Restless Contentment

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John 6.35, 41-51). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, movie theaters, lectionary lamentations, character identification, Robin Hood, examples of inequity, divine patience, temporal politics, ecclesial commands, heavenly bread, and comics. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Restless Contentment

Stuck Together

Ephesians 4.1-16

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning. 

You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.

But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.

I don’t know if you know this, but the church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.

One pastor put it this way: “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the ways things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people talk like that about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences?

Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer hold onto a common cause.

And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.

So, friends in Christ, what should we do?

Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?

Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…

You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.

I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.

We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.

There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.

Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.

Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.

We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?

Strange, isn’t it? 

What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.

I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wow.

Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…

And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.

Never ever.

At least, not on our own.

We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. 

And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?

Is the Gospel really for all?

I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?

We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.

And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.

Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.

Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!

Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!

In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.

You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.

However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.

There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.

Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus.

The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

Faith is always a journey.

Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.

It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.

The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.

It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.

We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.

And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”

At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.

But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.

The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.

Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.

The Jesus Business

John 6.28-29

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.” 

I know of a Bishop (thankfully from another denomination) who used to be in charge of recruiting candidates for a local seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to ministry and he would end each and every single interview the same way: with a role play.

He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now… tell me why I should go to church…”

Throughout the years every candidate would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.”

Then the candidates would bring up something about reaching out to those in need. But the Bishop would say, “I’m an active member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”

Finally the candidates would make a comment about the power and priority of music in the church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

He recruited for a long time and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.

Contrary to how we might imagine it, the church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the community’s musical prodigies. We may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Which is just another way of saying: the only thing we have to do is trust (believe) Jesus. 

If the church is a business, then it is in the Jesus business. That is: we exist to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all we have wronged, that we are loved in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be, and that, in the end, we know how the story ends.

And that last claim is important. For, if we already know how the story ends, then we are freed from whatever fears and faults that terrify us. 

We are not the main thing in the church. The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified, God in the flesh born to live, die, and live again. And Jesus comes to do for us what we can’t, and won’t, do on our own.

It’s why we can call the Good News good. Thanks be to God.

Truth Hurts

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a, Psalm 51.1-12, Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including revelation, proper reflection, secret hearts, baptism, the joy of salvation, denominational (dis)unity, the population of heaven, honest love, good bread, and the power of enough. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Truth Hurts

The Mystery of Christ

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father.

For what reason, Paul?

This is one of the challenges with lifting up these discrete passages of scripture on Sunday mornings and declaring “The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.”

That’s all good and fine, but what’s the reason Paul feels compelled to his knees?

We can, of course, flip back in our Bibles to earlier parts of the letter to the Ephesians and we can read about God delighting in bringing those who were far and those who we near together through the blood of the Lamb, we can read about the riches of God’s mercy, we can even read about the proclamation of peace made possible in Christ, but here’s the real zinger: by grace you have been saved.

By grace you have been saved.

Paul calls this the mystery of Christ.

And what, exactly makes it so mysterious? That God, author of the cosmos, would come to dwell among us, to live, and die, and live again that we might do the same – that’s confounding stuff.

Notice, too, the language – by grace you have been saved – it’s done and decided, without us having to do much of anything save trusting that it is true.

That profound promise, that decisive declaration, is enough to get Paul down on his knees in humble adoration. He’s filled to the brim with joy and gratitude, his cup runneth over as it were, because God has done what we could not have even imagined.

That might be a little tough for us to come to grips with today, with 2,000 years of church history of knowing how the story ends. But during the time of Christ, no one expected the resurrection – not the crowds, not the religious elites, not even the disciples. And yet, Easter is the transformation of all things – death no longer has dominion over us.

By grace you have been saved.

Put simply – The work of God in Christ has made it such that there is no nation, clan, family, or even an individual who is beyond the love of God.

Or, in even simpler terms: even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

Now, I know that seems like an obvious thing for someone like me to say in a place like this, but it’s a rather inconvenient truth for us to swallow. For, it implies that we don’t deserve what we’ve received. And boy do we enjoy the language of fairness.

Well, for those of you unaccustomed, God is downright unfair.

