Listening to the Preacher

The preacher told this story:


“I gathered with a few neighbors to help a family that had been evicted from their home. We picked up their belongings from the heap into which it had all been tossed on the sidewalk. We loaded a rented truck and headed to the storage unit. Suddenly, the driver turned and said to me, ‘Why does God hate me?’


“His question launched a longer confession about his identity as a queer person and about what he had been told by Christians about God, heaven, hell, and hate. All of that revealed a sad confusion about Jesus, God, and grace.”


The answer to his question and the antidote to the bad news he had been given is the Good News as described and defended throughout the New Testament. So said the preacher, as he opened his Bible to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and started to read:


“Surely you have heard about … the mystery made known to me by revelation …. that …  the Gentiles are heirs with Israel … and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (3:2-5).


This was a bold claim by the great apostle and fiercely resisted by many. It precipitated the first large conference of believers called to address this matter: are the very people we have been taught all our lives to exclude from God’s favor now on the invite list? Really?


Such a Gospel is controversial in every age. The people we thought excluded, that we were certain are denied access, that we deemed unworthy for some reason of race, relationship, idea, or behavior—these people are, in fact, the very ones included by God in the grand design of the universe.


Both the apostle and the preacher camped on this concise sentence: “I became a servant of this gospel …. (3:7). He emphasized the word THIS.


I stayed there myself for quite a while, sitting on the verbal fulcrum of this exposition of all that is true, noble, right, pure, and lovely (to quote Paul in another place).


“THIS gospel” is a phrase I had never noticed, not through all the times of reading, listening, teaching, and even preaching this text. I only wished I had seen it, heard it, and embraced it years ago.


Not every preacher affirms “THIS gospel” of inclusion, of expanding mercy, of boundless grace, of no-holds-bared hospitality to all people. In fact, our churches are known more for excluding people than including people.


We have great skills in defining how and why certain people are excluded: their worship is not quite right, their color doesn’t meet our standards, their marital status compromises our rules, their doctrine fails one test after another.  You name it, and we have, at some time or another, found a way to exclude them from our Christian fellowship, from our church membership, from our communion service, from our holy circle of self-righteous people. I am not a servant of THAT gospel.


Like Paul, I want to be a servant of THIS gospel—this gospel of reaching out to all those branded by some well-meaning gospel interpreter as too loose, too liberal, too lost, to something.


The preacher brought his message to a powerful conclusion by reading again the words of the apostolic letter: “I pray that you may … grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God, and … that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:17-19).


As he read these marvelous words, he pointed to the wide expanse of Atlantic water lapping the southern shore of St. Simons Island a few hundred feet from the pulpit.


“Sometimes I sit on the beach and stare at the horizon,” he said. “that place where water and sun form the boundary between what we can see and what we can’t. You think it marks the edge of something; but when your journey takes you to that spot, you discover there is more—more sky, more sea, more space, more everything, yet another horizon a long way off. So it is with the love of God: just when you think you have located the edge of it, you discover that it goes on and on.”


That is my paraphrase of what the preacher said; but this is verbatim what he read; “Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power at work in us, to THIS God be glory…” (3:20).


So, on Monday morning, in obedience to his implied command, I took my dog to the beach. I gazed at the only horizon in sight and contemplated all the grace and glory that lies beyond. I whispered a thanks that I also have been called as a servant of THIS gospel.


My dog didn’t notice, of course. He just wanted me to throw the ball. But that also made me happy.