We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.
He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.
I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.
We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.
“So, how did God call you to all of this?”
It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer.
And I’ve heard them all.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.
I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.
Or, at least I thought I was.
Because he didn’t answer my question.
Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”
“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”
“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”
“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.”
“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”
Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.
He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”
“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Ace Ventura, mashups, Twitter as a complaint box, temptation and strife, namesakes, parabolic utterances, Jesus’ jokes, vacancy in the Kingdom, and Flannery O’Connor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Bucket In The Ocean
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.
The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices.
The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.
Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes.
And that’s when the bomb exploded.
It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.
It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week.
4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.
Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.
Whether we live or die we are with Christ.
In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ.
This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him.
Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.
When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!
He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies.
And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.
Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.
This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around.
All that stuff.
And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that.
What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another.
Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship.
Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another.
For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena.
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”
The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics.
For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.
Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.
And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.
Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.
While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction.
All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!
It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.
3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history.
But things have largely stayed the same.
The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police.
It’s so much more.
It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.
And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.
Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.
One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.
And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.
Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.
There is still work to do.
Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.
Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time.
The life of faith is complicated.
It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.
It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.
It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.
Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do.
But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
“Our online worship numbers have gone down week after week even though I keep telling my people to invite more people, and to pray harder, and to read their Bibles. None of it seems to work… I feel like I’m losing my religion.”
“If my son doesn’t get the classes he needs this year, then he’ll never get into the right college and it will ruin the rest of his life.”
“Every time I leave the house I feel anxious about the possibility of catching Covid from someone else not taking the proper precautions.”
Those are three sentences I heard from three different people (a pastor, a parent, and a parishioner, respectively) in the last week. The lingering tribulations and anxieties are quite perceptively present these days and it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about any of them. Whether it’s turning on the news to see another protest, or pundits arguing about the Presidential Elections, to doom-scrolling through Twitter, it seems like the foundations of life are crumbling under our feet
Or, to put it another way, the world feels like its falling apart.
“I have overcome the world” says Jesus near the end of his earthly life in John 16. And, frankly, that’s the message of the Gospel – The child born to us and for us in the manger, the One nailed to the cross, the One resurrected and delivered from the grave has overcome the world.
Notice: Christ does not say we have overcome the world. Instead, he says, “I have overcome the world.
Whether we’re good or bad, foolish or clever, powerful or weak, we could not (and can not) do what Christ has already done.
It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus says these very words to his disciples, and therefore us. They ring throughout time as a reminder that no matter what tribulations or anxieties occur, Christ has overcome the world.
And those anxieties and tribulations will come. Jesus doesn’t say we might face hardships, but instead states it as a plain fact: In the world you will have tribulation.
There is tribulation among young people today: tribulations about who they are, their very identities, and fears about what life will bring in the future with all of its rampant uncertainty.
There is tribulation among older people today: tribulations about bodily ailments and infirmities, economic concerns about how to live on little, and thoughts that more lies behind them now than ahead.
There is tribulation among all regarding the pandemic: tribulations about other people and what they can transmit to us willfully or ignorantly, fears over whether life will ever feel normal again, and the ever ticking number of people who have died because of COVID-19.
And the same One born to us and for us, the One beaten, betrayed, and abandoned, the One delivered and resurrected, declares the truth of our tribulations. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like, he doesn’t promise sunshine and rainbows. He speaks honestly about the condition of our condition, but then shouts into all of our anxieties: But take heart.
The powerful and glorious But! God’s great Nevertheless! It shines like a beacon in the midst of a tumultuous sea. In the world you will have tribulation – But take heart!
“Take heart,” contrary to how it is often explained, does not mean just think of something else. Nor does it mean run away from your troubles.
“Take heart” means lifting up our eyes to the hills and see where from where our help comes – it comes from the Lord.
“Take heart” means taking up our hearts with those who have the strength to carry us in the days/weeks/months/years when we feel weak, when the tribulations are too much for us to bear on our own.
“Take heart” means bearing one another’s burdens because no one should have to go through this life on their own.
“Take heart” means resting in the Good News that God has already written the end of the story and we know how it ends.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 16.2-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including video production ministry, history as repetition, shortsightedness, nearness in the pandemic, Peter Sagal’s running habits, storied stories, idolatrous worship, ego death, and grumbling with grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Weighted Glory
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.
Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great.
At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.
But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.
I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.
It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.
I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.
At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff.
And we hated it.
We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.
Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.
But Jesus doesn’t quit.
