The field of moral psychology endeavors to understand why people make moral choices and the rationale they use to justify their choices. One of moral psychology’s recurring findings is that we have a higher opinion of ourselves than we ought to have. Of course, St. Paul arrived at the same conclusion about human nature nearly 2000 years ago when he wrote that very same message to the Church in Rome (Romans 12:3).
Experiments and surveys have repeatedly shown that we believe we possess attributes that are better or more desirable than the average person. For example, we believe by a wide majority that we’re above average drivers. The same is true when we’re asked about a virtue such as honesty. A high percentage of us report that we’re more honest than the average person. Even folk in jail for theft report such superior honesty. High school students consistently judge themselves to be more popular than average. And nearly every state claims that their average student test scores are above the national average. Of course, since we know something about statistics, we know that such judgments about ourselves cannot be true.
Moral psychologists have termed this phenomenon The Lake Wobegon Effect. It’s named for the fictional town of Lake Wobegon from the radio program A Prairie Home Companion, where, according to host Garrison Keillor: “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
What these moral psychologists are documenting is as old as humanity. Our tradition names it as sin born from the cardinal sin of pride. Our creation story reminds us that Adam & Eve were quite clear that their judgment about a particular fruit in the Garden of Eden was superior to God’s judgment.
This truth about ourselves needs to be front and center when we spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yes, when sharing our faith with those who aren’t Christians we do need to have a “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” quality to it, because we do “know something they don’t know” when it comes to God’s grace in Jesus. But it’s how we share our faith with others that matters. It should be humble. We’re not morally superior to those outside the Christian faith. We may not even be morally above average.
So, from this humble stance, what is it we are to share?
I want to propose three Bible verses that will help remind us of how we should spread the Good News of Jesus.
The first verse is Isaiah 55:1: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and drink!
Notice how the Prophet Isaiah pronounces God’s word here. Everyone who thirsts is invited. All should come and drink and eat without money or price. God’s invitation to humanity is complete and without condition. Isaiah’s prophecy is a bold declaration of God’s intention, made perfect in Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, that Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross will draw all people to himself.
That means Jesus is doing the drawing. Our congregations then must be places where we’re trained for our role, not Jesus’ role. It may be a conversation you have in the living room at Columba House. It may be you comforting an exhausted Scout Leader after his troop meets one night at your church. It may be you listening to a co-worker over coffee about her current troubles. Whenever and wherever, we need to say to everyone in our communities: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come!”
The second verse is Isaiah 25:9: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”
Spreading the Good News involves us waiting for God to act. Our salvation, indeed the world’s salvation, isn’t our own doing. But our waiting should never be passive. It must be an active waiting, all the while recognizing that salvation is God’s action and God’s property, not ours.
If we remember that, then we’ll maintain a humble stance with those outside of our faith. Even though the Gospel is God’s bold declaration to the world, we should be compassionate and tender in how we share it, because we know many people have only received a false, toxic version of the Gospel.
Waiting for God to save is actually liberating. We’re free from playing the age-old game of who’s in and who’s out. We can collaborate with anyone, regardless of their faith, if they’re willing to do Gospel work with us in our communities.
If someone wants to partner with the Food for a Thousand Ministry at St Patrick’s, Albany or the community garden at the Oak Street Mission in Thomasville, we won’t worry if they don’t share our faith. We’ll feed hungry people with anyone. The Community Cares Café in Darien serves children whether or not they or their parents believe as we do. After all, we’re not on God’s “Program Committee.” We’re on God’s “Welcoming Committee.”
“Lo, it is God who saves us.” And we’ll share that Good News with anyone.
And the third and final verse is Matthew 28:19: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s not a liturgical accident that each Sunday our deacons send us out with this short, powerful verb: “Go!” “Go” doesn’t mean, “stay.” “Go” doesn’t mean hang out inside the church walls until somebody shows up. And “Go” doesn’t mean being so hamstrung by political correctness that we refrain from sharing with others God’s forgiveness in Jesus. “Go” means, “Go!”
Go into the communities of this diocese with a “humble boldness.” Go share good news with the poor. Go tell the spiritually blind that God wants to give them sight. Go speak to the spiritually thirsty and let them know how you’ve learned that Jesus is the Water of Life.
Go to everyone. Go to the NSA, the NRA, the NAACP, the Rotarians, the Elks Club, the Booster Club, the Garden Club, the Optimist’s Club, the Pessimist’s Club, just Go! Wherever God has placed you, Go!
When we actually do go, God does some amazing things.
- The community youth group in McIntosh County decided to go and this last year we baptized five young people.
- The Cornerstone Ministry in Augusta chose to go and now regularly has 35 or more youth participate. And some of those aren’t members of our churches. They’re being evangelized by our youth.
- In the summer when we go to Lake Blackshear with the Good News, people respond. Because the people of Christ Church Cordele decided to go, their worship attendance has doubled in the last few years.
What might God do in our communities if we all decided to “go?” Because when we “go,” we discover God’s already there. When we go to the ends of the earth or just to the end of our block, we find Jesus already pitching his tent there.
My friends, I firmly believe that the future vitality of this Diocese is directly related to our collective willingness to “go.” Our vitality will only grow in direct proportion to the number of us who are willing to “go.” And, this going can’t be a clergy-centered movement. A few laity still think that since we pay many of our clergy to go, they themselves don’t have to go. But that’s not true. The clergy’s primary task is to equip the laity to be the ministers of the Gospel. As the great lay teacher & preacher Verna Dozier wrote: The layperson’s primary function is out there in the world. And the wise Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote: Nine-tenths of the Church’s work in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.
That means when we “go,” we don’t go to church, we “go” to the people and places of our lives taking the Good News of Jesus with us. And if the Good News of Jesus saves us, it will save anybody and everybody.
I know I’ve gone a bit long here, but please stay with me for a few more minutes. I want to end on a personal note. Some of you know that I was diagnosed with cancer two months ago. I’m happy to report to you that I’m cancer free today. And I’m most thankful for all of your prayers. I felt each one of them.
The Diocesan Staff has been amazing, as usual, dealing with their already full responsibilities while also picking up after me, which is nearly an impossible task.
I also couldn’t do even one small thing as the Bishop of Georgia if it weren’t for Kelly, who puts up with me even as I am and loves me anyway, far beyond what I deserve.
There were upsides to my getting cancer. It’s been a great excuse for getting out of stuff. When someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, all I had to do was say: “You know, I’d love to, but I have cancer.” That worked every time.
The other upside is that it’s sharpened my mind and soul. It’s helped me see how often I’ve taken for granted the truly wonderful people and blessings that surround me.
And cancer has helped me get clear about what I want my life to stand for and how I want to spend the rest of my days on this earth, however long that is.
So, to quote that wonderful hymn by the Reverend James Cleveland:
Right now, I don’t feel no ways tired!
I’m ready to “go!” And I hope you’re ready to “go,” too.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters”
“Lo, this is our God who has saved us.”
“Go, make disciples”
Deacons, please stand now wherever you are. Please help me dismiss all of us from this overly long address with one powerful verb. It begins with a G and it ends with an O. On the count of three: One, two, three – Go!