The Presence Of God Is Awful

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dinosaurs in the New Creation, laughter, baptismal vows, Moana, Hildegard von Bingen, the power of words, divine fear, the jewishness of Jesus, acceptable worship, and true sabbath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Presence Of God Is Awful

The Church Of Tomorrow

Hebrews 11.29-12.2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.

Miracles do happen after all.

But astonishment?

No thank you.

We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.

And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?

“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”

How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!

Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word. 

But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.

But Rahab?

Do you know her story?

Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.

I wonder why they went there…

Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.

“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”

Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”

She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.

So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.

And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!

It’s downright astonishing!

But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.

Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future. 

The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.

But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness. 

We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me. 

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago. 

Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.

In short: you and me, we’re not alone.

We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. 

All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.

What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.

Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.

And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.

Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality. 

What we might call, the church of tomorrow.

Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.

The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”

To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now. 

Put simply: we’re different.

We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.

We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing. 

We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.

It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world. 

We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.

We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.

We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.

The church is God’s parable for the world.

We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.

The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone. 

The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.

The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!” 

I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.

The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.

You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen. 

Real Restoration

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 5.1-7, Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter handles, mysteries, This Here Flesh, dinosaurs, Narnia, vineyards, the invisible church, The Chicks, good gifts, rewriting the psalms, the faith hall of fame, martyrdom, division, and James Baldwin. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Real Restoration

Faith Doesn’t Paint Houses

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. 

We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.

Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.

Consider this church for a moment…

At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church. 

That had hope for things not yet seen.

They had hope for us.

Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.

I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.

Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.

We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.

And that’s faith.

Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.

But what is faith?

Better put, what makes faith faithful?

I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!

What is faith?

Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.

Faith is a possible wordle answer.

Faith is what keeps me going.

Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.

Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.

Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.

Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.

Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.

It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews. 

Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God. 

Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. 

Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his. 

What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.

It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out. 

I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”

“What’s a church?”

And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”

And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”

From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.

Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears. 

We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.

It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.

It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.

And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in. 

Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”

There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.

I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.

Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.

The only thing you have to do, is receive it.

Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.

Faith is merely a way of being.

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.

Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.

But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.

Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”

Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.

“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”

And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.

Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.

And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”

So what can you do?

You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.

So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.

But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.

Do you see? Faith doesn’t do anything.

Faith doesn’t paint houses. Painters do. Faith doesn’t fix the deck. Carpenters do.

Faith isn’t some special gadget that makes the impossible possible. Faith is just a trust in a person who can actually makes the impossible possible.

Faith doesn’t save us. Jesus does. Amen.

The Life Of The Party

Luke 12.35-36

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

We worship an odd God.

Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.

Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”

Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.

Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around.  The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.

Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.

Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.

It’s a strange parable. 

But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.

We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door. 

Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us. 

No wonder we call the Good News good. 

One Of Us!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us

Law & Gospel

Exodus 20.1-19

Then God spoke all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath of that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I regret picking the text I picked for a Sunday morning. I will be in the middle of the week, staring at a blank work document on my computer, and I’ll wonder how God is going to show up and make something of my nothing.

Case in point, last Sunday we looked at and talked about Moses’ call from the burning bush. That would’ve been a great text for Vacation Bible School Sunday. It would’ve been fun and even easy to talk about how God shows up, and showed up, in unexpected ways and places. I could’ve pointed toward all these holy moments from the Food Truck Party and then wrapped it all up with a, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

But no. I decided that this was the Sunday to preach the Ten Commandments.

You shall not murder.

You shall not bear false witness.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.

On and on.

So I spent the early part of my week wracking my brain, praying for the Lord to give me something to say.

And then, on Monday night, I was sitting on the floor of one of our classrooms upstairs, with all our wonderful children and youth, trying my hardest to convey the story of God providing the manna in the wilderness. But, before jumping into the Bible, I wanted to get their little minds working so I asked each and every kid, “What’s your favorite breakfast?”

And I received some good answers: Pancakes, French Toast, Lucky Charms.

But then one of the kids said, “My favorite is waffles, but I hate it when my Dad makes me eat scrambled eggs.”

Alright, I thought, no need to get worked up about it.

And then another kid shouted, “Donuts!” To which another yelled, a few decibels louder, “I want her answer because I love donuts more than she does!”

And then another kid, under his breath, said, “I would give my life for a donut right now.”

Bewildered by the dramatic events unfolding before me, I took a breath, and happened to glance at the wall above their little heads and there, for everyone to see, was a poster with the ten commandments.

And I realized in that moment, the kids had broken three of the ten!

The Ten Commandments. 

You shall not you shall not you shall not.

