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Spiritual Reflection: What’s the Good News?

By the Rev. John Morris

Editor’s note:Today’s spiritual reflection is a transcript of a sermon preached by the Rev. John Morris. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St. Johnsbury on November 17, 2019. The texts for that day, which are referenced in the sermon, were Malachi 4:1-2a and Luke 21:5-19.

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky was an amazing person. Reared in the 19th century in a Jewish family in Lithuania, he ended up as an Episcopal priest in the United States and then a Bible translator in China. The page about him in A Great Cloud of Witnesses, our Church’s commemorations of significant figures in the history of The Episcopal Church, is well worth reading.

The work that Diane Montague, currently serving as Senior Warden here at St. Andrew’s Church, did from 1971 to 2001 in Mexico is also worth noting. She and her co-workers from Wycliffe Bible Translators translated the New Testament into three indigenous languages.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses also mentions a remarkable group of people who dedicated their lives to translating the Bible into the language of various peoples. Many missionaries’ work of translation is documented, as well as the translation work done by people like John Wyclif and Martin Luther. Related to this work of Bible translation is the work of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Syles who worked with congregations of deaf people to preach the Good News in their language, sign language.

Note: there is no denying that sometimes the work of missionaries and Bible translators was intertwined with imperialist and colonialist endeavors.  However, that tragic reality is for another sermon.

Making the Good News more accessible to people in their own language is important, because it enables them to, in the words of today’s Collect, “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture.”

We’ll get to the Good News in today’s texts in a few minutes, but first it is worth referring to a cover article that appeared in the September 25 issue of Seven Days. The very extensive article was entitled “Good News?” and reported on how “evangelicals are planting dozens of churches in the rocky soil of Vermont.” 

The reporter, Chelsea Edgar, traveled throughout the state and interviewed many people—clergy and laity—who are involved in these church plants. She shows that these evangelical churches are reaching many people who are turned off by the mainline churches. Millennials and GenZ are finding their way to these church plants, especially if they are looking for “an organizing principle in their often chaotic lives.” The results are impressive. But the article raises several important questions and it is noteworthy that Seven Days adds a question mark to the headline: “Good News?”

Making the Good News more accessible to people in their own language is important, because it enables them to, in the words of today’s Collect, “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture.”

Is it Good News for people who want to read the Bible seriously, but not literally? I submit that a Fundamentalist approach to the Bible is not especially Good News for people who want to read Scripture with an open mind and use the resources of historical, literary, and linguistic studies.

For example, in the new movie Harriet, about the amazing and heroic life of Harriet Tubman, an early scene shows a gathering of enslaved people on a plantation in Maryland. An African American preacher is standing on the steps of the porch, with the plantation owner, his wife, and his son seated with them. They listen as the preacher uses Colossians 3:22 as his sermon text: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…” This is not Good News for someone like Harriet, who wants to be liberated from slavery.

Fortunately, we find out that the preacher is actually deeply involved in the Underground Railroad and hides runaway slaves in this church while they wait to continue further north to freedom. The literal text of Colossians is not Good News. But Harriet recognizes that there is a larger message in Scripture, and God calls her to live out that larger message. She helps at least 70 enslaved people escape over many years. Her nickname, Moses, shows that she had “inwardly digested” the Good News of liberation which is at the heart of Scripture. 

This story is an example of the comment made by William Sloan Coffin, Jr. several years ago: “Too many Christians use the Bible the same way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, but not for illumination.”

Is it Good News for women in this evangelical movement who are barred from leadership roles in evangelical congregations? All of the pastors interviewed for the Seven Days article are men. I don’t have any inherent bias against men serving in leadership roles—I see one every time I look in the mirror!—but I don’t think it is Good News to tell women that they cannot serve in leadership roles.

Is it Good News for members of the LGBTQ+ community to hear that God does NOT love them? The reporter writes, “I identify as queer, and being around a bunch of happy, nice Christians whose belief system precludes me from entering their idea of heaven made for some existentially bizarre moments.” Understandably, it doesn’t sound like that reporter heard Good News.

