This Is Who We Are

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, Mark 1.21-28). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including South Park, betting on Jesus, Weird Methodist Twitter, prophetic preaching, Deus Dixit, online communion, bookcases, Thrice, social media dunking, Taco Bell, demons, and questions of authority. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: This Is Who We Are

Love Is All You Knead

Psalm 78.1-4

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. 

Matthew 13.33-35

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

To what may we compare the scriptures?

Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?

Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door. 

The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.

So it is with the scriptures.

They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.

This is a parable about parables.

Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form. 

Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.

Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.

This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go. 

So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.

And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables. 

That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.

And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.

We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”

Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”

The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them. 

Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.

But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!

The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.

The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions. 

Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.

But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.

All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom. 

The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.

No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish. 

And the mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil, not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in a tomb, was raised three days later.

But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.

In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.

But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?

Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?

For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.

God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.

Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.

That’s 128 cups of flour!

When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.

But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.

The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.

Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.

No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.

The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it. 

But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next. 

We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.

Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.

Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.

And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.

Frankly, all of baking is a miracle. 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.

And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe. 

The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.

Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.

Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.

Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.

Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.

In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.

Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.

Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.

The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.

Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.

The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen. 

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

Eschatological Patience

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Jonah 3.1-5, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Mark 1.14-20). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including boredom, a eulogy for a fish, liturgical time, reading the WHOLE story, discipleship requirements, centering prayer, note passing, and God’s fishing net. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eschatological Patience

You can also check out Mikang and I “teaming” up for a devotional/musical video here: Let It Begin With Me

Offensive

Psalm 82

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

John 10.31-39

The Jews took up stones agin to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped form their hands.

Two scenes.

Imagine, if you can, two separate courtroom dramas.

BUM BUM (a la the theme to Law & Order)!

In the first, God sits behind the judgment seat looking out over a room full to the brim with God’s people. They have all meandered in, carrying their own hopes and fears, sins and shames, on their sleeves. They have been elevated to the status of angels because they, unlike the rest of humanity, have received the Torah. And yet they have taken this privilege and squandered it with injustice.

God smacks the gavel and all those gathered sink even lower into their chairs.

God declares, “What is wrong with all of you? How long will you continue to make such a mess of things? All I ask is that you give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the weak and the needy. For once you were no people but now you are my people – start acting like it!”

But they don’t.

They are more concerned with themselves than with others. They do whatever they can to rise to the top and care not one bit about what it costs. They walk around like a people stuck in darkness and they have no hope.

God shakes the very foundations of the earth from God’s divine courtroom and proclaims the verdict: “You are gods, you are children of the Most High, all of you belong to me. Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” 

Justice is served.

In the second courtroom, the tables have turned (literally). Now it is God’s people who sit in the seat of judgment and Jesus, God in the flesh, is the one on trial. 

Jesus has given his whole pitch, proclaimed the kingdom parabolically, as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he ends the head-scratching discourse (Consider: what good does it do for the sheep for their shepherd to give his life away?) with a reoccurring connection between himself and the Father.

And now the gathered faithful surround the accused: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they demand. “How long are you going to annoy us with your stories and cheap parlor tricks? Just tell us who you really are!”

They are looking for some good old plain truth. 

But there is nothing plain about Jesus.

Born God in the flesh to an unwed virgin in Bethlehem.

Heals the sick and feeds the hungry.

Elevates the lowly and brings down the mighty.

There is nothing plain about the Messiah, about a God who speaks from a burning bush, about the One who makes a way where there is no way.

“Look,” Jesus begins, “I have told you again and again who I am, but you don’t believe me. Have you not seen the wonders wrought through these hands? Have you not received parables about the coming and present Kingdom? Have you not witnessed the Father’s work here and now?”

The crowds of judgment bicker among themselves.

“Well, he did feed those 5,000 people…”

“My cousin told me that his friend’s coworker saw him make a blind man see…”

“I heard he can cast out demons…”

Jesus interrupts their discussion, “It’s simple really. The Father and I are one.”

That’s enough for the judge, jury, and executioner! They all rush forward to put him to death but Jesus merely lifts his hands and says, “I have done so many good things for all of you. For which of them are you going to kill me?”