Why do we hang them up in our churches and in our houses? Why do we ask children to memorize them in Sunday school? Why does God hand them down to Moses on Mount Sinai?

Remember: Moses makes good on the call from the burning bush and leads God’s people out of slavery and captivity in Egypt to a new and strange land. They wander physically and spiritually complaining about how good they had it back in Egypt when God delivers the aforementioned manna in the wilderness.

They continue to wander under the witness of Moses until the Lord’s offers the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

And, for us today, we can certainly flip to Exodus 20 in our Bibles, or we can just look up to a cross-stitched rendering in someone’s living room or Sunday school class to know what they are.

But there’s a difference between what the Ten Commandments say, and their purpose.

Because, if you read the New Testament, Jesus and Paul decisively declare that they are not rules to regulate our behavior. They are not a weapon to wield over and against those who do not follow them. They are not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law is to do to us what I just did by telling the story of the kids in the classroom: to accuse us.

The Law reveals the truth of who we really are. Between the big L and little l laws, between thou shall not and it would be better if you did this or that, the law reminds us that, all things considered, none of us are how we ought to be.

And yet all of us are in the business of self-deception. We’re so good at rationalizing our wandering eyes, justifying our wandering hearts, and explaining away our wanton disregard for others. 

One of the more confounding parts of our behavior is our ability to know exactly what we should and shouldn’t do, from keeping up with the laundry to not looking at our phones while we drive, and we fail to do it. 

We don’t need someone like me to stand up in a place like this to tell us a whole bunch of stuff we already know: you need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using so much styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, take precautions on your dates, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.

We can have a preacher yell those things at us week after week, and we can put up the Ten Commandments all over the place, but we will still fail.

Listen: there’s another mountaintop moment in the Bible with a set of decrees. Instead of Moses this time, Jesus looks out at the gathered crowds and he says, “You have heard it said you shall not murder, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, even if you think about it, you’ve already guilty; unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, of the rule followers, then you will never enter Heaven.”

And then, at the end of ratcheting up the Ten Commandments, Jesus mic drops the final line: You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

Apparently, in the Kingdom of God there are no trophies for participation, no A’s for effort.

Therefore, if Moses’ and Jesus’ decrees are nothing more than lists of what we must and mustn’t do, then we’re all up the creek without a paddle. We’re a bunch of losers with no hope in the world.

Thanks be to God then, that the hope of the world comes to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

You see, the primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much about what we’re supposed to do.

The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is not a collection of principles on how to live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law, from Sinai to the instagramifcation of all things, holds up a mirror to our truest selves so that we are downright forced to come to grips with who we really are, and what we’ve done, and what we’re left undone.

In short, the function of the Law is to get to see ourselves with enough honesty and clarity that we ask ourselves, “How could God love me?”

Because when we are able to ask that question, we are close to the Good News.

God speak to us in two words, Law & Gospel, and we tend to confuse the two all the time.

And without knowing which is which, we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Be perfect. Never stop forgiving. Love your enemies. Stop your jealousy. Give away your possessions. On an on.

A church of the Law alone creates and cultivates a bunch of self-righteous people who are angry, miserable, and are never invited to the fun stuff.

It results in a cacophony of almost-Christians who are, in the end, nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Have you ever noticed how the most judgmental people are usually the ones with the most problems?

And yet, without the word of the Law, the Gospel becomes an empty promise. It’s all good and well to come to a place like this and hear about how God loves us. I hope and pray that if you do hear anything in church, it is those words. 

But what makes those words so staggering isn’t that God loves, but that God loves us.

When push comes to shove, each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all avoid doing things we know we should do, and we all do things we know we shouldn’t.

Which is why, when Jesus riffs on the need to forgive 70 x 7 times, it’s to point us toward the witness of the God who continues to forgive us.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies not because it makes everything better, though it might, Jesus commands us to love our enemies because Jesus, himself, loves his enemies: us. 

Which means, in the end, we need Law & Gospel. We need both because the first word pushes us to the second.

The Good News is not a bait and switch offer, it is not an invitation with strings attached, it is not a gift with an expectation of reciprocation.

If we leave church with more burdens than when we arrived, then grace cannot be amazing.

God knows you and me better than we know ourselves. God knows our inner thoughts and our knee-jerk reactions and our internet search histories, and God is still for us.

How odd of God to love a bunch of people who do not deserve it at all.

Being pushed from the Law to the Gospel is a truly wild and wonderful thing to do. And it is often nothing more than accepting, trusting, the incomprehensible Good News that despite all the reasons we shouldn’t be, we are indeed loved and forgiven. We are already home. 

