Let me publically thank that paragon of spirituality, Carrington Pinner, for inviting me to be a part of his on-line NCAA bracket tournament. As of this morning, I am in first place with Carrington & his friends nowhere to be seen. Most people in this country can’t get enough of these bracket challenges. Currently there are contests to determine our favorite candy, rock band, and female entertainer over forty (known as ‘cougars’). There is even a competition to determine the most popular saint. In the opening round, C.S. Lewis is squaring off against Augustine’s mother, Monica, Patrick is up against someone named Constance (that should be a blow out), and William Wilberforce (who led the movement to abolish slavery) is up against Chad (a humble and popular bishop who served various dioceses in northern England). All told, 32 saints are in the running for this year’s Golden Hallo award, won last year by the English priest and poet George Herbert.
All of this got me to thinking it would be interesting to set up a bible verse bracket challenge. If you had four regions, surely strong contenders for top seeds would be these:
• The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
• Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,
• What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God
• And, from today’s reading… For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not parish but have eternal life.
John 3:16. It is iconic, made famous by the man with rainbow hair who put it on a poster board and managed to get himself on TV at an incredible number of sporting events. It has been called ‘the gospel in a nutshell.’ I remember my youth minister preaching on this verse years ago. He said it was the greatest verse in the bible:
• For God - God, the greatest Being there is,
• so loved - the greatest virtue,
• the world - the greatest thing God has created,
• that he gave - giving, the greatest act,
• His Son- the greatest gift,
• that whoever - the greatest number of people possible,
• believes - the greatest act of faith,
• in Him - the greatest certainty,
• should not perish - the greatest fear,
• but have everlasting life - the greatest hope and end.
Yes, I think John 3:16 could go deep into the tournament. The next verse, John 3:17, is kind of like the younger brother whose high school exploits never quite match the achievements of his three-sport star, valedictorian, older brother. But in my mind, it is always linked with the verse before it:
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
Taken together these two verses form a very powerful narrative about the Christian faith and empower us with a sense of mission. By narrative, I mean they give us the Gospel in a nutshell and by mission I mean that they give us something to do. Yes, God sent the Son into the world to save the world, but we - the Church - are now Christ’s body and thus the agents through which God’s love for the world is manifested.
The Church has not always read the bible in this way. There was a time when we heard it say that God offers salvation to all and those of us who respond in the ‘right way’ are then blessed. Those who do not respond or who do not respond in the ‘right way’ are forever cursed. Some thinkers even took this to the extreme of holding God decides who will respond correctly and who will not.
This notion is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Genesis story where God chooses Abraham from all the people of the earth. More and more, as we read the bible we are noticing that God did so not so much give to Abraham an exclusive blessing, but gave him a special mission. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” “In you,” God tells Abraham, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” From the beginning, God establishes a direct link between blessing and sending; between choosing and mission. God gives to Abraham, not because he is special or better or deserving, but because God wants him to spread God’s blessing to all people.
In some Christian circles there is a notion that faith is a one-on-one thing; something between God and the individual. Perhaps the best analogy to this relates to the stuff that keeps showing up in my mailbox, like ads for replacement windows. The offer comes to me on a regular basis as it comes to every house on the block. Most often I do what everyone else does, I throw it away without even opening it. But every now and then, someone opens that letter, reads it, and signs up for new windows. Some people understand God’s work of salvation to be like this. God’s offer comes to each one of us individually over and over again, but most ignore it. Those few who sign up will be blessed and rewarded. Those who don’t, well, they are going to have a very long, hot, unpleasant eternity, one which in my mind at least probably involves a Starbucks.
Thankfully, this old paradigm is passing away to one more akin perhaps to a parade. If God’s love is like a parade, then you and I are invited to join in. You can march or dance or sing or be on a float or ride your horse or petal your bike or drive one of those crazy little cars or do anything else that makes the parade of God’s blessing known to the world. The point is we are called into the parade of God’s love and we are to take this parade to all people, blessing them and inviting them to join us. You see, blessing as a call to mission.
Today we are launching a new short-term, outreach project here at St. Paul’s. We are raising money to help rebuild Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti one brick at a time, $10 a brick. This is an effort of the entire Episcopal Church because the Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in our church and because its many churches and schools, destroyed in last year’s earthquake, were great mission centers of God’s love for a desperately needy country. In a very real sense, rebuilding the church in Haiti is rebuilding the country.
Our goal here at St. Paul’s is to raise enough money for 300 bricks. I want to challenge each of you not just to write a check, but to do something to ‘earn’ $10. I have several buttons I need sowed. I’ll pay someone to do it. Do you have a ceiling lightbulb that needs changed or a smoke detector that needs a new battery? I’ll come to your house and do it for a dollar a bulb or battery. Call or e-mail the office either with something you need done or something you can do. We’ll post a list that you can check out each week. I’ll gladly buy a batch of homemade, chocolate chip cookies for $10 – hint, hint. If your name is Carrington Pinner, for $10 I’ll give you advice on filling out your bracket. You can check out the bulletin board in the Parish Hall for more information about this project. You can also talk to Roy Waller who I have asked to spearhead it, or call Amy in the office during the week. She has done a lot of legwork on the project with him.
I don’t know about you, but for me, I am not very excited about a Christian theology that espouses elitism – a notion that we who believe are somehow special, somehow above everyone else. I do get excited about a theology of mission – an understanding that we who have responded to God’s call have been given a dynamic, life-changing, fulfilling purpose. We are agents of God’s love for the world, seizing one opportunity after another to demonstrate the great compassion that gave the Son, not to condemn, but to save.