God lifts up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

God has compassion for the poor and sends the rich away empty.

God takes brokenness and turns it in value.

God looks at sin and sees redemption.

And yet, God’s unfairness is riotously Good News! 

Listen – despite how well we might strive to appear on Sunday morning, each of us bring a myriad of secret hurts, private shames, and lost hopes to worship. Our exteriors may display something different, but on the inside we’re all struggling under the weight of the world, and the weight of expectations (those we place ourselves and those placed on us).

And yet, this is what God has to say today: By grace you have been saved! Bring your pain and your shame, bring your fears and your frustrations. By grace you have been saved! It’s not up to you to ascend the mountaintop of morality. It’s not up to you to earn your way through the pearly gates. By grace you have been saved! 

This is the whole of the Bible in a sentence. Whatever else we do, praying or singing, it’s all a response to this profound and mysterious word spoken to us by the Lord.

And in order to hear this Word, really hear it deep in every fiber of our being, we need what we call the church – the great company of those who are willing to listen together – to hear it and receive it. 

It’s not something we can just believe on our own – we need it spoken to us over and over again because, of course, it sounds too good to be true. 

And that’s exactly why we gather together, and pray together, and sing together, and laugh together, and weep together, it’s all so that we might hold fast to the only really Good News we can ever receive.

It’s therefore in the knowledge of the Good News that Paul is drawn to his knees in prayer – in prayer for us.

I pray that, according to the wonderful bounty of God’s glory, you may be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being reminded of the love that meets you where you are. 

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge. 

And so to him, who is able to accomplish far more than we can ever ask for or imagine, to him be glory in the church forever and ever. 

Paul prays, across the generations of the church, that we might come to know the immense and bewildering and mysterious nature of God’s love for us.

Remember: the God we see revealed in Jesus is what God is really like, deep down, which is also to say that the God we see in Christ is what God has always been like and will always be like.

What better way can we know what God’s love is like, then, by listen to a story that Jesus tells about himself?

Listen – There was a man who had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family – the little grocery store was passed from generation to generation and the father worked hard for the store and for his sons.

And one day the younger son walks in the back office and says, “Dad, I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

And, strangely enough, the father responds by dividing up his assets between his boys: to the elder hegiras the property and the responsibility of the family business – to the younger he cashes in on some investments in order to hand over his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of the money in Atlantic City. The more he spent the more he lost and the more he lost the more he spent, on women, on booze, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happens so fast that he starts begging the casino owner for work.

“Sure,” the owner says, we’ve got an opening in janitorial services.

The younger son spends the days emptying trash can after trash can and even thinks about sneaking a few pieces of food from the bottom of the bags because he’s so hungry.

And eventually he comes to himself – he realizes that even the employees back at his father’s grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their head. So he packs up the little that he has, and he heads home.

The father is sitting by the front window in the grocery store, listening to his older son bark out orders to his former employees from the back room when, all of the sudden, he catches a glimpse of his younger son walking up the street. And he immediately runs out the door, tackles his boy to the ground, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy struggles to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Would you shut up!” The father yells, “We’re gonna close the store for the rest of the day and throw a party!”

He lifts his boy off the ground, pulls him into the store, and starts barking out orders of his own, “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “Hey Jim, do me a favor, find me the nicest rack of lam we’ve got and start roasting it out back” “Everyone, it’s time to celebrate, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

The beer caps start flying, the radio in the corner gets turned all the way up, and everyone starts rejoicing in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and the payroll, when he starts to hear commotion down the hall. He looks up in the door frame and catches a glimpse of Jim with foamy beer stuck to his mustache while humming a tune and carrying what looks like a nice leg of lamb and the older brother shouts, “What is going on?”

Jim hiccups and says, “It’s your baby bro, he’s home, and your Dad’s throwing him a party.”

The older brothers fists tightens into a knot and he slams the door in Jim’s face.

With every passing minute his frustration and anger increases. He evens throws the older ledger book across the office, and then he hears a little knock on the door.

His dad steps into the office and says, “What are you doing back here? You’re missing the celebration!”

The older son is incredulous: “I’m doing my job Dad, in case you’ve forgotten. Look, I’ve been working like a slave for you and I’ve never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me! But this prodigal son of your returns home, having wasted all of your money, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father doe-eyed happiness disappears for a moment, he grabs his older son by the collar, and says, “You idiot. I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me. You’ve been working for yourself! I gave your brother cash and I gave you the family business and what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by doing what you think you’re supposed to do that you’ve lost sight of what matters.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now! I’m on a roll. Listen – all the matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you? You’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the music! The only real reason you haven’t come to join us out front is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectation that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time, and you’re alive and miserable. Do yourself a favor, son of mine, forget about your so-called life, and come have some fun.”

The parable of the prodigal.

A story we might call unfair…

This story shows us the mystery of Christ – The father chooses to die for us, to give away his whole career and future in the parable, whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. And like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteous snobbery.

The mystery of Christ, contrary to how we often present it in church, is that Jesus came to save sinners.

And notice: Jesus didn’t say he came to judge sinners, or even turn them into non-sinners, he said he came to save us.

The whole of the New Testament, from the parables to the epistles, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ salvation work only by grace through faith – not by frightening people into getting their acts together.

If the Gospel is about anything – it is about how God meets us where we are, not where we ought to be.

In the end, it’s a mystery. It also happens to be the only Good News around. Amen.

The Strange Familiar

John 6.5-6

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.

Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.

Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).

And then Capon brings the story home:

“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.” 

Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:

Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.

Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.

“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable. 

The Power of Power

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power

Beyond Belief

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that your were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with it commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grow into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

It was a warm summer night in Washington DC. Eight friends gathered around a table in the backyard of one of their homes, there was wine and appetizers, and toasts were being made back in forth in celebration of all the good things they had going for them.

“We didn’t want the evening to end,” one of them remarked later.

But around 10pm the festivities came to a screeching halt.

A strange man wandered into the backyard with a gun, he raised it to the head of one of the guests, and demanded money.

He kept shouting for them to empty their pockets and his screaming got louder and louder.

But there was a problem.

No one had any cash.

Again, they were friends gathering in a backyard.

But their pleas for understanding only further aggravated the assailant and they all grew fearful that something terrible, truly terrible, was about to happen.

But then one of the women at the table said, rather casually, “You know, we’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine and join us?”

It was like a switch was flipped in the backyard and everything changed.

All of the sudden, the look on the man’s face transformed dramatically.

He sat down at the table, a class of wine was placed in front of him and he took a sip. He remarked about how good the wine was and then he reached for some bread, and before long he put the gun in his pocket.

They gathered back around the table, with one extra guest, and they continued their evening.

After some time the man said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” 

They all sat in silence, listening to the insects chirping in the air.

And then he said something that no one was expecting: “Can I get a hug?”

One by one, the friends stood up and eventually they were all embracing in the backyard.

Later, the man apologized for what he had done and walked back out onto the street, still carrying the glass of wine as though it was now a part of who he was.

I first heard this story on an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, and the hosts of the pod were quick to cite this backyard encounter as an example what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. Basically, the idea is that people naturally try to mirror one another so if someone is acting really hostile and someone is very calm, one of them will change to match the other, for good or for ill.

But in the church, we call what happened in that backyard faith.

Because faith isn’t just something we have, faith is something done to us.

Put another way: faith is a gift.

Later, when one of the backyard guests was sharing the story with the hosts of Invisibilia, he said, “We had no idea that words – an invitation to celebration – could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like a miracle.”

It was like a miracle.

Why are you here? Some of you are here because you’ve gone to church for as long as you can remember and you can’t really imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you have questions that you want answered. Some of you are here because life has dealt you a raw hand and you’re hoping to hear some Good News. And still yet, some of you are here against your will! Someone else brought you, or dragged you here.

Well, no matter why you’re here, hear this:

Remember that at one time you were without Jesus, you were strangers to the covenant of promise. Remember that at one time you had no hope whatsoever and you were without God in the world.

But now. But now! In Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, what we proclaim as the Good News in church today about what God has done to us, it should shock us. 

That we, the church, with all of our disparate ideas and ideologies, that we exist is almost beyond belief.

