December 17, Good News

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Good news…for the oppressed, the brokenhearted,

the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11


Well, the scripture topic for this morning is “good news.” So, I suppose right off the bat we should ask, “What is the good news?”

I mean, in terms of just news, well, there’s plenty of news, plain old news – political news, entertainment news, sports news, world news, internet conspiracy news, local news, Church of the Brethren denominational news – oh, there is plenty of plain, old news out there…but good news? I want you to think for a moment of some good news.

Can you think of any? Does any good news come immediately to mind? How about this: Not only what is the good news in the world, but what is the good news in your life?

Because it could be that whether or not you can come up with any examples of good news depends on what kind of news you need, what kind of news you want. Maybe the good news isn’t one size fits all. Maybe the good news is the news of whatever it is that saves or heals or holds or helps or restores or inspires or touches you.

So, is that to say that whatever regulation the president rolls back or whatever taxes the congress cuts or whatever person gets elected or doesn’t get elected or gets fired or hired or whatever story is believed or debunked – whether that’s good news or not, depends on where you stand? One person’s good news might well be another person’s bad news? Is it all just a matter of perspective?

Well, it certainly can seem that way – we certainly often play it that way; to the victor go the spoils, the “spoils” in this case being the claim that whatever news most pleases me is the good news.

But in truth, the good news, the real good news isn’t about any one person’s power or possessions or any one group’s access or advantage. Good news is never that narrow; it’s never that self-interested.

The real good news is about the things that make humanity more humane, the things that grant to the wounded a chance for healing, the things that lift all boats upward on the tide of hope and peace. So, if my good news is your bad news, then I’m not sure it really is good news. That is, if you have to decrease so that I may increase, or you have to hurt so that I can feel happy – then I need to think about what’s “good” in that.

That doesn’t mean that some good news won’t be costly, for example that some people who have more, might have to have less, in order that those who have less, can have more. But that re-calibrating is also within the very nature of good news, because real good news seeks some redress, some balance. It not only makes humanity more humane, and grants the wounded a chance for healing, and lifts all boats upward on the tide of hope and peace, but real good news also always has within it the thread of fairness, of restoration, of wholeness, of kindness and gentleness.

No one can say, “The good news is that I win and you lose!” If that’s their whole measure of what news is good news, then the person who says such a thing has no understanding of the Good News of God. The measure of God’s good news isn’t how good it is for some and how bad it is for others; the measure is how good it is for all.

I’ve thought about that quite a bit recently as I’ve watched the news reports from the Middle East in the wake of President Trump’s announcement that the US is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will begin the process of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Right away, some heralded this announcement as good news and others as bad news; some felt validated and others betrayed. It will be no surprise to you that my thoughts have been most sympathetically with the Palestinians who received this as bad news, the worst news.

And of course, that’s because when I hear news like this, I cannot help but think with concern and compassion about people I met in Bethlehem and Ramallah and East Jerusalem this past summer – places that were immediately flash points of peaceful as well as violent protests by Palestinians and aggressive counter response by Israeli Defense Forces following President Trump’s declaration.

And it should not be lost on us that this news couldn’t come at a worse time for Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem – here we are just a short time before Christmas and now Bethlehem is likely cut off from those who would wish to visit the birth place of Christ. It’s an immediate consequence of Trump’s announcement, but it is also held in the much broader context of years of illegal occupation and settlement expansion, and now this very inflammatory “good news” for some and “bad news” for others is announced by our government and it validates those who wish to push out, eradicate even, a whole culture, a history, a people. 

Good news? There is no good news when the news that is offered, the news that is proclaimed, is the kind of news by which one side is supported and the other side suffers.

The prophet Isaiah offers this announcement to us from the text for today: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he declares, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives;”

There are those who will say that these ancient promises are things promised to Israel. That perhaps, in fact, the news of Jerusalem being recognized by the US as the capital of Israel is good news – an affirmation of the fulfillment of ancient promises.

But the scriptures, while a record of history, are never only to be read backwards in order to be read forwards. In other words, God’s Word comes to us in real time; the questions are for now: Who are the oppressed -- now? Who are the brokenhearted -- now? Who are the captives -- now? Who are these people – these people in need of good news -- now?

Listen, good news is not good news if it doesn’t direct its warmth and healing and affirmation to those on the margins. Good news is not good news if it doesn’t lift humanity and restore humanity and heal humanity and release humanity from the prisons of hate and greed and violence and injustice.

I said in last week’s sermon that I am reading Father Gregory Boyle’s new book, “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.” Boyle makes the case over and over that the good news is not to be found in focusing on the failures of the past or in revisiting rejection, judgment, or hate. Good news, he would say, is to be found when we seek and see our kinship with others; when those who have been wounded and rejected are healed and restored – the brokenhearted bound up, the captives set free.

Boyle tells this story: “Before Homeboy Industries was born, we started an alternative school for middle-aged gang members. They were wreaking havoc in the projects, and no other school would have them. Our parish convent occupied the entire third floor above our parochial school. I gathered these six Belgian nuns in their living room. Their accents were thick and their hearts brilliant. “Hey,” I asked, “Would you all mind…you know…moving out…and we could turn the convent into a school for gang members?” They looked at me, then at each other, and said simply, “Sure.” And that was the entirety of their discernment process. No…stinginess. The abundance of God breaks through…in a solitary “Sure.” (p.55)

That’s good news, right? Good news -- we will step aside because we believe in your potential and because we have hope for you.