He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.
The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain – he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.
But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.
Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin.
God, believe it or not, set us free.
Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”
And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”
Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…
Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel.
Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.
Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.
Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever.
Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.
This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation.
The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.
They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”
Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.
But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.
I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.
Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.
I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus
Thanks be to God.
Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.
I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.
There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.
And in the end, what does it matter?
So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.
For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News.
So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life.
That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing.
Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.
Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever.
But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all.
If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means.
I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.
And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.
Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.
Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?
There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements.
The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.
The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.
The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it.
So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.
I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die.
Readers of this blog will know that I have a complicated relationship with the American Flag and the rampant forms of nationalism that are all too present in the church today (and have been for some time).
Part of the challenge stems from the non-existent separation of Church and State such that many American Christians consider themselves Americans first and Christians second. Which runs counter to the Pauline affirmation that our (that is, Christians’) truest citizenship is in heaven.
And yet, no matter how I may feel theologically about the state of American Christianity, today is a day when it feels like no matter what I might say, it will get interpreted the wrong way.
Which is just another way of saying: Americans aren’t allowed to speak ill of America on September 11th.
I was in the 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in our living room watching the towers fall over and over again on television. I can remember my father saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.
In the weeks that followed everything felt like a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of nationalism and patriotism to that degree since the end of World War II.
Everything about September 11th was discussed in a rigid binary: We are right, and they are wrong – we are innocent, and they are guilty – America is pure, the Middle East is wicked.
It was only later, after countless books and conversations with people from other parts of the world, that I discovered how much more of a complicated situation the whole thing was. My public school education, television diet, and conversations with my parents never taught me about what the US was up to in other nations across the planet. I assumed, as an 8th grader, that what was done to us on September 11th was without cause. But now, as an adult, I know that America is not as innocent as she portends to be.
My own transformation took place over time, but I can trace a lot of it back to a particular moment; when I came across a prayer written by Stanley Hauerwas 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. For, rather than praying for God to strike down our enemies, or to bring swift justice, or whatever else filled so many prayers that day, he prayed with a sense of honesty that I had yet to encounter up to that point.
So, on this September 11th, as it becomes harder and harder to think theologically about what it means to be a Christian who happens to live in the US, I offer this prayer written 19 years ago today as a helpful reminder that we (Americans) are not as innocent as we might think we are.
A Prayer Written 30 Minutes After the Destruction Of The World Trade Center – Stanley Hauerwas
Vulnerable – we feel vulnerable, God, and we are not used to feeling vulnerable. We are Americans.
Nor are we used to anyone hating us this much. Such terrible acts. Killing civilians. We are dumbfounded. Lost.
We are good people. We are a nation of peace. We do not seek war. We do not seek violence.
Try to help us remember that how we feel may be how the people of Iraq have felt while we have been bombing them. It is hard for us to acknowledge the “we” in “we bombed them.”
What are we to do?
We not only feel vulnerable, but we also feel helpless. We are not sure what to feel except shock, which will quickly turn to anger and even more suddenly to vengeance.
We are Christians. What are we to do as Christians? We know that anger will come to us. It does us no good for us to tell ourselves not to be angry. To try not to be angry just makes us all the more furious.
You, however, have given us something to do. We can pray, but we wonder for what we can pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the end of hate, to pray for the end of war seems platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, make us what you will. This may be one of the first times we have prayed that prayer with an inkling of how frightening prayer is. Help us.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Jesus loved to speak in parables.
Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.
Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.
Summary: Don’t break the rules.
But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.
So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.
The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.
Because this king is a fool.
He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.
Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.
Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.
The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death.
Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.
He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind.
He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.
Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.
There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.
If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.
Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.
Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 14.19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14.1-12, Matthew 18.21-35). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Burn Notice, (no) free ads, impossible possibility, watered life, a shout out to Kenneth Tanner, theodicy, silence as pastoral care, fire insurance, preaching to prisoners, and parable perspectives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Giving Up The Kingdom
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God.
There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.
The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community.
At least, that’s the idea.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.
Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.
Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes.
To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.
Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence.
The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”
The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.
And grace never stops coming.
It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve.
And we really don’t deserve it.
We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity.
But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.
That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.
According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.
And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.
Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.
Is peace simply the absence of conflict?
Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?
For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for.
Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.
The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).
God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.
Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country.
By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.
For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.
One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.
He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.
And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be.
But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”
Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.
Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.
For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving.
His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace.
Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped.
The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word.
And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.
And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.
Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good.