Religious billboards, the ones we see around today, really don’t help my blood pressure. Most of them seem to carry an ultimatum on them. “Follow Jesus or spend eternity somewhere you don’t want to.” “Ignoring Jesus? Well he died for you.” The guilt flows from these billboards like a flooding river in spring. One billboard I drive by consistently reads, “Do you have any idea where you are going? –God.” One practice I have taken to is answering “no” to its question every time I pass.
Driving home from the gym, “Do you have any idea where you are going?” “No”
Driving to a friend’s house, “No.”
Walking back home from an appointment, “No.”
I first started answering “no” because of the implicit meaning of guilt in the billboard. I can’t stand the way religion tends to use guilt and fear to justify sharing the message of God.
After I kept answering this way for a while, I began to find extreme comfort by answering “no.”
Our scripture today comes from Luke 3:10-14. It comes from the Baptism narrative of Jesus and the dialogue is between people being baptized by John and John as the baptizer. The people are inquiring, “Now that I have been baptized, what should I do next?”
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John Dominic Crossan’s lifelong study has brought him to the conclusion that Jesus was committed to learning from John’s way and in fact learned much of his practice of ministry from John. John has a message we hear it in this passage. “Clean up your act.” John shares this wisdom due to his belief that God is coming to clean up the world and you want to be cleaned up when that happens. John’s message is a lot like those billboards that drive me crazy. His message is full of guilt, trying to get people to act responsibly before God violently purges the world.[i] Jesus learned many teachings from John, but Jesus’ message was very different.
The peace I have felt saying “no” to the billboard has been strange. Each time I pass, it asks “Do you have any idea where you’re going?” I find I am now saying, “No.” And also, “Do you?” As if I am asking God for a reply to this existential question. Each time I ask, “Do you?” Thoughts run through my head of all the things that are going on in my life and directions to be chosen: family, friends, challenges, joys, fears, hope, the larger world, and even questions of my purpose.
In the scripture John gives different directions to the people who have come to be baptized. To the crowds, “Share your wealth.” To the tax collectors, “be honest, and stop stealing.” To the soldiers, “Don’t be bullies stop extorting people with your power.” To each group or person a new instruction is given and no single path is the right way.
When I was in college I was a part of a small United Methodist campus ministry. We met at the Methodist church and at friend’s houses. We prayed, shared in mission work, talked, and shared in meals together. There were much larger campus ministries and part of me always wanted to be a part of those. They had more people, more money, better music, and seemed to be so well organized. They were doing outreach with all sorts of groups and our campus ministries’ outreach seemed so limited by our size.
The reason I couldn’t join those other ministries was their message left me feeling like I was dripping with guilt. It was a lot like the message of John, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.” In those words alone there is nothing wrong. Repent means to think differently or to change your path. However, those other campus ministries’ “kingdom of God” is something I struggled with. Their understanding of the “kingdom of God” was a world in which everyone had to follow their way of thinking, believe what their God said, and didn’t provide room for a lot of questions. The reason their message made me feel gross is I couldn’t actively be curious about my God.
God in this context looked more like an abusive relationship, than a relationship of Grace being offered. I knew that if I was a part of one of these other communities I wouldn’t have conversation, argue or challenge the norm. Obedience was the key. To leave the community would be to risk the worst of fates, eternally risky. The icky feeling I got was because God didn’t feel like a safe place to be vulnerable, but instead a dangerous place to keep my guard up. Why would I want a relationship like that?
“Do you know where we are going? – God”
I wish the billboard on Helena Ave. was posted like this instead. This switch of questions is the same way Jesus switched his message from John’s message. Instead of “repent for the Kingdom of God is near,” Jesus message was “repent for the Kingdom of God is here.”
The thing I really envied about the other campus ministries in college were the diversity of people they were engaging with their faith. That they had found ways to share the experiences they were having with God. I wanted to share my experiences of God, but I just couldn’t find the vocabulary, the shared language to do it.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor in Denver, Colorado. If you see a picture of Nadia you won’t think pastor. She has more tattoos than anyone I had met prior to her. I interviewed with Nadia at one point, to see if I could complete my internship with her church. Some days, I really wish I had taken that internship. She is now a nationally known speaker on faith. Her church is called House for All: Sinners and Saints. This community she has worked to build is an incredibly welcoming community to all kinds of people. So diverse, that Nadia shares a story about how hard it was to accept people in khakis and polo shirts when they started to show up too.
In an interview online Nadia shared that she had the opportunity to engage in a clergy group with some evangelical and pentecostal leaders. She was the only mainline clergy in the group. She explains that at one point she felt “schooled” by these pastors because of the dynamic ways they were engaging with the poor in Denver. Often times the mainline churches(Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, etc.) claim they know social justice and are experts at it. Nadia experience is not always that and she states, “That sometimes evangelicals and pentecostals are able to share a message of the bible and of Jesus that is more connected to their hearts.” [ii]
The language Jesus shares in the scriptures is one of diversity and openness. It is an invitation to join together in the work of making the world a better place. The message of Christ is non-violent and filled with justice. Justice filled like John’s message to the people, the roman soldier, and the tax collectors. The message of Christ invites us to share God’s love by doing good and sharing love in community. Then Jesus asks us to take it step further. Christ invites us to pay it forward; because we can best feel God’s love when we are sharing God’s love.
Jesus doesn’t say to the Samaritan Woman at the well after offering her the life giving water of God. Oh, and only offer it the first Sunday of every month. Jesus doesn’t say to the man in Gerasine, whom he cured from the insatiable voices of demons in his mind, and if you don’t believe God did this for you the demons will be back. No! To both of these people he offered love and healing and said, “Go, share God’s Love.” And there was never a mention of a penalty if they didn’t go and share. Jesus invited people to partner with him, to dream with God about the potential for a better world.
The followers of Jesus way became so fond of the path that Christ laid out for them, they began to call it, “The Way.” I don’t believe they use this term to describe the “only way,” but instead to share their fondness and hope in the fruits of their practice. By practicing their faith they were beginning to see how God worked with people to share love, healing, and wholeness with the world. Jesus was the way they had learned and it was helping them grow toward God.
It wasn’t the only way. Jesus learned from John another way. Jesus learned the world had to be changed and that justice needed to be invited by those who asked for direction. However, Jesus learned also to invite some people who weren’t able to ask for the help they needed. The systems of the world silenced them and hid them away, as happens today. He would go to them and learn from them their pain, and then work with them for healing and wholeness.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech spoke words of hope to us. I know almost no one who is not inspired when they hear the words of Dr. King. His speech was deeply rooted in his tradition, our tradition of Christianity. The dream Dr. King shared was a world freed from race, freed from oppression, and where our children could live in peace.
This is our language! This is the language we need to share with the world.
The language: We are a people invited to partner with God. We are invited to dream with God about a just world. And we invite you to dream with us.
Bishop John Shelby Spong says, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”[iii]
Our Christian tradition gives us the language of Jesus and his Jewish heritage. A place to study, learn, dream of God, and invites us to work together with God.
May we be wise in our listening and conversing with God and not afraid to know the real question God is asking, “Do you know where we are going?”
God’s dream is that we might collaborate with God and see a future more whole than today. A future beyond boundaries, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other division we might see. May our continued community prayer be, “Which way should we go, God?”