Mitchell

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

John 3.16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing. He wanders around Galilee, making the impossible possible, telling parables of prodigals and publicans, and confronting cantankerous clergy. And, at some point, crowds begin to follow. Within these crowds are the disciples, the ones called by the Lord to a different life. And these disciples, the ones who are supposed to have this stuff all figured out, they keep interrupting with questions. 

Hey JC, when will this kingdom of yours actually start? 

Teacher, did you really say we need to turn the other cheek?

Lord, who will make it into heaven?

The disciples, to their foolish credit, assume they’ve already made the cut. They, after all, left it all behind to follow Jesus. So what they really want to know is, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

It’s a good question. 

And Jesus answers by picking a random kid out of the crowd and lifting him up. 

It’s a strange moment in the strange new world of the Bible.

All these grown up with their grown up ideas and grown up hopes and grown up assumptions, they stand and watch Jesus take hold of a little kid and he says, “If you want to get into heaven, you have to be like this little boy.”

It’s no wonder the disciples rebuke Jesus for such an answer.

What does this boy have to show for himself? What random acts of kindness earn such a profound distinction from the Lord? 

In the end, all that he has to show matters not at all to the one who comes to make all things new.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, you have to be like a little kid.

To me, Mitchell was always a little kid.

I know that he eventually grew to be taller than me, and perhaps a bit wiser, but because our families grew up together, I couldn’t really see him as anything other than a little kid. 

And, to be fair, he acted like a little kid.

Mitchell could fall asleep in the strangest of places from on a couch during a loud dinner party, to on his boat in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night.

But his childlikeness was such a gift. 

In my life I’ve never known anyone so easy to be around. Whenever he smiled, it took over his whole face and no matter what you might’ve been going through you couldn’t help but smile back. He had this way of shrugging his shoulders that made everyone else realize that we were probably taking everything else a little too seriously. He had a confidence about himself that was bizarrely endearing.

Did you know that when Mitchell was younger he once told Susie that he wanted to get John 3.16 tattooed on his hand so that, when he threw a touchdown on tv, everyone would be able to see it?

That, in a sentence, might be the most Mitchell thing I’ve ever heard.

In the life of faith we are encouraged to have scripturally shaped imaginations. That means that whenever we enter the strange world of scripture, we discover that it is indeed our world. So much so that when we read of Jesus walking down to the sea of Galilee to preach the Good News, it’s not difficult to picture Mitchell waiting off to the side of the crowd joking around with some friends. And then, when Jesus realizes the crowds have grown too large and needs a way to address everyone, Mitchell is the one who volunteers for the Lord to use his wake-boarding boat. But to bring it all home, when people still struggle to hear what Jesus has to say out on the water, Mitchell is the one who informs the Lord that the boat has a killer sound system and he can crank it up, if that’s what the Lord wants.

Jesus says, Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. 

There’s a childlike quality to giving, and receiving, love as conveyed in the Bible. It’s why Paul is so quick to riff on the subject in his first letter to the church in Corinth. For millennia these words have cultivated and curated the people called church: love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

Mike, Susie, Brianna, this is the love that you had for Mitchell. You were patient with him, you rejoiced with him, you wept with him, you laughed with him. You surrounded him in every moment of his life with the tangible beauty of ever-enduring love. Any life is made intelligible only by and through love. And Mitchell was dearly loved.

But the same holds true for how Mitchell loved you and all of us. This gathered body is a witness and a testimony not just to the love we have for Mitchell, but to the love he demonstrated for us. Within these pews are countless stories of love and joy and peace and delight that were made manifest through him. 

Mitchell loved you. Each and every one of you. 

Our lives were richly blessed by him, and will continue to be blessed because of him.

That is why, even in our terrible terrible grief we can be grateful. We can be grateful because Mitchell was such a gift. 

1 Corinthians 13 will always speak words into a moment when we no longer know what to say. The love with which our lives are made possible is the great proclamation that makes the Good News good. 

And yet, for as often as we have read this text to be about us and the love we have for one another, it is actually the declaration of who God is for us. 

You see, God is love. Which means God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his own way; God is not irritable; God keeps no records of wrongs; God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, and endures all things.

The promise of the Gospel is that no one, absolutely no one, is outside the realm of God’s grace and love. No matter what we do or leave undone, God is for us no matter what.

God’s love for Mitchell knows no end. 

