospel can break through to us and give comfort and hope in even the worst of times.
When I was ordained I went to rural Maine to serve two little churches in two little towns you have never heard of. I was just 26 years old and I stayed for four years, and they were some of the happiest and most interesting years of my life. Those two congregations taught me how to be a pastor.
One thing I noticed about the people there is that they put their best face forward when they came to church. Ask them how they were doing they would say: “I’m fine!” But I knew from my pastoral conversations with them during the week that things were not always fine with them, but you would never know it from the Sunday hour. This one had an addicted child, this one had an abusive spouse, this one hadn’t told anybody he had late-stage cancer, this one had lost her job. One family had a toddler drown during a family picnic at a lake. It took me quite awhile to hear about that news, even though several active members of the church we from that family. But that news never made it to church out loud.
There was a persistent suppression and denial of any bad news, as if bad news would somehow be an offense to God. After I had been there awhile I tried to institute congregational intercessory prayer by having a time of silence to let people offer their joys and concerns, as you do here.
Take a guess about how popular that feature was? There was a lot of silence. I invited them to pray either out loud or in the silence of their hearts, and the silence of their hearts was where it stayed.
They kept their cards close to their vests. They might ask me to pray for them privately, but praying in worship was a bridge too far.
We do better now in our time. I understand and respect the need for privacy during a time of vulnerability, but this suppression and denial of anything bad is a spiritual problem.
Because one of the reasons we come to church is precisely because of the bad news about our world and our lives. We come before the Holy God to acknowledge the bad news that our world is troubled and broken, and we too are troubled and broken, and can not fix it ourselves.
The older liturgies spelled this out quite starkly. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and learned by heart at an early age that “We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have done those things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things we ought to have done.”
And just in case somebody missed the point the general prayer of confession went on to confess that we were “miserable offenders” who had “offended against God’s holy laws,” and finally that there was “no health in us.” No health in us! Not any? Not that maybe we had fallen a bit short, not that we were a bit threadbare and shopworn, but no health in us? Nope! Zilch!
Now when that 1929 prayer book was revised in 1979 (you gotta love the 70’s) all that really humble groveling Elizabethan language was removed, and I admit it may have been too severe and given God a bad rap.
But it sure got the point across that we come to worship needy and there are things about us and our world that we need to admit and acknowledge, or more correctly, confess and offer contrition and repentance to use the old words.
Some days I can barely stand to watch the news because it is so bad. And we don’t even get very much of the awful world news unless you go to the BBC. Today I want to hold up just two bad news stories from around our world.
The first is in Myanmar, which was formerly called Burma. The Rohingya minority there are a stateless people. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar last year. On Oct 20 of this year the UN reported that an estimated 603,000 refugees from had been driven from their homes and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 25. This number increased to 624000 by November 2. Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya population are denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. They are being ethnically cleansed right now. Their villages have been bulldozed, they have been beaten and killed. Many of the dead have been children. This is horrific bad news. It is very hard to bear it.
The second story from around our world is about Yemen. Last week, “The heads of three United Nations relief agencies called on a nine-nation military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to end a tightened blockade it imposed on Yemen after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile into Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last weekend. ‘Closure of much of the country’s air, sea and land ports is making an already catastrophic situation far worse,’ a joint statement issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Program, and World Health Organization, said. ‘The space and access we need to deliver humanitarian assistance is being choked off, threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable children and families.’ The U.N. officials said that more than twenty million people, including more than eleven million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance; at least 14.8 million lack basic medical care, and a cholera outbreak has infected more than nine hundred thousand.” (from The New Yorker) President Trump has supported and encouraged the Saudis in this blockade.
This is heartbreaking news, and we feel powerless to do anything about it. What to do? One thing we can do is donate money to help. There is a Website called Charity Navigator that rates the efficiency of charities. You can give humanitarian aid to both these crisis through a variety of agencies such A UNICEF, Oxfam and CARE. Financial giving is one small thing we can do in response to the world’s bad news, but that can’t fix it. And these are just two examples of bad news.
What to do? If we come to church holding such bad news in our hearts and heads we can and must bring it before God. If we don’t literally have blood on our hands our human family certainly does and that is bad news. So even before we take into account whatever personal bad news that we carry, or bad news in our families, in our congregation, in our local communities, we are connected to vast webs of bad news around the world. And we can and must bring that to God in humility and contrition. So I think it is such a spiritually important thing that we can share our joys and concerns in public worship; that we not suppress or deny the news that breaks our hearts.
And the thing is we really need to do it together. Sure, we can pray to God by ourselves in our homes, but in addition to the personal vertical connection with God we need the horizontal connection to each other as a community of faith, as the body of Christ.
And one of the reasons this is so important is for encouragement. The word encouragement has “courage” embedded in it, which comes from the word “heart.” To encourage is “to give heart.” To discourage is “to lose heart.” We mustn’t lose heart in the face of the bad news and so we need each other’s encouragement.
In the reading for today Paul tells the church: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Sharing one’s news, both good and bad, is part of that process of mutual encouragement.
I want to tell you a personal story of a time when I received encouragement in one of the worst times in my life. In 2004 all our news was bad. Because of my brain injury I had to leave my position as pastor of First Church in Pittsfield after having served there for 22 years. We had lived in church-provided housing for thirty years. We had to leave our parsonage and find a new home. We had no equity and it was the height of the booming real estate market.
The church said we could continue to live in the parsonage until they sold it, which ended up giving us nearly a year to look for a home. The rental market in the Berkshires at that time was tight because of the high cost of summer seasonal rentals. We looked and looked, and found nothing suitable we could afford. Then in the summer of 2005 the church treasurer called and said they had a buyer for the parsonage, and we had a month to vacate.
We had all our friends looking. We considered moving to another part of the country, but I was very ill and had a team of good local doctors, and Martha had many years of seniority with Berkshire Health Systems. We prayed about it and we wept about it, and one day the phone rang and it was our friend Bob Henderson. Bob said to me, “I know you are looking for a place to live. We own an apartment we will let you have, so you don’t have to worry about that any more” Bob recently died and his funeral was on Friday. That act of generosity and encouragement meant so much to us during a difficult time.
It is often only in a time full of bad news that we can finally recognize our need for God, that what needs fixing in us is beyond our own mortal capacities and can only be done from God’s side, that God can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
The Good News is that God has done this and continues to do this. The Good News is that God is love and not just any love, but unconditional holy love for us all. And we are promised as his beloved sons and daughters that nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love, not life nor death or any other of the bad news that comes our way.
God knows our broken and troubled world firsthand through Jesus, who shared our common lot. God knows “the evil that men do.” God knows that we are “foolish and slow of heart to believe.” And still, and still, God never gives up on us, and never gives up on our world with all its bad news.
God wants better for us and for our world. Not the false security of guns and bombs, but the real security of peace and reconciliation, of friendship and community And since God hasn’t given up on the world he has made, he doesn’t want us to give up on it either.
Our task is to encourage each other to do whatever we can to make God’s world a better, more just and peaceful world. To never lose heart by the world’s bad news, but to discern God’s heart and try to align our own hearts with it.
So I may have some bad news and I may have some good news, but the good news comes last, because God always has the final word. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on November 19, 2017 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)