And this story: “Lety, a homegirl who has been through the wringer and then back again, sits snug up to the front of my desk. Name any horrific, terrible thing that could befall a human being and it’s befallen her: prison, drug addiction, domestic violence, kids taken away. It would be a far shorter list if you wrote down the horrific things that haven’t happened to her. In fact, I can’t think of anything (Boyle writes). I would not have survived one day in her childhood.”

“She’s asking me for some help when she suddenly says, “I wish you were God.” I laugh, but see that starting to well up. “Why do you wish I was God?” I ask.” She needs time here – for composure, not composition of thought.”

““Cuz…I think you’d let me into heaven.” This blindsides me and now…I need my time to formulate a response as my eyes moisten. I grab her hands and pull her as close as I can across the top of my desk. I look her in the eyes. We are both crying. We gaze at each other for a very long time. “Lety,” I begin, “I swear to you, IF I get to heaven and you’re not there…I’m not stayin’.” (p. 52)

That’s good news, right? Good news – I won’t abandon you.

And this story: “Andres was abandoned by his mother when he was nine years old and left homeless for a couple of years. He has always been a clear example for me of the soul’s deepest longing to inhabit its truth. The one thing he wanted, more than anything, was to improve his vocabulary. “I was enumerating all the things I needed to do today,” he’d say. Then he’d add, “Enumerating means to make a list.” If he agrees with me, he says, “I concur.” He actually told a roomful of (psychiatrists) during a talk in San Diego that at Homeboy Industries he had managed to “metamorphosize” himself. Then he told them that means “change.””

“One day he came to work and plunked himself down in my office. “Last night, I was walkin’ home from King Taco,” he said, “You know, in Soto. Anyways, before I get (home), I’m crossing in front of that tiny park. You know the one. I see an old man lying there on a bench. He’s either asleep or tryin’ to sleep. There’s a half-full forty on the ground in front of him and the old guy, well, he’s shiverin’ cuz it’s cold. So you know my favorite sweater?” I nod yes, though I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t want to derail him. “Well, I was wearin’ it and I took if off and I laid it over this guy. He didn’t wake or notice.””

“For a moment, Andres enters a sort of trance. And then suddenly he’s shaken from it. “Hey, I’m not tell’ ya all this so you think I’m AAALLLL that.” He stops again to think, and some long-held emotional stirring comes to the surface, making it momentarily hard to get the next words out. “Nah, I’m tellin’ ya all this cuz I know that bench.” He gathers himself. “I been on that bench.”” (p.173)

That’s good news, right? Good news – you can have my sweater, my favorite sweater – because you need it and I know you need it because you’re cold there, trying to sleep on that bench, and I understand because I’ve been on that bench too.

Says Boyle, “During Advent, we are called to prepare the way…to “make straight the path” and make smooth what is rocky. Our hardwiring is such that we hear these invitations as a demand to “straighten up” or “get our act together.” But it’s not we who need changing – it’s our crooked path that needs to be smoothed…so we can be reached by God’s tenderness.” (p.37) 

Good news -- we will step aside because we believe in your potential and because we have hope for you. Good news – I won’t abandon you. Good news – you can have my sweater, my favorite sweater – because you need it and I know you need it because you’re cold there, trying to sleep on that bench, and I understand because I’ve been on that bench too.

David Hupp, in the song he wrote for the senior high youth to sing in our worship service earlier, right before the sermon, puts it this way: Those who kneel in the ashes of ruin and loss, let us honor and comfort provide; Spill the oil, share the balm for all broken hearts, ‘til we rise once again side by side.

You can’t tell me that good news means some have to win while others lose. And you can’t tell me that good news belongs to certain nations and certain peoples and certain tribes, and not to all nations and all peoples and all humanity. And you can’t tell me that good news – at the end of day – doesn’t have everything to do with God’s tenderness; this God, who (as Isaiah says) “comforts all who mourn.”

You can’t tell me those things, because I knew good news when I hear it – you know good news when you hear it: Good news -- we will step aside because we believe in your potential and because we have hope for you. Good news – I won’t abandon you. Good news – you can have my sweater. Good news – those who are brokenhearted can be healed and those who are captive can be set free.

Maybe, in fact, there is this kind of good news all around us. Maybe we get distracted and discouraged by the regular news, and especially by the bad news that seems so abundant, so pervasive. But maybe there is this kind of good news all around us, just waiting for us to recognize it, to name it, to claim it.

And if so, then maybe one shift we could make during these days of Advent is the shift from being people who don’t tune in to this good news, or who impatiently and doubtfully wait for someone else to bring us some good news, to being people who recognize and uncover and then bear the good news; people who bring good news into the world, who are good news; people who believe in the potential of others and who have hope for them, who do not abandon those who fear being left behind, who give up their favorite sweater just because someone else needs it, who believe in the honesty of the hurts of others and offer a healing balm, who draw near to the poor and lonely ones, who believe in the radical power of kinship.

The “year of the Lord’s favor” as Isaiah calls it, isn’t the time when some win and some lose; it’s the time when all who have been left behind are brought along. And it is the time when such news spreads far and wide -- news about the ways that humanity is becoming more humane, and news about how the wounded are moving toward healing, and news about how all boats are being lifted upward on the tide of hope and peace.

There is good news – God’s good news. There is good news – and we are right in the thick of it. Right now, in this season, on our way to Christmas, we can hear such good news and we can speak it and we can live it: good news for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn…good news for all.

May it be so.

Benediction: This week, may you hear the good news, see the good news, bear the good news, be the good news – for Christ is coming! Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

December 17, 2017