Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: "The Great Scoutmaster", Jeremiah 23:23-29/Luke 12:49-56 (August 14, 2016)


Sermon video here.

“Good News”. For a phrase that we use so often around here, you’d think we’d talk a little bit more about what it actually means. We know what each of those words means individually, of course, but when we talk about Good News in a faith context, it means something more specific, doesn’t it? From a Christian theological standpoint, “The Good News” is shorthand for the coming of God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ. That’s it in a nutshell.

In preaching classes, students are often told that the goal is to find the “Good News” in scripture and proclaim it. It doesn’t matter if the day’s lesson is from the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, the Psalms or the Epistles: the thing that makes Scripture holy is that the Good News spills from every page.

And yet, preaching is rarely an easy job. Not because the Good News isn’t there, but because it often doesn’t appear the way we expect it to. Where, for example, is the Good News in genocide? In war? Famine? Where’s the Good News in being told that we’re wrong? Or that we need to change?

So, we whitewash the message; we domesticate it. We take Scripture and we try to conform it to what we think the Good News ought to be—what we want it to be. I think we’re all guilty of it from time to time: all preachers and Bible studiers and casual church attenders and Christians of all stripes. We pick and choose the parts that make us feel good, and we focus on those.

Think about it: without putting too much critical thought into it, what sort of metaphor or image would you use to describe “the Good News” right this moment? What’s your first instinct? Do you see the Good News as a warm blanket? A faithful dog? A hug? Or to go more biblical, as a rainbow? Or a kindly shepherd?

The problem is, while these images might be good symbols for parts of Jesus’ ministry or for certain aspects of God’s nature, they don’t really get at the crux of “the Good News”. They don’t accurately represent what the coming of God’s kingdom is like, or what it’ll require of us. We rarely acknowledge how revolutionary Jesus’ teachings are, or how difficult they are, both individually and societally, for us to live into.

Scripture has its own way of describing the Good News. In Luke, Jesus is clear that the path he walks—the path that he calls us to walk with him—is not one of peace, but of division and discord. It’s a path, he says, that lends itself to stress and requires endurance. Jesus’s mission promises to bring upheaval, an uncomfortable shift in the way things have always been, to the point of familial rifts. This promise is not of the comfort and joy that we might expect from the Messiah. In the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus promises to bring fire to the earth.

In Jeremiah, God uses simple and clear imagery to describe God’s message: “Is not my word like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” the Lord says. “Is not my word like fire?” In this passage from chapter 23, God is critical of false prophets who rely on the vaguery and subtlety of dreams. This isn’t what my word is like, God says. The Good News is NOT soft-spoken and palatable: it is fire.

Even in the book of Acts, late in the game after God’s plan has already been fulfilled through Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t described as a cloud or a breeze but as what? Tongues of FIRE.

This Good News that we claim to love so much is turning out to be a little more than we bargained for.

Living in the Treasure Valley, we know how destructive fire can be. We know how volatile and uncontrollable it is. How dangerous. Why on earth would God offer something like THIS to God’s children? Why not something that would make us feel good? Why would we want to hear this “Good News” if it can burn us? To try and make sense of this, and in honor of Jesus’ favorite mode of teaching, I’ve come up with a new parable: the parable of the Great Scoutmaster. Bear with me:

The people of God are like brand new cub scouts on a camping trip. The head scoutmaster, the “Great Scoutmaster”, decrees that the new scouts should learn about fire—its nature, its dangers, its uses, and its benefits—so that they might be better prepared as campers and members of the troop. Some of the leaders think that’s too dangerous and decide instead to offer nothing but marshmallows the entire trip. Marshmallows for everyone! After all, they want the new recruits to like scouting and to have fun. Of course, these scouts DO have fun, but when they tell their friends about their trip, they give the impression that camping is all about marshmallows. And they never really want to go any deeper in scouting, either—they’re just there for the treats.