Is it Good News for Jews, Buddhists, and other non-Christians to be told that they are going to Hell? My good friend, Michael Caldwell, former pastor of the East Corinth Congregational Church, raises this question in a letter to the Editor of Seven Days about the article on church planting.  He writes, “How can we stomach an approach to our Jewish and Buddhist neighbors that classifies them as ‘unsaved’ and implicitly condemns them to hell unless they mouth a contrived formula for salvation.” I especially appreciate Michael’s verb in this letter—stomach—because it is an echo of today’s Collect about inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. But when the Bible is used for exclusion, and even hatred, isn’t it quite indigestible?

Is it Good News for people who want to wrestle with the very complex and tragic issues related to abortion? Is it sufficient to just quote Psalm 139 and think that the issue is settled? What about the 13-year old girl who has been raped by her stepfather and is now pregnant?  Is Psalm 139 going to be Good News for that young girl?

Enough about the article. I encourage you to read it. In my comments here, I do not want to be arrogant and self-righteous about our evangelical siblings, but I think the aforementioned questions are appropriate.

Those of us in mainline denominations certainly have many questions about our churches. For example, why do many of the people quoted in the Seven Days article find our congregations “lifeless” and “joyless?” Why do people in younger generations find very little in our congregations that might attract them? Why do some people think that all too often in our congregations there is more time and energy put into potluck suppers instead of helping people inwardly digest Holy Scripture? What is the Good News for us in today’s texts? 

Why do some people think that all too often in our congregations there is more time and energy put into potluck suppers instead of helping people inwardly digest Holy Scripture?

We join the prophet Malachi in looking for “the sun of righteousness” to arise. As so beautifully stated in Hymn #7 in our hymnal, we look for “Christ whose glory fills the skies… to triumph o’er the shades of night…” We look with hope for that to happen, trusting in the God who is the source of all healing—the healing of our bodies, the healing of our broken spirits, and healing of the divisions in our society and our church. That hope is genuine, and that is Good News.

Jesus reassures us that, even in apocalyptic times, we do not need to be terrified or anxious or afraid. Of course, we have those feelings. They are unavoidable in these times, but they are not the final reality. Even when things and values we cherish are under attack, we can endure. In the first century, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The symbol of God’s presence on earth and in history was gone. Did that mean God was absent? Jesus says no; we will be given wisdom and strength to persevere, even in dark times.

In the United States, we are seeing serious attacks on our democratic institutions by the very people who are supposed to be protecting us and our institutions. This week, we saw State Department diplomats and ambassadors who work tirelessly in foreign countries on our behalf. Yet many of these highly capable people are being smeared and removed from their positions. That is tragic. But by the grace of God and by the wisdom of some of our leaders, we can make things better. That is encouraging.

One of my all-time favorite cartoons shows a herd of buffalo out on the prairie. The herd stands together, but one lone buffalo is off to the side. A buffalo in the herd asks, “What’s wrong with him?” Another buffalo replies, “He just heard a discouraging word.”“Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

There are many dark clouds in our country these days and lots of discouragement. The Good News is that those are not the final realities.

Holy Scripture can be tremendously valuable in this time. It can be, as Hymn #627 says, a “lamp of our feet…living water to drink…bread for our souls…our anchor and stay….and a pillar of fire in our dark time.”  So, I commend Holy Scripture to you. May you “hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest” the Good News today and always.

A final story: I read it many years ago and can’t quite remember all the details, but it has to do with a Bible translator who was working, as I recall, in a tribe near the Arctic. The text under consideration said something like “the apostles returned joyfully,” but the translator could not find one single word comparable to “joyfully” to translate into the local language. So, they ended up with a translation that said “the apostles returned wagging their tails!”

May you leave this Eucharist wagging your tails and be filled with the Good News so you can go forth to share that Good News any way you can.

About the Author

The Rev. John Morris been a priest in the Diocese of Vermont since 1971. He earned his living for many years as a public school teacher while serving St. Mary’s in the Mountains in Wilmington. He retired from teaching in 1999 and then served St. Luke’s Church in Chester as Interim Rector for two years before becoming Rector of St. Martin’s Church in Fairlee in 2002. He retired from St. Martin’s in 2013. Currently, the Rev. Morris presides and preaches at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St. Johnsbury once a month, as well as St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Lyndonville twice a month.

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