They answer in unison, “It’s not for a good work that we are going to stone you to death, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

“I seem to remember another courtroom of sorts in the Psalms,” Jesus says, “when the Lord called those who received the Word gods. So can you really call me a blasphemer even though I have been sanctified and sent into the world as God’s Son? If you don’t think I’m doing God’s work then fine, don’t believe me. But, at the very least, you can believe in the things I do and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

And they rush forward to enact justice against Jesus, to kill him where he stands, but he escapes, again.

Here’s the matter at hand from the strange new world of the Bible today – Jesus is in a standoff with the religious authorities. He has told them who he is, he has demonstrated who he is, and they still do not believe. The whole of it feels on edge, like a powder keg ready to go off.

The people are dismayed, confused, and downright angry. They want to know when the truth will be revealed. They want to get a glimpse behind the curtain. They want to know who Jesus really is.

But Jesus’ answer fills them not with satisfaction, but with rage.

The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.

Jesus has equated himself with the Lord and the gathered people don’t like it one bit.

And yet, they want to kill him for it?

It can all feel a little exaggerated when we encounter this story, particularly when the Jesus of our minds is the hippie-dippy Jesus who just wants people to get along, a little more love in the world, and would be an excellent guest on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. 

But that’s not who Jesus is, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

Jesus was offensive.

Jesus was offensive to those who trusted in their own reason, in their own understandings of how things were supposed to go because he ran counter to just about everything they could think of.

Jesus was offensive to the practitioners of religious observance because he was forever eating dinner with outcasts, those deemed unclean.

Jesus was offensive to those who sat in the positions of power because with every passing parable and proclamation the calls for the first to be last and the last to be first sounded more like a threat and less like a theory.

But more than all of that, more than the taking people to task, more than upending all the expectations, more than dropping story after story that made things more confusing rather than more clear, the most offensive thing about Jesus to the crowds is that he equates himself with God.

Why should he, a nobody from a nobody town, be the Son of God?

Isn’t God supposed to be perfect, and clean, and morally pure, and removed, and distant, and holy, and hidden, and powerful?

And here’s this Jesus, who insists on spending time with the last, least, lost, little, and dead. He breaks bread with sinners, he dwells in and among the lowliest of the low, he reveals the secrets of the Kingdom, and he demonstrates his power, ultimately, through weakness.

What seems to disrupt and offend the crowds so much is the fact that Jesus points to a truth they can’t stand.

As my friend Kenneth Tanner put it this week: The poverty of God is the greatest wealth in the cosmos, the weakness of God in the human Jesus is the conversion of the world and stronger than any power visible or invisible.

And yet for the crowds, and even for us, that rubs the wrong way. We are a people who are drunk on the illusion of power than comes from human hands, from our own ways and means, but God comes in Christ to remind us that power, real power, comes not from a throne or from violence, but from the cross and from mercy.

And so the crowds rush forward to kill the One in whom they live and move and have their being and Jesus spins the scriptures right back in their faces – How can saying “I am the Son of God” be blasphemy if Psalm 82 does not hesitate to call “sons of God” those to whom the word of God came.

Apparently, even Jesus liked to proof-text every once in a while. 

Notably, the “gods” of Psalm 82 lose their divine-like status for failing to take serious the justice of God and here, in Jesus, the justice of God is made manifest to a people undeserving, namely all of us.

God is Jesus and Jesus is God.

God is at least as nice as Jesus, and at least as zealous as Jesus.

The hiddenness of God is revealed in the person of Christ. The incomprehensibility of God is made known through the life, the teaching, the parables, the miracles, the healings, the feedings, and ultimately the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Which, when you think about it, is rather confounding. Or, perhaps it would be better to call it offensive. 

It is all so offensive because while God in Christ is like us, God in Christ is also completely unlike us.

Consider – How does God in the flesh react to those who are hellbent on stoning him to death? 

Does Jesus respond with retribution and damnation and destruction? 

Does Jesus take up the sword to put people in their place? 

Does Jesus react the way we would?

No.

In the end, God in Christ responds to all that we do with, of all things, forgiveness.

And forgiveness can be the most offensive thing of all.

There’s this great YouTube channel I came across this week where they ask people to respond to a question in one minute or less. They’ve been interviewing theologians and pastors which makes the premise all the better because pastors and theologians aren’t known for their brevity.

Nevertheless, this week they asked Dr. Jane Williams where she finds hope in a time such as ours and her answer was perfect.

She said, “I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.”

The offensive nature of the gospel is both that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

It’s offensive, but it’s also the gospel. Amen. 