Hear the Good News: In the fullness of time, God in Christ is born into the muck and mire of our lives, wandering the streets of time, making a way where there is no way. And then, Jesus takes all of our sins, past-present-future, nails them to the cross and leaves them there forever. The Lord is locked up forsaken and dead in a tomb. But three days later, God gives him back to us.

We are Easter people. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our resurrection. The empty tomb is the proclamation that one day we will all feast at the Supper of the Lamb with Mitchell. We will gather at the table around which God makes all things new and there will be no mourning or crying, only dancing and laughing.

But that day is not this day.

Today we weep because Mitchell is gone.

And yet, there’s another time in scripture when the disciples are continuing to badger Jesus with their questions about the kingdom of heaven and to whom it belongs. And Jesus says, “Heaven belongs to those who mourn, those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to people like Mitchell and people like us. Thanks be to God.

Consequence Culture

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including subtitles, Andy Root, sacramental theology, unnamed characters, healing, airplane confessions, inadequate prayers, poetry and prose, American Beauty, weddings, karma, James Joyce, boasting, ordination, and leadership. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Consequence Culture

No Matter What

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” 

In the summer of 2007, having completed my first year of college, I volunteered to help lead a youth mission trip for my home church to New Orleans. It had been two years since the devastation of hurricane Katrina, and parts of the city were still in desperate need of help.

We spent our days in the sweltering heat exchanging crow bars and sledge hammers for demolition. Every house we approached had been boarded up since the storm, and we were tasked with removing everything we could so that city inspectors could deem whether or not the framing was safe for rehabilitation, or if they would have to tear the entire thing down to the foundation and start over.

The mildewed sheet rock was easy enough to pull down, as were the piles of clothing that remained stacked in various states of disarray. But the mangled children’s toys, and the warped family photo albums were another thing entirely.

Mission trips are often marked by laughter and singing and frivolity.

But not when we were in New Orleans.

What I remember most is the silence.

But that’s actually not true. There is something I remember more than the silence.

On our final day, shortly before we were scheduled to fly home, we were given the tour of the lower ninth ward. This was the spot hit hardest, and unlike our modest de-construction work on houses in other parts of the city, the lower ninth ward was devoid of everything. No trees. No bushes. No houses at all. The only evidence that anyone had ever lived there were rectangles of concrete organized in a grid pattern.

A tour guide was leading us through the neighborhood, pointing to memories of the past never to return again, and at some point he said, “The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.”

The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to that. I know I heard it, in as many words, after hurricane Sandy in New York, I know I heard it after hurricane Harvey hit Houston. 

And, more often than not, it’s Christians who make those kinds of theological claims! 

And every time it makes me wonder if they’ve ever actually read the story of Noah and the Flood.

Listen:

Shortly after our first parents stumble out of the garden of Eden, never to return again, things go from bad to worse. Sin abounds on the earth, enmity between God’s creatures plagues the entirety of creation. By the 6th chapter of Genesis the state of things is so bad that God regrets creating creation.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to the heart.”

Things are so bad off that rather than try to rehabilitate the state of things, God decides to flush it all down the toilet and start over.

Except for Noah and his family and two of every kind of creature.

Why Noah?

Noah found favor with God and was a righteous man.

Therefore Noah receives his divine commission, specific instructions for a rather large nautical vessel, and prepares for the day of judgment.

It rains for forty days and forty nights.

Let us pause for a moment. 

This is a beloved tale in the church. We teach it to our children with flannel graphs and plastic toys. We act it out in vacation bible school and we sing songs about it.

I understand the sentimentality of the animals being something worthy of childlike reflection. But this is a horrifying story. 

Water is strange. Without it, we die. Too much of it, we die. We are surround by water prior to birth, but in life water is often an uncontrollable agent of chaos.

And in this story Noah and his family were spared, but literally everything else in creation is destroyed. What we often miss is that when the seas recede and the ark lands on solid ground, the Noahic family was surrounded by abject devastation.

I know of no children’s version of this story that contains this important and devastating detail. Save for the Brick Testament which, somehow, makes it even worse.

Moreover, according to the strange new world of the Bible, God floods the world not as an act of caprice, but out of a desire to cleanse creation from unrighteousness. It is not a random event in which God intervenes on behalf of Noah and his family.

The flood is willed by God.

The situation of creation could not be improved. The trajectory from the garden did not lead us to getting better all the time, but getting worse. And perhaps the most frightening part of the story isn’t even in the story. It’s how true it all still is today.

Try as we might, and we do try all the time, we can’t make ourselves righteous. 