I mean, take a look around, consider even those who are worshipping with us online, we come from different places with different backgrounds, we are different ages and we make different wages. That such a group can gather together to worship God is, in fact, beyond belief, because we do not have to believe in something that we can see.

Even amidst all of our warts and bruises, all of our faults and failures, it matters that we are here.

It matters because we are what God has done.

We don’t know much about the circumstances regarding Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to deduce that the community addressed was struggling with the stunning and, perhaps unbelievable, revelation that even Gentiles were included in kingdom of God. 

Two hostile groups, Jews and Gentiles, have been brought together by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

And, notice the language – have been brought together.

It’s already done and decided.

Imagine, if you can, how shocking and bewildering it must’ve been to receive this Good News. That people, namely Gentiles, who had no business and standing whatsoever with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were now incorporated into the promise. 

It cannot be underscored enough how outside the realm of possibilities this was. It was one thing for a first century carpenter turned rabbi to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, the long awaited One. But it’s another thing entirely that by the blood of that One who came to live, and die, and live again that peace could really reign supreme.

We, today, might think that being Christian merely means that we come to church on Sundays. But Paul seems to have a much greater and deeper vision for what the Ekklesia is, and can be. 

Our existence here and now is already radically related to God’s beyond and all that we do and experience is redefined in the light of God’s future because of God’s past.

Hear it again – There were people in the world without promise, without hope, and without God.

We were those people!

But now we are no longer those people because we belong to God. And not just us! God delights in drawing all things and all people into the new reality we call the Gospel.

All of these distinctions between them and us, Gentile and Jew, Pharisee and Publican, unbelievers and believers, outsiders and insiders, they are all upended in the One who is our peace. 

Contrary to how we often act, or believe, we can only become part of God’s family through adoption. No one comes to Christianity naturally – it runs so counter to everything the world teaches us. Christians, as the early church leader Tertullian put it, are made, not born.

Christianity, at its best, is a system of habits and practices that teach us, over and over again, who we are and whose we are. And it really is we. We, who at one time were not part of the gathering, of the ekklesia, received an undeserved inheritance. We had no hope in the world but now we’re heirs to the great fortune we call salvation.

And, again, notice how all the verbs are passive. That is: they convey the completion of God’s action.

Which is rather notable!

Paul doesn’t say we decided to join this gathering, or that we made a commitment to God, but instead he says we were built, we were joined together.

All of this isn’t something we do. It’s something done to us. 

In the church we call it grace.

In the end, we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live this way on our own. And I don’t just mean the fact that we wake up on Sunday mornings to hang out with people we share little in common with except that Jesus calls us friends. But the act of the discipleship, of following Jesus, it comes not when we decide to take a step toward him, but when we realize that he stepped toward us first. 

For a long time it was just assumed that people became Christians simply by virtue of growing up in a place like this. 

Those days are long gone.

We are now strangers in a strange land, navigating the murky waters of an unknown time for the church. And yet, this is Good News! It is Good News because we have the blessed opportunity to really reflect on what it actually means to be the church and who God is calling us to be. 

Being a Christian isn’t natural. It runs counter to the ways of the world. Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? We are different.

However, we have often tried to avoid the differences that make us different. We don’t want to appear strange, or evangelical, or like those other kinds of Christians (whoever they may be). We’ve been content to let our faith be something that happens on Sundays and only on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it’s been unclear why anyone would want to be like us.

Jesus is the difference who makes us different. 

And he is the One who makes it such that we can be here together even though we are different. 

I said in the beginning that some of you might be here because you’re looking for something, but maybe you’re actually here because something (or rather someone) was looking for you.

Again, our text from Ephesians is full to the brim with God’s actions. 

It is God who has called us here. It is God who has made the impossible possible. It is God who has incorporated all of us into something we would never choose on our own. It is God who has destroyed every dividing wall. And it is God who has established bountiful avenues of connection.

Being here, being part of God church, is only possible because God made it so.

I hope you hear those words as a tremendous comfort because, in the end, our relationship with God is not predicated on how we feel, or what we say, or how we act. Our relationship with God is based entirely on what God in Christ has already done!