Nothing Is Private To God

Psalm 139.1

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

Stanley Hauerwas likes to opine on what the church would look like if, when we take tows of membership, we also shared our previous tax returns.

That he likes to raise this idea is a reflection on both his desire to get a rise out of people and his commitment to calling into question our fabricated distinction of the public-private divide.

For, if we were so bold as to share our tax returns, perhaps we would be a little more willing to share our resources with those in need a la the church in Acts 2. Or, maybe we would actually know more about the people in the pews with us (or watching online these days) than merely who they are rooting for the NFL playoffs. Or, perhaps we would take seriously Paul’s notion that we are one body with many members rather that a bunch of individual bodies who happen to attend the same church.

Thoughts on the private vs. the public have been a sore spot in the church since the Enlightenment such that, now, it’s not uncommon to hear some nonsense like, “I believe in God, but that’s just my personal opinion.”

Confessing the lordship of Christ is not a personal opinion, but rather it is a decisive political claim that will result in different thoughts, hopes, and behaviors for the individual and the community.

Whereas believing that belief is a personal matter allows people to go to church on Sunday and then live Monday through Friday as if what happened in church made no difference at all.

But for Christians, Christ is the difference that makes all the difference in the world. 

And yet, many of us cringe at the thought of revealing our finances to our church. But what about revealing who we voted for? Or, how about sharing our internet search histories? Are all of those off limits as well?

Admittedly, I don’t know how healthy it would be for churches to have access to every single bit of information about their respective congregants (the slippery slope toward works-righteousness is ever present), yet the covenant God has made with God’s church makes it bewilderingly difficult to keep anything private.

The psalmist declares, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” 

To God, nothing is private.

God knows our innermost thoughts and desires!

God knows our prejudices and our preconceived notions!

God knows our internet search histories!

God knows who we voted for!

Put simply, God knows us better than we know ourselves. 

And how does God respond with the total knowledge of God’s creation? Does God punish us for our ridiculous Facebook posts? Does God rain down destruction on those who silently judge others from afar? 

God responds by taking on flesh and dwelling among us, by taking on our very nature to save us from ourselves, by breaking forth from the grave so that we might no longer live under the reign of sin and death.

God responds to our shortcomings and sins before we even get a chance to come to grips with what our shortcomings and sins actually are! 

Grace precedes all things because God knows all things. 

But it is in the knowledge of grace, of knowing that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and won’t do for ourselves, that we begin to take steps toward a transfigured existence. When we see the lengths to which God was willing to go for us we can’t help ourselves from living in the light of his glory and grace. 

The Scandal of Particularity

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including biblical names, rare words, faithful mentoring, real fear, holy moments, being surprised by the church, the scandal of particularity, and the confounding nature of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scandal of Particularity

Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Back To Normal?

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

After Epiphany, on the other side of the magi making silly faces at the baby born King, the new parents were left alone with the incarnate Lord. Christmas came and went in that tiny little town of bread and life after Christmas started to settle in.

One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to get the hell out of Bethlehem because Herod was coming for the little Messiah. And so, being the good man that he was, Joseph took his family and set off for Egypt-land where they would wait until Herod died.

Meanwhile Herod, fueled by fear and megalomania, sent soldiers to the little the village of David with orders to kill any child under the age of two. 

Life after Christmas has always been one of the best, and one of the worst, times of year. The light of the world is born on earth setting the cosmos on a trajectory toward resurrection and reconciliation, and yet we are (often) hellbent on keeping things exactly where they are. We spend weeks (and sometimes months) preparing ourselves for our own Christmases only to take down the lights, get rid of the trees, and go back to life as before.

I was up on the roof this weekend, patiently moving along removing every strand of multicolored lights, when a neighbor walked up and yelled to me from the sidewalk. She offered some unsolicited advice about how the lights could’ve looked better had they been hung in a different way but then, after a rather pregnant pause, she said, “This is the worst time of year. I don’t want to go back to life before Christmas. I wish we could keep these lights and this feeling all year long.”

As Christians, life can’t go back to the way that it was and that’s good news! What makes it good news is the fact that, as the baptized, we have been deadened with Christ in order to have new life, and life abundant. 

The season after Epiphany, this strange nebulous time between Christmas and Lent, is a reminder that our lives are constituted by the Lord who is the light who shines in the darkness. It pushes and prods us to consider who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us and nothing (nothing!) can ever take that away.

Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken