I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: The Sermon

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Yeah. You know the stuff.

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

When you’ve got to drive a long way, how do you keep yourself awake and engaged?

I never thought I would know more than one person who stays awake on road trips by listening to and yelling back at hellfire and brimstone radio preachers. One of those people is me. The many others are everyone from seminary friends to people from my home church.

Those loud, angry radio preachers seem much more common in the South, but as you know, they’re naturally everywhere, including here, usually on the AM stations or the lower end of the FM dial. They draw their inspiration from passages like the Isaiah passage — “here am I; send me!” They volunteer to go preach the Gospel. To become, as stated in the Gospel passage for today, “fishers of men,” as the King James put it; the Gospel is the bait, the line is the radio waves, and the listeners are the fish. 

In those cases, I’ve always been one angry fish, doing nothing but shouting at the “bait.” 

Because by and large, it isn’t very good bait. It’s supposed to be Good News (the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”), but all I ever remember hearing is about what God would do to people who don’t follow the very narrow plan that God wants. It always seems less like Good News and more like bad news. It was as if someone told you that you were in grave danger and then said “wait, I have good news!” then gave you a ten thousand bullet point checklist for survival and told you that you had ten minutes to complete it. Well, they would say when you protest that this checklist is impossible: as the Good Book states, “narrow is the way, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). 

Narrow is the way indeed, but I daresay not in the way that these preachers think. This sort of thinking — that we must be good in order for God to love us — is, in its final theological product, missing something pretty key that changes everything. Namely, God’s love. Namely, that this sort of thinking makes the Gospel into a story about how good Christians are for our herculean efforts to be “good” instead of a story about how good God is. That is a poor substitution indeed.

Let me continue to explain by way of cookies. 

My best friend from my hometown, Samuel, and I have been friends for years and years. One day, when Samuel was but a tender sophomore in high school, he set out to make homemade cookies.

The recipe he found, as most chocolate chip cookie recipes do, called for butter. Young Samuel opened his parents’ fridge and found none; his parents were on a diet, or something. Pushing aside some other condiments, however, Samuel found the hope of his young baker’s career: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. 

And so my dear Samuel used I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in the cookie recipe. Everything seemed fairly normal, as it were, until the cookies were pulled out of the oven. 

What Samuel pulled out of the oven was, as the experienced bakers in the room already know, not cookies. The substance was charred and still liquid, which would lead to them running sideways down the pan when it was turned. If you ever need to know what happens when you use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, Samuel can tell you the answer: you get I Can’t Believe They’re Not Cookies.

I want to argue something very simple here: that when you preach the Gospel — which literally means “good news” — and substitute stuff we do for what God does, you’re going to end up with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News. Charred, burned, running down the pan. Not the Gospel.

Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing good things. We’re called to love our neighbors and help them out, to be generally good humans in the world, to be kind and trustworthy and loving people. But that’s not why God loves us. “Good humans” is who we tend to become when we know we’re loved. People who know that they are loved are more themselves, more secure, more honest, more trustworthy.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News gets that all backwards. 

God is exclusive in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News theology. Nothing about it seems very good, which seems strange for a God who, as we read in our Genesis study this morning, created everything and then danced over it exclaiming, “Very good! Very good!” 

I know, I know. Adam and Eve sinned and it messed it all up. (That’s next week’s study.) But over and over in the Bible, we’re reminded that God still loves us and calls us good and says what we are formed out of the dust in God’s own image. God still delights in us, so much that God became one of us and walked along the seashore calling not the best and brightest, but some ordinary fishermen. 

Yes, we are some messed up people. We, too, are pretty ordinary at best. What’s more, the world is sinful, but not in the way you might’ve heard on the radio. 

I can’t blame the radio preachers, really. The Isaiah passage ends with some pretty bad news, too. A frustrated God tells Isaiah that the people have been so unwilling to hear God’s voice of love that now they’re unable to hear it, and they’ve plunged into self-made destruction. That sounds familiar. The Bible calls us to “repent” — literally, turn around — for a reason.

But you see, I don’t think the world is sinful because there are gay guys and cusswords on TV sometimes. Besides not subscribing to that kind of spiritual violence, I don’t think God is so petty as to watch every moment of our lives for any sign of offense so that God can keep score and get God’s due later. No.

The world is sinful because people starve and have nothing — even clean water — because of the greed of others, and countless others die because of needless violence, both here in the US and abroad.

The world is sinful because we live in a culture that constantly tells us that we’re not created good, but that we need to earn our goodness by working hard enough and being good enough and being beautiful and thin and young forever. 

Never forget that in Hebrew, Satan, ha-satan, means “the accuser.” The voice that tells you that you are and always will be messed up and can’t ever earn God’s love — so you  either keep trying until you break and become angry and bitter, or you just give up on God and yourself.

Satan. The accuser.

I think I’ve heard Satan on the radio. And in my own head. I wager you have too. You’ve probably heard Satan in church at some point, too, telling you that you need to earn your way to God.

Listen to me and see what’s right here in front of us, as clear as the image of God imprinted in each of our hands and faces and feet and breath: the Gospel is good news, but not because of what you do. The Gospel is a story about God. The God who brought you into this world and gave you your first breath and the God who will see you safely into eternity still calls you good. 

God still calls you to see what’s right there: that you are beloved and you are called, not because you earned it, but because you were created from the dust and given God’s breath of life. You are beloved and you are called because you breathe. The real Good News is right there, as close as your next breath. 

As close as Jesus was to Peter when he tells him to cast those nets down one more time. Peter scoffs. That doesn’t make sense. He protests: we’ve been working so HARD! 

Just listen to Jesus, will you? And they cast that net on the other side and they got so many fish it was comical as they and the folks in the other boat struggled to get it all to shore. 

And that’s how it all began, this church thing.

I know, it sounds lazy or too good to be true, or something. Surely we have to do something. It’s not easy to believe — narrow is the way, because most people want to earn it. They logically think we have to do something to earn it. That’s how the world works, after all.  

But the road that says “work harder” is broad and leads to destruction and self-loathing. It’s why both Peter and Isaiah tried to scare God away by telling God how sinful they are. Every prophet in the Bible tries to scare God away somehow.

But God don’t scare easy. 

So here’s the bottom line: the next time you run out of butter, just step out to the store and get more butter. And the next time you’re on a road trip, or any other time you doubt God’s love and your own goodness, find something that helps you feel more you, more created by God, more beloved. You can believe this is good news, because it is.

Accept no substitutions.

Amen.

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Love Your Haters

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1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Luke 4:21-30

If you’re not a New England Patriots fan, I’m a little sorry. There is good news in this for you, too, but this sermon right here is what you might call Patriots-heavy. 

Because beloved, we have reached this, a holy day.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. I came here to preach the Gospel, take the Eucharist, and pray for the church, the world, and Tom Brady’s arm. Anybody with me?

If you’ve been watching any of the Super Bowl coverage this week, you’ve probably seen that there have been several really fun, really good stories about the Patriots. There was the girl quarterback from New Hampshire who wears #11 in honor of receiver Julian Edelman. She’d been bullied in school for playing pee wee football, and when Julian got wind of it, he wanted to meet her. He got her tickets to the Super Bowl, too. 

Another one is this — during a press conference this week, they let kids ask questions, and one young Pats fan had a question for Tom Brady. The little boy asked the GOAT: “How do you concentrate when people say mean stuff about you?”

Brady smiled at the boy. “You mean the haters?” He said, laughing as the Pats-friendly crowd jeered the haters. “What do we do about the haters?” The quarterback paused and took in the crowd’s reaction, then he turned back to the young fan. 

“We love ‘em. We love the haters, okay — ‘cause we don’t hate back. That’s not who we are.” 

I was recounting this story to a friend this week, who despite all his good traits, is an Eagles fan, and he said, “I mean, I know sometimes Patriots fans mix up the two, but you know Jesus said that first, right?” 

Yeah, yeah, I know. The original GOAT, as we will call Jesus on this holy day, had his own set of haters, and you’ll find some of them in the Gospel text this week. I know that it’s easy to let your mind drift off during the Gospel reading — I know, because I used to do that before I had to read it myself — but did you miss Jesus almost getting thrown off a cliff by his haters?

What did Jesus say to make them so mad? Well, in a nutshell, he says that he doesn’t have to prove to them that he is who he says he is, and that God is ever active in the lives not of the powerful, or even those you would expect, but that God is most interested in the lives of outsiders — this one particular starving widow, and a Syrian — and a Gentile — named Namaan. You know, the usual good Gospel stuff that earns Jesus more haters.

Then Luke tells us that they were “filled with rage” and drove him right out of their synagogue, right out of their town, right to the brow of the hill that their town was built on, then they tried to throw him off. This is like if someone said from this pulpit that they were rooting for the Rams in the Super Bowl and it wasn’t enough to throw that person out of the building, but y’all ran them all the way to the bridge to Holyoke and tried to throw them off. 

Again, for the record: go Pats. 

So they try to throw the Son of God off a cliff. That’s generally a bad idea, I think. A Son of God, I imagine, has got to have some wicked cool superhero judo tricks up his sleeve. 

But what does Jesus do to his haters? He walks away. Jesus chooses love instead of hating back.

Luke just says he “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Two thousand years before New England’s GOAT would express the same sentiment to a kid at a press conference, the original GOAT, Jesus, will go on to preach, two chapters after this story in Luke and tell everyone what to do about the haters: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of choosing to hate back, Jesus says to choose love. 

I have to say what everyone here already knows: that is not easy.

The theme for today, kids, is love. The Gospel in a word is love. And it’s easy to love here, at Our Savior’s, surrounded by people who love you too. It’s easy to love your family when they give you what you want and generally treat you nicely. It’s easy to love strangers when they are kind to us. It’s easy to love your children and/or your significant other when they always pick up their socks and behave well. It’s easy to love the fans of other NFL teams when they don’t talk trash about your team. But New England fans know that that’s not always the case. 

Paul wrote some of the most famous words in Christianity, and we read them today. Most people, even if they haven’t been to church in years or ever, can recite them: “Love is patient; love is kind.” And if everyone in the whole world could be patient and kind, love would always be easy. 

But the truth is that everyone isn’t patient or kind. I’m not always patient or kind, and neither are you. I know that not because I think you’re bad people, but because I know you’re human just like me. And when I’m not being patient or kind, what I really need down in my soul is for somebody to love me in that moment — to see through the bitterness and anger and see the hurting person underneath, even when I make it nearly impossible. I heard a story on the radio recently about a woman who had had the worst day imaginable: everything in her world was falling apart. Then she went to the pharmacy to pick up her prescriptions and the employee was needlessly rude to her. Then another customer was rude to her. And something in this woman snapped. She flew into a blind rage, even pepper-spraying a fellow customer. 

She wasn’t a bad person. It’s just that everything boiled over all at once, and she couldn’t handle it anymore. What finally stopped her rage, she said, was a kind man who came towards her when everyone else had backed away. 

“What did he say?” The interviewer asked. 

The woman replied simply, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” 

That, my friends, is love. Fearless love. The kind that silences rage. 

Love is a choice. It’s a choice to see angry people as just people, and to choose to treat them better than they treat you. 

(A brief aside: this doesn’t mean that you have to be quiet about abuse. You’re not required to be quiet about someone who constantly acts destructively towards you. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to speak up against abuse.) 

But for the everyday haters, we can choose love. We can choose love because we’re all human. We’re all haters sometimes. And we deal with angry people all the time. But the haters are people, just like us. And people need love.

So before you get on social media tonight after we win the Super Bowl and start to fight with that random Patriots hater, and before Monday when you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off and then flips you off, and before Tuesday when a family member or friend or significant other pushes your buttons just right — before anyone else acts like a hater to you, just remember what Tom Brady and Jesus Christ told you. 

What do we do about the haters? “We love ‘em.” Because even haters are humans, and humans need love. And so do we. So choose love.

And go Patriots. Amen.