I know I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to know that not all of us act like perfect Christians all the time. But that’s not the point! The point is that God, who chose us before the foundation of all things, has called us to be part of the unbelievable gathering we call church.

And it is through the church that we come to know peace.

I mean, that’s a stunning claim! In addition to God’s strange desire to bring a motley crew together like us, Paul writes that we can know peace, that we can really know peace because we know Jesus who is our peace.

It happens to all of us, at one point or another. We think we can go about our merry way doing whatever we want whenever we want when, all of the sudden, Jesus grabs hold of us. 

For some, the grabbing comes like the end of a shepherd’s staff yanking us away from our own foolishness.

For others, the grabbing comes through a particular prayer, or person, or proclamation, in a particular moment.

And still yet, for some of us, the grabbing comes through the offer at a table, to sit down and enjoy the bread and the cup because we’re got something to celebrate. 

In the end, part of the witness of the church is to a set of words – an invitation to celebration – that can grab hold of us and change us. It’s like a miracle. And we’re the proof. Amen. 

Look Up!

Mark 6.30-31

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 

Have you ever seen Norman Rockwell’s 1957 painting “Lift Up Thine Eyes”? It portrays the sidewalk outside of a cathedral in a busy city in which all of the passersby have their heads bowed not in reverence but in distraction.

You can see the burdens of the world in their posture and in their gaze but behind them, up toward the doors to the sanctuary, a solitary church figure is replacing the letters on a small sign that says “Lift Up Thine Eyes” and no one seems to be getting the message.

The painting haunts me.

It haunts me because life, it seems, has done its worst to the people passing by. Shuffling to and fro they carry the burden of their burdens – some are on their way to work, other are perhaps looking for work, and all of them can only see what’s right in front of them: a dirty sidewalk trample upon by countless footsteps.

And yet, what haunts me most is the fact that even though the painting was completed 64 years ago, it is still just as relevant today! Simply put a smart phone or an iPad in every person’s hand and you’ve got a modern Rockwell for 2021.

It should come as no surprise that many of us have spent far more time on devices over the last year and a half than we ever had before. The pandemic cloistered us away from one another such that the only way we could really interact was through a phone (that most people no longer even use as a phone!). This dramatic increase in usage has led to the dramatically ironic arrival of Zoom webinars on “Zoom Fatigue”, silent meditations apps only accessible as podcasts, and week-long digital conferences on the dangers of devices.

I was talking with someone the other day and she casually remarked about how hungry she was, and when I asked what she had for lunch she responded: “I was so busy on my computer that I forgot to eat.”

And it’s not just our addiction to our devices – getting rid of them, or hiding them away for a few hours a day, doesn’t rid of of the weight of the world that we carry around all the time. We carry the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world places on us. We carry the sins and the shames of our past (and our present). We carry the terror of tomorrow and the fear of the future. 

And yet, when we return to Rockwell’s painting – the majority of the scene is in reference (and reverence) to something more. The top portion of the painting displays doves (a sign of the Holy Spirit) almost floating in the air, the saints of the cathedral stand in defiance to the burdens of life, and the church door stands awkwardly open barely beckoning anyone to discover what’s on the other side.

Perhaps what the people in the painting need is an interruption – a person who can meet them where they are and who can show them where they can be, a person who can break into their brokenness to bring relief, healing, and even joy.

Thanks be to God, then, that that’s exactly what we get in the person of Jesus Christ. For, God looked down upon our sins and our shames and chose to become one of us in order to redeem and rectify us. God still looks down upon our imperfections and our shortcomings and calls for us to lift up our eyes not to unattainable achievements or superior morality or continued suffering, but instead God calls for our attention to be lifted to the Cross, to the One who lifts us out of our navel-gazing and into the strange new world made possible by God.

The Temptation of Domestication

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-14a, Psalm 89.20-37, Ephesians 2.11-22, Mark 6.30-34, 53-56). Our conversation covers a range of topics including sabbath scriptures, God’s presence, corporate worship, confronting control, the faith that moves, profound peace, crazy covenants, Taize tales, Jesus’ friends, and compassion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Temptation of Domestication