Faith In The Time of COVID

The church has gone digital.

Frankly, it started a long time ago.

However, the recent wave of the COVID19 pandemic has forced churches across the world to adapt to the situation whether they wanted to or not.

When I first felt a call to ministry as a teenager in the early aughts, I told my pastor and he responded by telling me I would be preaching at the end of the month. He then gave me a few instructions (here’s the text, write 2,000 words, practice in front of a mirror, etc.) and the rest is history. One of the unanticipated benefits of being launched into ministry the way I was means that every sermon I’ve ever preached can be read online.

Literally through this blog.

As the years progressed I started making digital audio recordings of said sermons and now it’s not just a matter of reading the sermons online, but anyone anywhere can listen to them as well.

Therefore, to add the videocamera a few weeks ago to the typical Sunday morning experience wasn’t too much of a stretch.

It would seem, then, that going forward every sermon can be read, listened to, or watched online.

But, is it still church?

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A good friend of mine, Alan Combs, recently started a new podcast called “Shelter In Place.” The idea behind the podcast is to reach out to a variety of people to discover how they are finding comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. I love the premise of it all and was thrilled to be invited on for a recent episode.

In it Alan, his friend Joey, and I talked about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of the pandemic from live-streaming on Sunday mornings, to staying connected with church folk, to what kind of music we’ve been listening to.

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the Shelter In Place podcast, you can do so here: Faith In The Time Of COVID

 

I Am My Own Worst Enemy

4d46bf1bb0394b294fab8d3ea3c7ea0b-1024x1024This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2.19-25, John 10.1-10). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christian friendship, sharing in the kingdom, extravagant generosity, restful places, The Art of Dying Well, Jesus as the door, and abundant life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Am My Own Worst Enemy

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Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

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He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

Think Small or: Don’t Think At All

1 Peter 1.18-21

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

With each passing day of this pandemic, I’ve come across countless posts and articles all about how to make the most of the time we now have on our hands. Which, of course, doesn’t even address the many who still have to work in the midst of all this and those who are putting their lives on the line so that others can have the aforementioned extra time on their hands. Nevertheless, I know people who are using this time to lose those ten pounds they’ve been meaning to get rid of, or become amateur sourdough bakers, or become professional live-streaming worship pastors.

Meanwhile, the talking heads on television are pitting the different political operatives against one another while blaming them for putting us in the mess in the first place.

Similarly, certain individuals are choosing to directly ignore the calls for social-distancing because they believe it is infringing on their freedoms.

And finally, special interest groups are pressuring elected leaders to “reopen” their respective jurisdictions for fear of what the long-term effects will be for the economy.

All of this can fall into the category of “thinking big.” Rather than addressing the small and local concerns that are, somewhat, within our control, we pass the buck along to someone else in hopes that they can bring about the change that requires the least from us. Or, a little closer to home, we’re feeling pressured to make the most of this pandemic by reimagining ourselves and fixing all the things we’ve let go for too long. 

The problem with “thinking big” is that it almost never works. 

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Back in 1972, in the midst of the rise of feminism, racial reconciliation, and environmentalism, Wendell Berry had this to say on “thinking big”:

“For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enrichment of the government. But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his/her own, is already solving the problem. A person who is trying to live as neighbor to their neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of peace and humanity, and let there be no mistake about it – they are doing that work.” – Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony 1972

The challenges, and problems, that feminism/racial reconciliation/environmentalism aimed to erase are still very much a part of the fabric of our reality. It’s been nearly fifty years since Wendell Berry wrote those words and women are still paid less than men, racism is very much alive, and the environment has passed the point of no return. (However, strangely enough, certain cities across the globe are seeing the skylines without smog for the first time in decades because everyone has been forced to stay inside).

The critique from 1972 is just as relevant today as it was then. The more we assume, or hope, that necessary changes will be accomplished by other people further up the ladder, the longer we will be disappointed. The same holds true with our own desires for self-improvement. If we want to use this time to become master bakers, or perfect painters, or marathon runners, that’s fine, but there’s a better than good chance we’re just going to disappoint ourselves.

Wendell Berry’s alternative, and an alternative from the gospel is to think little. Instead of waiting for the world to change, we can make small changes in our own lives. We can absolutely start and try new things, but keeping our goals in check will help us in these challenging times rather than shaming us into not accomplishing what we wanted.

In 1 Peter there’s this great line about how, through Jesus, we’ve come to trust in God. I love that because it’s not about trusting in ourselves or in other people. For, more often than not, we are masters of disappointment. But God? God remains steadfast no matter the circumstances; Jesus’ is still raised from the dead whether we can worship together in church, or we can run a marathon, or we can bake the perfect loaf of bread.

This is a strange time we find ourselves in. We can do things now we’ve never done before. But it’s also a pandemic. It’s okay if we don’t do anything at all. We can watch Netflix until our eyes hurt. We can go all the way to the end of the bag of Cheetos. We can wear pajamas all day long. The gospel has set us free from the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world has placed on us.

The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t much at all. Because in the end, the rest is up to God. 

WWDWWD (Why We Do What We Do)

I miss worshipping in-person on Sundays.