We try to right ourselves in subtle ways, like how during the pandemic the ubiquity of Peloton’s (stationary bicycles) shot through the roof as people were spending more time at home and wanted to spend more time working on their health but a staggering number of the devices were purchased only to be used once or twice or not at all.

And sometimes we try to right ourselves, save ourselves, in some not so subtle ways. We give our lives over to busyness hoping that so long as we have something to show for our lives, our lives will live on after we’re gone, or we put our hope in political machinations that will surely make the world a better place.

But it doesn’t work that way – we can’t right ourselves. 

And yet, Noah, in the eyes of the Lord, is deemed righteous.

The Bible gives us zero examples of what that might mean or look like, though he does do what the Lord tells him so that’s got to count for something. The only thing we can say about Noah’s life, and his righteousness takes place after the flood.

You see, when we tell this story, and even when we read this story, it ends with the rainbow. The sign of God’s new covenant with creation. Which would be a fitting conclusion. But the story keeps going. And when the waters finally recede, the first thing Noah does is cultivate a vineyard and he gets good and drunk from his own wine, so much so that he shames himself in front of his children and he curses one of them.

So much for being righteous.

Which means, in the end, the flood is a failed new beginning, at least as far as humanity is concerned. We are not better off after it than we were before it. And the rest of the Bible keeps steering in this direction. 

In just a few chapters the descendants of Noah will get it in their thick skulls to build a giant tower so they can be just like God. Abram is called into a life of impossible possibility and continually pretends to be something he is not. Jacob is blessed only because he pulls one over on his father. Joseph sees the future and is literally sold into slavery by his brothers.

I could go on.

From Eden to Egypt, from progress to prophets, the people of God go from obedience to disobedience over and over again. We are miserable offenders who, when push comes to shove, look out for ourselves and only for ourselves.

But the story of the Bible isn’t a story about us, thanks be to God. The story of the Bible is the story of God.

The waters recede after the flood, Noah and his family wander among the graveyard of the Earth and God sets a rainbow in the sky. “I am making a new covenant,” says the Lord, “and this shall be a sign to you and to me.”

God reminds God’s self.

That’s a bit strange. 

But perhaps God needs the reminder of the promise because we fail to keep up our end of the bargain.

In most covenants, if one of the parties breaks the rules, the covenant is over. But this covenant, marked by the rainbow, unlike every earthly covenant, is not contingent on our obedience. That is: God remains steadfast even if we don’t, because we won’t.

God’s love and faith and grace always exceed what we can do.

We are absolutely addicted to keeping score in this life. I did this for you but you didn’t return the favor. We all have these little ledger books in our mind about what we have done and what has been done, or left undone, to us.

And yet, right here in Genesis 9, we catch a glimpse of how God has hung up the ledger book forever. God promises to never ever again cover the earth with the destructive powers of water as a judgment against us even though God has every right to judge us. We have failed to be an obedient church, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, on and on.

But instead of giving us what we deserve, God hangs up the bow.

God saves the world not from our brokenness, but instead in our brokenness. 

We don’t like that.

We never have.

It’s why we present these perfect version of ourselves in church, or at work, or at school, or online. We love the idea of getting better all the time. But God doesn’t meet us in our perfection. God meets us exactly as we are, wherever we are.

We can’t get back to Eden on our own. We certainly try, and usually make a heck of a mess while doing so. But instead of getting back to Eden, God brings it to us. That it has a name: Jesus. 

In the fullness of time, in the incarnation, God comes into the muck and mire of life, a life no better than it was before the flood, and becomes the living water for us, which makes a way where there is no way.

The whole crux of the Noah story is that, in the end, God hangs up the rainbow and says, “I’m never going to do that again.” That’s the promise. It’s the first covenant of grace and mercy. The rainbow is a reminder that God is for us, no matter what!

Listen – Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to saves sinners and only sinners.”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults or our failures. Instead he says, “You are mine and I am thine. No matter what.” Amen.

The New Familiar

Galatians 5.25

If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The Bible repeats itself. 

There are literal phrases that show up word for word in different sections, relevant themes pop up over and over again, and there are call backs (and call forwards) all over the place.

For instance: If you were to read the assigned texts for this Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary you would encounter the radical departure of the prophet Elijah into the fiery whirlwind (2 Kings 2), the psalmist’s meditation on the holiness of God (Psalm 77), Paul’s proclamation about the freedom of the Christian (Galatians 5), and Jesus’ challenging call to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9). On the surface they might seem like completely unrelated texts and yet they all hammer home the call to follow the unknowable God.