On the other hand, some leaders do follow the instructions of the Great Scoutmaster. They spend their time teaching the scouts about fire. It’s not always easy—some of the cub scouts don’t understand or care, others complain that they’re not getting enough marshmallows, still others use the fire as a weapon against others. But those that pay attention to the lesson ultimately become much better scouts. They learn to respect the fire, come to understand how it can be used safely and effectively, and are able to share a clearer picture of scouting with their friends.

They may not be able to recruit quite as many new people as the marshmallow scouts, but those who do join develop a love for the troop that isn’t just based on how much fun they’re having at any given moment. Rather, their love is based on what scouting has to teach them and how they can bring the lessons they learn to the world. Needless to say, the Great Scoutmaster is pleased with the leaders and scouts that pursue the more demanding lesson—the one that he had called them to in the first place and that he knew would help the most them in the long run.

Sometimes, we Christians try to subsist only on marshmallows. The interpretations of scripture that we cling to are fluffy, enjoyable, and low risk. We consume them quickly and move on. Because of these marshmallow messages, we assume that seeking the kingdom of God is equally easy: why would we follow a God that demands any more of us?

But in reality, a marshmallow doesn’t do much. It doesn’t contribute any real nourishment, and it changes nothing. In contrast, although a fiery message can be frightening, our wrestling with it offers so much possibility. It can challenge us. It can simultaneously fill us with warmth and strength. It can transform us. It can even improve on the marshmallow (if you like toasted marshmallows, anyway). Yes, it’ll probably make us uneasy. Yes, it may be more responsibility than we want. Yes, we might even get burned. But this is the gift from the Scoutmaster that can actually transform the world.

When we’re seeking God’s Kingdom (as we should be doing each and every day), we should be considering what kind of messages we’re hearing. Is it really God’s “Good News,” or is it our own watered-down version? Are we seeking out the fire, or just the marshmallows? And what is it we’re offering to others? Let’s be honest here: Jesus was never really one to hand out marshmallows in his teachings, and if that’s what we’ve reduced the church to, then we’re doing a poor job of following our Great Scoutmaster.

If the only messages you’re willing to listen to are the ones that make you feel good and don’t demand anything of you—if you’re sitting there thinking, “Keep that sugary goodness coming!”—well, then I’d say that makes you human. But I’d also say that these scriptures from Jeremiah and Luke are challenging you to consider whether you’re truly seeking to follow Christ. When we’re dealing exclusively in marshmallows, we’re not being faithful scouts.

We’re not the first people to be challenged with the fire of the Good News. People in the Bible are always getting messages from God that they don’t want to hear. Jonah didn’t want to go to the Ninevites. For that matter, the Ninevites didn’t want to change their wicked ways. The Pharisees were so uncomfortable with what Jesus was teaching that they had him put to death. Even Jesus’ own disciples were told on more occasions than they’d probably like to admit that they were totally on the wrong track.

Turns out, people have always preferred marshmallows.

But this is what we signed up for. When we were first welcomed into the Christian community and introduced to the Good News in our baptism, we made a promise that we would be Christ’s faithful disciple, trusting him and obeying his word. Not the parts of his word that we like, not the parts that we agree with—all of it. And as our foreheads were touched with the water of baptism, Christ covered us with the fire of the Holy Spirit, just as John the baptizer promised he would, and we were claimed. When we promise to follow Jesus, we open our lives up to the strength and fury of God’s fire, like it or not.

Now, as we adjust to the idea of life with fewer marshmallows, we’ll begin to see that God’s Good News—the fire that pushes us and challenges us and teaches us—is literally everywhere. “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?...Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Just as the Good News can be found in all of Scripture, so can the Word of God be found in all of creation.

We’ll find that we’re confronted with more and more difficult truths the more we open ourselves up to them. So I challenge you to think about where the fire of the Good News is making you uncomfortable inside and outside of these walls. Where is it that you’re expecting marshmallows and being handed a flame instead? Is it in the political arena? In a social movement? In a neighbor? An enemy?

Where is your contentment being challenged? Comfort is an insidious prophet, making us forget the name of the Lord just as the dreaming prophets did in Jeremiah’s day. Don’t let it. Don’t settle for marshmallows. You deserve more. Christ deserves more. Our world deserves more.


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