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Monday, May 22, 2017

Pondering Sunday's sermon

Went to church on Sunday.

With a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines job, that was a rare pleasure out of the last few weeks. Seems like contrary to Minnesota's regular habit, Saturdays and Sundays this spring have been bright, sunny, and good for being in the field. So I haven't been in worship much lately. I've been in scripture and devotional readings and prayer and even some pretty meaty theology, often while sitting behind the wheel of an enormous truck (but not when it's moving).

But Sunday was rainy and wet and I went to church. Traditional Lutheran service. I wasn't at Faaberg Lutheran (the church where I was raised) but it was very much the same kind of thing. Fifty people in worship (including me and the pastor). Traditional hymns. Traditional liturgy. Traditional prayers and benediction. It was good.

I choked on the sermon, though. Not just because, in a sermon that used children repeatedly as illustrations, the pastor when he intended to talk about a popular restaurant slipped up and said, "Kentucky Fried Children." I can forgive that. Lord knows I've slipped up enough while preaching!

The thing that choked me was how this preacher took Jesus' words in John 14 -- "If you love me, you will obey my commandments" -- and made them into a non-specific sermon that could be summed up as follows:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. (That is actually a direct quote from multiple points in the sermon.)

No definition of what, exactly, Jesus meant by "my commandments." No discussion of why the heart of God is impacted by sin. No parsing of what an adult is supposed to do with morality designed for five year olds ("Don't write on your little brother's face with permanent marker." Another direct quote. That and "Don't stick a knife in an electrical outlet.") No thought to the developmental stages of human beings and how, in our teen years, we undergo a major shift in how we understand "being good." No acknowledgement that more often than not, "being good" is held over people's heads as a tool to impart guilt, and thereby to maintain control.

Where I really wanted him to go was Galatians, where Paul says that the Law is our "paidegogeia," our tutor or nanny, designed to tend us until we mature and are ready for the loving freedom of the gospel. But that is dangerous and uncomfortable territory for those of us who have been raised on guilt.

The pastor did actually, to my great joy, talk a little about how we need both Law and Gospel, we need both the rules of God's Law and the freedom Jesus won for us at the cross. But that was sort of an aside, along with a nod to Bonhoeffer's idea of "cheap grace."

So what we all left with was a basic lesson in morality:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. Like your mom was sad when you misbehaved. And it's okay for her to let you feel the weight of her sadness. It's okay for her to say, See? When you did that Mommy felt sad. Strap on your codependent guilt and get back out there, kids.

I left worship thinking about how so much preaching in the church today comes down at about that level. It lands at the level of "You need to be good" -- be good or God will be sad, be good or you'll get in trouble, be good or you're going to hell, be good or you'll miss heaven.

Isn't there more than this?

Why did Jesus go on and on about the kingdom of God? Why did he focus on that SO MUCH MORE than focusing on people going to heaven? (By the way, "kingdom of heaven" which is used primarily in Matthew's gospel is just his way of saying "kingdom of God" and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with some paradise you go to after you die.) Does "be good" really help us grow into the love of God?

Sit through an average church service and you'll hear, be good. Because Jesus wants you to.

It makes me sad. It's not the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. It's not the gospel. It's probably not even Christianity.

It was good to be in church on Sunday. There were powerful words spoken, powerful messages in the liturgy, in the hymns, in the baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the benediction. It was good to be reminded of those saints at Faaberg and of so many other gatherings of God's people. So good to be wrapped into a fellowship of believers, even if I arrived during the welcome and left during the closing hymn. It was good to hear scripture read in public, and to hear the words of Jesus lifted up in some form.

And I am pondering, pondering how we might preach, teach, live more true to Jesus' own words, to his own proclamation.

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