That’s the life of grace – there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our goodness was actually rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk us because our life doesn’t measure up to the Law.

The real truth, the scandal of the faith, is that we can fail, miserably, and still live the life of grace.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s grace and love. Not our faults, not our vices, not us being brats all the time about things that don’t even really matter. Not even our doubts. 

As the old hymn goes, my sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul. 

One of our vacation Bible School participants, after a week of digesting the Word, approach me on our final night and said:

“So God loves me when I’m good but God still loves me when I’m bad just like Jesus loved all the people he fed with the loaves and the fishes? And God forgives me even if I do something I shouldn’t just like Jesus forgave Peter?”

“Yep. That’s the Gospel.”

“Well I don’t know what that words means, but it feels amazing.” Amen.

Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

The Call To Curiosity

Exodus 3.1-14

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up our of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honest, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What name shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”

God can be so frustrating.

There are times, maybe you’re better than me so you don’t know what I’m talking about, but there are times when I jump into the strange new world of the Bible and I just want to say, “C’mon God! Really?”

Moses is a good-for-nothing shepherd. And he doesn’t even have his own flock to look after. He’s working for his father-in-law. So we’ve got this guy, who needs a handout from a relative, working out and around Mt. Horeb, which means wasteland, and he encounters the burning bush. 

Or, better but, the burning bush encounters him.

Does it ever surprise you that the Lord needs numbskulls to bring about God’s will?

I mean, just take a cursory glance at just about any book in the Bible and you liable to come across someone who has no business being in God’s business and yet, that’s how God runs the show.

And that’s not even mentioning who God calls upon outside of the Bible.

To bring it close to home, there are 29 portraits of pastors right underneath us and there’s a better than good chance that the vast majority of them never thought they would have their picture up on the wall of a church.

And yet, here we are.

Sometimes I wish God would start calling better people for God’s purposes. Surely, the world could do to have the best and the brightest working for the kingdom. 

But, then again, if God only called the best, then I certainly wouldn’t be here, and neither would any of you.

John Calvin, who gets quoted across the street far more than here once said, “God is so great, that God is able to condescend to miserable people just like us to accomplish God’s good.”

How odd of God.

And, notably, it’s important to notice the distinction between “I found God,” and “God found me.” Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, people do, indeed, go looking for God but they usually go looking in all the wrong places whereas God shows up in the unexpected places.

Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, or even here about it in church, God is not the object of our religious journeys, waiting for us to finally have enough sense to take the right  steps or read the right book or get the right job or make the right choice. God is, instead, the instigator of God’s journey to us. From Eden, to the wasteland, to Bethlehem; God finds us.

And that’s why we keep reading these stories week after week, year after year. It’s why we prepare for Vacation Bible School and read scripture at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. We keep listening to the story of how God reveals God’s self to people who otherwise would have never known who God was or is.

And (!) to further complicate the confounding nature of the God who speaks from bushes and books, particularly as it pertains to preaching, is that only God can tell us who God is. It has to be revealed to us.

Listen – All is well in Egypt until it isn’t. 

God’s people grow in such size and strength that Pharaoh grows fearful and subjugates them. They are forced to work under the tyrannical rule of the empire and yet, they continue to prosper in power and number.

Pharaoh then decides to order the murder of every first born male among the Hebrew people. A young mother, fearing for her son’s life, places him in a basket and lets him float down the Nile river and, oddly enough, the basket is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who chooses to raise the boy and she names him Moses which means “I drew him out of the water.”

Raised in the confines, and under the protection, of Egypt’s ruler, Moses is given access to a life that none of his kinsmen will ever know. And yet, one day, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster whipping a Hebrew slave and, overcome with emotion, Moses reaches out and murders the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.

Moses flees for his very life, already a recurring theme, and he settles in the land of Midian where he marries Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, and begins to work for his new father-in-law.

So why, why in the world does God call to Moses from the burning bush? What’s so good on his resume, what kind of references did he list while seeking out employment with the Lord?

Moses really only brings three things to the table:

He’s in the middle of his mundane work, guiding the flock in the wasteland, when he turns aside to see the sight of the burning bush. In short, Moses is curious

That’s not much, all things considered, but to the Lord it is the difference that makes all the difference. Moses turns to take in something unexpected, and rather than lowering his head and getting back to the menial realities of life, he takes a further look.

He is like the proverbial worker surrounded by countless cubicles mindlessly typing away at a keyboard for a job that means nothing when a suddenly flickering in the window draws him up and away from his featureless desk toward the unknown.

It is good and right to maintain a healthy diet of curiosity, of keeping our eyes and ears tuned away from monotony. Be it a strange movie or meal or moment, God tends to work in the unexpected places in unexpected ways.