The repetition of the Bible is also mirrored in the repetitive nature of our worship. We mark the year with the same liturgical seasons returning to the same themes over and over again. We do so not because the liturgical calendar keeps spinning like a broken record, but because we need to hear and receive these scriptures over and over again. 

In life there is this beautiful desire to return to the familiar from a different angle. It’s why so many of us enjoy “cover songs”; the beauty of the original is brought to us through different voices and instrumentation that heightens what we already know.

In the life of the church this takes place every week when a preacher stands up to preach. The texts have remained the same for centuries, but every Sunday a preacher tries to offer a new “cover song” to the gathered people called church. 

A few years ago David Zahl preached in Charlottesville, VA and offered a proclamation about Jesus’ beatitudes. However, rather than offering the predictable “this is what Jesus said and this is what Jesus meant,” David rewrote the beatitudes for the church today. I encourage you to read through his “cover” of the text, and I hope you discover something familiar and something new at the same time:

Blessed are those whose lives don’t add up,

For they will be released from score-keeping.

Blessed are the humbled and the humiliated,

For they have been relieved of the burden for self-righteousness, 

Which is the great enemy of love.

Blessed are the brokenhearted,

For cracks are where the light gets in.

Blessed are those for whom death is not a metaphor,

For they have been returned to reality,

Which is the dwelling place of God.

Blessed are those who cannot abide another funeral,

For they have loved deeply.

Blessed are those who can’t seem to move on from loss,

For they will not look to themselves for consolation.

Blessed are the left behind, the overlooked,

And those for whom life feels like an ordeal,

For Jesus surrounded himself with people like these.

Blessed are those whose fears and anxieties exceed the reach of their coping mechanisms,

For only those in need of help will be helped.

Blessed are those who years for the world to be put to rights,

For that yearning is a form of hope.

Blessed are the cursed out and cancelled, especially for reasons of their own making,

For they will be quick to listen and slow to judge.

Blessed are the brothers and sisters who refuse to condemn their siblings for not making better choices,

Because there but for the grace of God go they (and may yet still go). 

Blessed are the forgivers, 

For at the end of the day, as Saint Dolly Parton tells us, what else is there?

Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven,

For they have nothing left to hide. 

The Freedom Of The Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the location of the Lord, mantle-passing, lament, the divine reality, Herbert McCabe, freedom, the fruit of the Spirit, Gilmore Girls, hellfire, and the seriousness of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Freedom Of The Christian

Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

Are We Alive?

On Thursday United Methodists from across the state will arrive in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference. Holy conferencing is in the DNA of those from the Wesleyan Tradition and we gather together in anticipation of the Spirit moving in our midst. It used to be that Annual Conference was a time for worship (and only worship) but over the centuries it has become a time of bureaucratic politicking with a little worship sprinkled on top. I have hope for our gathering this year, the moments in which God’s grace will shine brightly in the darkness, but I am also keenly aware that conferencing often shows the church at her best and her worst. 

Since the 1780s the Wesley brothers used Charles Wesley’s “And Are We Yet Alive” hymn to open society meetings, and the denomination has been doing it ever since. On Thursday the representatives from Virginian Methodism will lift up our voices and sing the same song. It is my hope and prayer that, this year, we might hold fast to the words of the hymn throughout our gathering and know that, no matter what, the divine “yet” of God’s grace is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

If you’re unfamiliar with the hymn, the lyrics are as follows:

.

And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? 

Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!

.

Preserved by power divine to full salvation here, 

again in Jesus’ praise we join, and in his sight appear.

.

What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, 

fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!

.

Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; 

and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.

.

Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power, 

which saves us to the utter most, till we can sin no more.

.

Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, 

and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain. 

What Are You Doing Here?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42 & Psalm 43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper introductions, For All Mankind, Gary Oldman, hipsterdom, Mt. Horeb, melancholia, Mockingbird, silence, journeys, perfect prayers, Martin Luther, the tonic of grace, living among the dead, and freedom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Are You Doing Here?

The Scandal Of Grace

Romans 5.1-2

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.

Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.

A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.

His name was Paul.

After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.

He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.

The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.

Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.

In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

It’s a scandalous proclamation.

What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.

Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost. 

We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good. 

Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”

Standing In Grace

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for Trinity Sunday [C] (Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the podfather, personification, worship planning, advice, trinitarian metaphors, interpretative lenses, babes and infants, reading backwards, communal requirements, hope, and confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Standing In Grace