I just returned from Heine Coffee. En route, I turned on the radio, just in time to catch one of the morning preachers. The Sunday morning format is filled every week by the Gospel Gantry's gathering the souls for God's Harvest. Airtime is cheap on Sunday mornings and there's a reason for that.
Nobody is listening.
But today, I was listening. And, I do not wish to be unkind in the following remarks. We all look for ways to be heard...to be noticed...to feed the inner ego's insatiable appetite for recognition...to feel, and so believe, our rants are redeeming the world...that we're actually making a difference. So, there are those who buy cheap airtime on Sunday morning radio. The rest of us write blogs on Facebook walls.
My first job, as a fourteen year old kid, was disc-jockeying at a top-40 radio station in Richmond, Kentucky - WEKY-AM. We had some Sunday morning doozies in radio preachers. Undoubtedly, some of the most bizarre people I've ever met. Or, heard. Nice enough people, to be sure. Just different. Really different. The preachers always wore black suits, white shirts with collars that had turned yellow from sweat, and thin black ties that were faded from saliva and I suppose drippings from fried chicken at too many church picnics.
The women wore long dresses, the hems of which would end just where their rolled-down ankle hose picked up. Their hair, on the other hand, was always rolled up in a bun, held together by a little hand-woven bonnet. I don't think any of them had ever heard of Maybelline or Revlon, though they could have benefited from either.
They'd all smile and speak respectfully to me as they entered the radio station. When they did speak to me, they did so quietly, as if they thought my microphone stayed on continually. When they stepped into the studio booth, however,they cranked up the volume on their vocal chords loud enough to wake up God. With the flip of their microphone switch the little neon sign hanging over their studio door would flash as bright as a Christmas tree- "Live-On Air" And, the preacher? Well, he'd start sputtering words, mostly unintelligible ones, faster than my Grammy could shuck corn.
I thought about those radio preachers today as this morning's preacher was spreading the "gospel," as he called it, the "good news," the Christmas message. Frankly, I didn't hear much difference between his sermon and that of the radio preachers when I was young. Come to think of it, I didn't hear much difference from the gospel I used to preach at one time in my own career.
A gospel message that's anything but.
The only difference between today's radio preacher and those back then is a little thing called refinement. This morning's radio preacher is articulate, occasionally even funny, and, the fact that he serves one of the largest churches in America and easily the largest in our area, gives him a credibility few would ever question, without feeling they were disrespecting God or something.
So I listened.
His sermon? "If you want God to bless you," said the preacher, "you must, like Simeon of old, be obedient..."
"That's it!" I thought to myself. "That's where you've screwed up, McSwain. You haven't been obedient enough!"
It's probably your problem, too. Which explains why you're jobless, or your marriage has failed, or your business is going south, or your kids hate you, or whatever is wrong with you right now!
Don't you get it?
It's the Gospel you're missing...and, your obedience to it. That's it. If only you had been more obedient. Things might have gone differently for you. Like Duh! Can't you see the error of your ways?
Never mind the fact that this kind of "Gospel" preaching hardly fits the definition of Gospel, given by Jesus himself and recorded in Luke 4...
...good news to the poor
...freedom to the captives
...recovery of sight to the blind
...set the oppressed free
...proclaim the year of the Lord
"Well, that may be what Jesus says," you say, "but what the hell does he know?"
What many preachers have done, and I rank myself right there among them, is that we have reduced the Gospel to this: "If you want God to bless you," just as radio preachers said back when and even today, "then you'd better be obedient."
Kind of reminds me today of a little jingle we sing this time every year, "Better watch out...better not cry...better not pout, Preacher tellin' you why, Santa God is comin' to town...He's makin' a list...checkin' it twice..."
Well, you can finish it in your own head.
Gospel! The Good News! For You! If, of course, you...
And, what do you suppose the preacher REALLY means by obey?
Probably the same thing I meant by it when I preached the same...
1. "Believe (and, obey) the Bible!" - by which I really meant, "Believe what I SAY ABOUT the Bible!" I so confused my interpretation of the Bible for what the Bible was really saying I was sort of like the Sadducees or Pharisees who could take the same Old Testament passage but arrive at a completely different interpretation than Jesus himself.
2. Attend church every time the doors are open - which, of course, if everyone actually did, the preacher would be happy, but you could kiss your life good-bye!
The church would be full. And, what could be more important than that? What more proof would a preacher need that he or she is saving the world than a full church on Sunday? Or, better, Sunday night? Or, better still, the Mid-Week Prayer Service? Everybody knew that's when the "real" saints showed up anyway. Think of it. Everybody in church as they're supposed to be. Standing room only. Chairs up and down the aisles. The altar full of repentant souls!! Amen!! Praise the Lord!! "People IS gettin' saved!" as the old radio preacher would put it.
For years, I wanted my church's followers to be obedient in the very same ways. I told myself it was because I loved God and that I just wanted to "see people saved, too." But I know today that what really drove me was my need to believe I was important...my need to think I was making a difference...that I was more popular than the preacher across town whose church was bigger but we were slowly catching up and might even surpass him one day. My drives had little to do with bringing good news - really good news to the poor or freedom to captives. Hell, I was too hungry trying to fill my own hunger for significance...
...too incarcerated in my own religious madness; ...blinded by my own spiritual misguidedness; and, ...oppressed myself, not by anything external, but the madness that was me internally.
3. Obedience also means...
You fill in the blank. I suspect you can. We've all had our share of the gospel-that-is-anything-but-the-gospel kind of preaching...conditioning.
There is a Gospel, however. It's rarely seen or heard these days. But it's still around. And, it is good. It is this...
You need not obey anything for grace. In fact, anything you think you have to do or any condition you think you have to meet will just get in the way...
Of Grace, that is - God's grace needs no one's obedience to be operable. No tokens of obedience are needed to pull God's lever on a three wheel slot called Grace. And, if that isn't radical enough for you, try reading Matthew 20:1-16. It's the REAL Christmas story - you remember, that parable about a God who pays one-hour workers the same wage as those working the eight-hour shift.
When it begins to feel as if it's all so damned unfair - this God and Her Grace - you should know you're getting close to it's grandeur. And, you may be close to making life's grandest discovery.
This Grace is for anybody.
...why the poor loved Jesus;
...why the incarcerated felt free in His presence;
...why the blind saw things the seeing could never see'
...why the oppressed felt their importance around Him.
What about you? Have you stopped trying to obey your way into grace?
When you do, the word "Gospel" or "Good News" will mean more than you could ever imagine.
Here's what Grace is to me...today. It is the capacity to forgive myself for the many years I mistakenly preached a gospel that was anything but.
It even means the capacity to forgive the radio preachers back then...and the radio preachers today, as well as the churches they represent, for not yet knowing...
...that there is grace, and then, there's...
Happy New Year, my friends.