Or, as one of my favorite authors Haruki Murakami puts it, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, then you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

After Moses’ curiosity draws his gaze toward the bush, the next thing he does is wonder. The strange fiery foliage isn’t enough on its own, Moses wants to know why it burns but does not burn up. He is not content to let things be the way they are simply because they are that way, he probes further.

It is good and right to wonder about the workings of God. 

It does my ego good to remember that none of you come here with the great desire to hear preachments about the Lord, but instead you are here to daydream about God, to wonder, to ask questions, and rest in whatever answers you discover.

A couple weeks ago one of you asked me, after church, about the Apostles’ Creed and why we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” I won’t out you, but this person said, “Why do we say that? We’re Methodists, not Catholics.” And I gave the typical response, “it’s the lower-c catholic which means universal, we’re just saying we believe in the church writ large.”

This kind of question pops up all the time, but what struck me most this time was the fact that the person then said, “I’ve wondered about that my whole life, and I’ve never had the nerve to ask.”

Faith is a strange and wondrous thing that necessities wonder. That’s why the disciples are forever asking Jesus to elaborate on the kingdom of heaven, they want to know more.

Moses is curious and Moses wonders about this strange sight in the wasteland, and when the Lord sees Moses’ curiosity and wonder the Lord says, “Moses, Moses!” And he says, “Here I am.”

In short, Moses responds.

“Kick those sandals off your feet, we’ve got holy business to attend to. I am the God of your people, and the time has come to set them free and I have just the person for the job.”

“And who might that be?”

“You, silly goose.”

“Are you out of your mind? You’re a talking bush that’s on fire! And you want me to deliver the Hebrew people from Pharaoh?”

“Have no fear Moses my dear, I will be with you.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me fiery fig tree, or whatever it is you are, even if what you’re saying is true, no one will believe me when I tell them. I don’t even know your name.”

God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The rest is biblical history.

When it comes to the question of “Why Moses?” It doesn’t really matter. Sure, there are some bits to his history that make him a prime candidate for paradigm shifts, he spent time in Pharaoh’s court. In the end, who he is doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is that God is the one doing the calling.

You see, God does God’s best work making something of our nothing, of making a way where there is no way whatsoever, of making the impossible possible.

We, today, tend to view ourselves and one another through failures, mistakes, shortcomings. It is the negative that we carry around day after day. But to God, each and every one of us has a potentiality that can be made manifest in the kingdom of God.

Or, to use a very old adage, God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called.

Think about Moses! In just a few short chapters this would-be shepherd in the wasteland will be taking care of the flock of God, standing up to the tyranny of Pharaoh, delivering the Hebrew people to the banks of the sea waiting for the God of impossible possibility to do something.

It’s fun to pick on Moses, he’s an easy target. The rest of his tale paints the picture of his relationship with God like an old married couple who constantly bicker and fight and eventually reconcile. For what it’s worth, we read more about Moses than any other person in the Bible with the exception of Jesus. And yet, Moses’ story isn’t even really about Moses – it’s about the One who calls him.

I AM WHO I AM 

I love how quickly Moses moves from “Here I am,” to “Who am I?” His curiosity and wonder and response are all good and fine until he hears what the Lord wants him to do. And immediately, Moses has reservations. Who am I to do all of that?

Who am I?

Who are you?

Whatever it is your experiencing in your life right now, whether you feel like you’re wandering through the wasteland or making moves on the mountaintop, God calls miserable and merry people like you and me all the time. It might not be to deliver God’s people from the oppressive rule of a dictator, it might be as simple as the nudge to call someone who needs to feel loved, or the feeling that there’s something we can do to make a difference in this community. And it might not come through a burning bush, it might be as simple as the words of a hymn, or the silence of a prayer, or any other number of possibilities.

Or, as Paige Anderson so wonderfully put it to me this week, “Sometimes all we need in life is the tiniest sign from God to remind us of our purpose.”

What makes the story of the burning bush so good is the fact that, in the end, the call of Moses is a wild and ringing reminder that we don’t have to be saints to be of use for God’s kingdom. If we need anything at all, it’s a little bit of curiosity, wonder, the tiniest smidge of faith.

Faith not in ourselves or our abilities, but faith in the God who is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine.

If you ever feel like you’re not good enough, that’s fine. Because God is good enough for all of us. Amen.

The Good News Of Being A Burden

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 11.1-11, Psalm 107.1-9, 43, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including foolishness, church cohorts, robe wearing, books, fear, the redeemed, old sermons, the already but not yet, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, the grammar of faith, and identity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Good News Of Being A Burden