I hope I never get used to standing in an empty sanctuary on Sunday morning while talking into my computer hoping it’s streaming clearly online. However, I recognize how important it is for all of us to maintain our distance at a time like this – lives, truly, are at stake.

Over the last few years I’ve been recording, editing, and producing a lectionary podcast in which, every week, I have a conversation about the assigned texts for Sunday morning in order to help get the creative juices flowing for preacher types and fill in the scriptural gaps for lay types. It’s been a joy to have so many conversations about God’s Word, and to hear from so many who listen about how it has helped them (re)engage with scripture.

And yet, over the last three years, I’ve come to discover something strange: A lot of us (and by “us” I mean Christians) have no idea why we do what we do as a church.

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Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown up in the church and we can’t imagine it any other way, or we were told at some point and have forgotten, or we’ve never troubled ourselves to think about it, but there’s a lot we do that, without explanation, rings like a clanging cymbal – it might sound nice, but what’s the point?

This Sunday Christians across the globe will hear the story of the road to Emmaus. It is the assigned lectionary Gospel text, and it is a worthy one for the 3rd Sunday after Easter. Just like those two on the road so long ago, we’ve heard some incredible news but we’re not entirely sure what it all means. It can be one of the most powerful Sundays of the year in the sense that we get to journey with them and meet the risen Christ who speaks a word we all need to hear.

But even more than that, the story of the two on the road points to why we do one of the things we do as Christians – Worship.

Across the great spectrum of Christianity, we worship with a four-fold method: We gather, we proclaim, we respond, and then we are sent forth. And why do we do it that way? 

Let’s take a look:

Gather

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

The beginning of worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? It is when the live-stream finally get going? Does it begin with the first prayer?

Actually, worship begins before we tune in or even walk into the building (remember when we used to get together in-person for church???). God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while scarfing down our breakfast, while we’re waiting for the coffee to reheat in the microwave, and while we’re begging the kids to get dressed. 

God continues to gather us while candles are lit, and throats are cleared, and the volume is adjusted. 

Every little bit of our worship has a purpose, whether it’s the acolyte carrying in the flame at the beginning or the time of silence that marks a change in mood. Added together, those elements allow us to practice our faith.

Worship is, after all, a practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to hear and respond to the Word of God.

In most churches there is a hymn or some sort of musical setting during the Gathering. That sacred music resets our hearts and minds away from whatever it was we were doing to whatever it is that God is going to do with and for and to us. 

Similarly, a time of prayer (whether silent or spoken aloud) continues this Gathering. The prayers that are offered are a sign of our devotion to the people we call church as well as a commitment to the greater community around us. 

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever.

Proclaim

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

After the two were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he then proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they still were unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of regular worship is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, and we also do it because we believe God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our lives even today.

It is at this time that we read scripture aloud, another hymn may be sung, and then a sermon/homily is offered.

In many churches the scripture are picked accord to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL contains a great assortments of scriptures over a three-year cycle and is designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture without being constrained by the choice of the preacher. We boldly proclaim the scriptures from the Bible with prayers and hopes that somehow of another God can and will speak through them to us.

The sermon itself is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted while others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to incarnate God’s Word, again, through the ways we respond and react to it.

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Respond

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited to him to stop and stay with them. And it was while they were at the table together that Jesus took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to the two. Only then did they recognize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road through the breaking of the bread and the giving of the cup that Christ became real for them.

The third part of worship is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays churches will do this work by joining together to affirm their faith with something like the Apostles’ Creed, presenting their tithes and offerings, and then gathering at the table for Communion. The holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done. We confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor. Ee are forgiven to share signs of peace with one another. And then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world week after week just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were opened in the meal they shared with Jesus.

Sending

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like – every time we gather for worship we are all catching glimpses of Jesus in our hymns, scriptures, sermons, sacraments, and even silences.

The two disciples were so moved by their experiences of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the scripture, and of responding with the bread and cup, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. Whenever we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, it’s as if we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it feels like with everyone in our lives.

The fourth and final part of worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While a final hymn or prayer is still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all we’ve seen and heard, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet.

This is how we are sent forth from worship, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what happened. 

Walking and Talking

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 36-41, Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-25). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including shame in the church, John Prine, preaching with authority, Jesus’ titles, The Good and Beautiful Life, loving the Lord, the preciousness of death, Peter and Social Distancing, and grace in retrospect. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Walking and Talking

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A Sermon On A Sermon

Acts 2.14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea. 

Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.

But the stories? They’re pretty good.

Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things. 

In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.

Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.

Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.

There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”

The end.

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That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.

Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.

Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.

Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.

Stories are powerful things.

But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.

I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.

And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time. 

Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode. 

When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.

But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!

And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.

In short, we’d love to hear a good story.

But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.

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Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.

Do we really need pontificating and preaching?

Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.

The strange new world of the Bible.

We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.

That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.

But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair. 

Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.

Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?

That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine. 

But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.

They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.

His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.

That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News. 

And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.

Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.

Peter jumps right to the point.

“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”

That’s a sermon. 

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The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.

How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.

This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.

But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?

In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?

And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost. 

This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.

It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.

When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.

It’s just grace.

It’s a story about what Jesus has done.

For us, and in spite of us.

Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news. 

When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already. 

When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive. 

Come in, and have some fun. Amen.