Wrestling With God

Mark 9.36-37

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

When I was serving my first church I would gather in the sanctuary with the church’s preschool students every Wednesday morning for Chapel Time. Each week I endeavored to bring them on a journey into the strange new world of the Bible so that they could learn more about God and more about themselves. 

I used the lights in the sanctuary and little hand held candles to talk with them about the gift of light that God gives to us (Genesis). We played hide and seek among the pews in order to remember the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes of Eden (also Genesis). I even had them line up in the center aisle to play “Red Light/Green Light” and drew a somewhat loose connection to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (also also Genesis).

And then one particular Wednesday, I sat down in the sanctuary with the kids to teach them one of my all time favorite stories – Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. A brief refresher: Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to re-encounter his brother for the first time in a long time. But before Jacob can meet his fate in Esau, a strange figure appears late in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lessons. And it’s during this ordeal that Jacob receives a new name: Israel (which means: you have struggled against God and prevailed).

In order to really bring the story to life I had the kids line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wrestling match. Each of them came forward and gave it their best shot and I would pick each of them up and spin them in circles above my head. But when our final two-year-old came forward I let him knock me to the ground.

But, strangely enough, while all the other kids were cheering for my defeat, the two-year-old in question wrapped his little arms around my neck and whispered, “I’m sorry Pastor Taylor.”

And so it was that, without planning for it to happen, I was able to take him up in my arms and say to all of the kids, “God loves us so much that even when we wrestle with God, God never lets us go.” 

To be a Christian today carries a degree of wrestling and struggling. It is challenging to take up the words of the strange new world of the Bible and compare them to this world; there is a friction between the Good News of scripture and the bad news that bombards us every day. 

We want to know why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people. We want to know that better days are ahead because we’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges. We want to know that children won’t fall asleep hungry at night, and that systems of oppression will be destroyed, and that justice will rain down like mighty rushing waters. 

Jesus never promised that any of this would be easy – but he did promise to be with us, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God. 

An Understanding Mind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind

Even Us

Mark 8.34

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.

But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us. 

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. 

But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.

“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”

As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.

And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.

“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”

A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people. 

Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.

And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.

God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.

Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.

Because none of us deserve him. 

She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even. 

Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.

But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?

Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.

And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.

Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”

When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”

And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”

Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.

In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.

Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.

The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.

There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.

And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.

I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since. 

A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.

And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.

Until that night.

The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”

The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help. 

She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.

They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”

He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her. 

She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in. 

Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.

We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.

But that is the heart of grace.

We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.

People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us. 

God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.

God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace. 

One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate. 

And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen. 

Those Who Can’t Teach, Do

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 1.20-33, Psalm 19, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Street Church, wisdom, frightening faith, vision processing, preaching cliches, the sanctity of silence, communal affirmation, cross bearing, the present of presence, and mic drop moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Those Who Can’t Teach, Do

What’s In A Name?

Proverbs 22.1

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver and gold. 

Names are important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost everything else. 

There is a huge difference between, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you!” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to who we are that they shape us and shift us around in ways that we don’t even realize. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major storm are far more likely to donate money than people with other names. Therefore, Kims and Karls donated more money after hurricane Katrina than did Marys and Matthews. 

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the Cocktail Party Effect. The idea is that, when you’re at a party even with hundreds of people in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room you’ll hear it. Somehow your name will rise above the decibels of the room and it will float along until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else can.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “REVEREND!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he gave me a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “Well I saw your Bible sitting there and I figured you had to be Reverend and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your for attention for a minute or so and you never responded. Are you sure you’re a Reverend?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, and I didn’t hear him at all. 

I can blame it on being distracted by my work, or even the relative noise of the coffee shop, but the truth is I understand myself as a Taylor far more than I do as a Reverend. 

Our parents give us our names – the ones that usually draw our attention. But God has also given each of us new names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all or we’ve forgotten who we actually are: children of God.

But when we remember who we are in Christ, it actually changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. We are given a new identity and a new community in which we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone – Instead we are defined only by what God in Christ has done for us. 

People Are People Are People

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23 , Psalm 125, James 2.1-10, 14-17, Mark 7.24-37). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio jokes, extension ministries, vacation reads, library organization, meme material, complex personalities, do goodery, collective homilies, partiality, crumbly faith, and the little things of life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Are People Are People

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.