Preaching To Strangers

Matthew 22.36

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”

And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)

However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.

Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.

But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.

Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe. 

This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.

Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)

The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.

Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).

This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.

This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds. 

Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. 

There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.

As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.

Jesus Lunchables

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Deuteronomy 34.1-12, Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Matthew 22.34-46). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio voices, the theology of Hamilton, seeing the Promised Land, Drive-In Worship, habits, poetic prose, modeling lament, Pauline distillation, combined commandments, and transfigured wholeness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Lunchables

The Problem Of Not Having A Problem

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.

Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.

And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them. 

They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.

They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.

“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation. 

If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger. 

If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.

But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.

“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…” 

Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.

Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.

For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.

Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.

But, back to the passage at hand…

Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment. 

He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5). 

Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!

But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”

And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong

Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.

The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.

Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.

Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!

And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).

Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.

It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.

We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.

And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.

And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes. 

Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.

Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you. 

And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.

Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God! 

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord. 

We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem. 

One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.

But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen. 

Political Animals

Psalm 99.1

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

What’s the most American thing about America? Is it eating a hot dog on the 4th of July? Is it being able to the watch the NBA Finals even in the midst of a pandemic? Is it the fact that you can’t really go anywhere in the country without encountering the flag reminding you exactly what country you’re in?

I would make a case that one of the most American things about the US of A is freedom. 

Freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote, and freedom from anyone trying to infringe upon freedom. 

At the end of the day, nothing is more important to (most) Americans on the political left AND the political right than maintaining the freedom of the individual.

As such, we’ve created and cultivated a culture in which privacy is sought more than community, we believe no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and we can say pretty much whatever we want and others can say whatever they want so long as the two speaking don’t call into question their ability to speak freely.

And, because freedom is the end all be all of our cultural consciousness we’ve, in a weird way, become slaves to our freedom.

Today, our culture is largely divided into two categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every part of our lives can be whittled down to the two predominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch tv, or scroll through Twitter, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by the two representative animals.

Animals, by the way, that we are completely free to choose in terms of our own political proclivities.

The height (and tension) of our current political realities has result in an atmosphere where we are compelled, whether we want to be or not, to identify our own respective camps on a regular basis. And, because we worship our freedom, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, and think like us, and even vote like us.

Our freedom allows us to choose our politicians, much like we choose our communities, but, as Christians, we don’t get to choose our King…

King Jesus, and his Kingdom, run counter to our prevailing obsession with freedom because Jesus binds us to one another rather than allowing us to run off to our own devices. We are compelled to break bread with people we would otherwise ignore. And when we pray those terrifyingly powerful words every week (let thy will be done) it is a confession that we are allegiant to God more than to our own freedom.

Even in these strange times the church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, or vote like us. This is true even when we cannot gather in-person because of the pandemic – our online and digital faith community is made of of people we wouldn’t choose to be with on our own!

Church, thanks be to God, is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important AND more determinative than the political sign in our yard, on our bumper, or the one we keep incessantly posting about on Facebook.

Church, thanks be to God, is where we are reminded over and over and over again that we worship a crucified God who died for the sins of the world. We worship a King whose kingdom is built not on law and order but on grace and mercy. We worship a Messiah who saves us from ourselves.

Salvation belongs to God alone.

Even though Revelation affirms that all nations, races, creeds, and languages will be present in the eschaton, salvation does not belong to any of them – each of them in some way, shape, or form are and forever will be guilty of promising something to a particular while while damning another.

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of fear (and freedom) that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to each other. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities by telling us our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that actually brings division.

But the Lamb of God is different. Jesus reigns for us and in spite of us. The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

The Great And Terrible Mystery

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 33.12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including TNG, immutability, puppy dogs Jesus, James Cone, defined justice, discipleship as imitation, taxes, the drug of political affiliation, and space communism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Great And Terrible Mystery

Gentle As A Lamb

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.

Thanks for the advice Paul.

But, have you seen the world recently?

It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.

So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.

They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?

Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in! 

Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.

So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.

Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.

Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.

Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?

And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.

Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”

Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.

And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!

If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?

The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?

The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?

That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.

Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.

In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.

After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”

To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”

Again, there was silence. 

He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”

A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.

“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”

Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left. 

The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.

A few months later the school integrated without incident. 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.

To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought. 

And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus. 

Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends. 

But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.

To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.

Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. 

That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.

Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.

Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.

Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.

Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.

And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.

In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.

As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.

Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity. 

Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.

Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.

Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.

We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.

Christmas Before Halloween?

Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

I’m a creature of habit.

Which is probably why I love the church so much.

The church, at her best, is a series of habits that habituate us into knowing more about who we are and whose we are.

For instance, we use a lectionary cycle with particular scripture readings that work in such a way to continually remind us about the nature of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We sing the same songs and say the same prayers because those things shape us in ways both seen and unseen. We follow a liturgical calendar to remind us that God’s time is not the same thing as our time. 

And because I’m a creature of habit, the last six months have been quite unnerving. 

I’ve lost the regular rhythms of Sunday morning worship with my community of faith, I no longer drive my kid to his preschool and politely wave at the other parents, and I haven’t been able to host friends and family members for regular meals in the backyard. 

I’ve created new habits of online worship, and ZOOM hangouts with friends and family, and even Facebook Live Bible Studies, but none of it feels the same. 

And yet, there are some habits from before that I’ve kept.

I like to run. Well, “like” might be too strong of a word, but I am a runner. It helps to keep me both physically and mentally healthy in spite of whatever else might be going on in the wider world. And so, regardless of the pandemic and the changes it brought to all of our lives, I’ve kept running.

But, as a creature of habit, I run the same routes over and over and over again.

That is, until this morning.

At 6:30am, under the light of the moon, I set out from my house for a quick little 5k around the neighboring neighborhoods. I made it about 1/3 through the route when I discovered the road in front of me was blocked off due to construction and I would either need to turn around and cut my run short, or turn down an unfamiliar street and hope that I would be able to find my way back out again.

And, for some strange reason (read: Holy Spirit), I took the path untraveled.

It looked just like all of the other streets I run on in the mornings, with all of the houses blanketed in darkness while people are still sleeping, except when I made my way around the first bend in the road I saw a house in the distance that was lit up like you couldn’t believe. And, within a few strides, I found out why…

The house was already (or still?) decorated for Christmas.

I could see a full Christmas tree in the living room window adorned with lights and ornaments, there was a scattering of pre-lit plastic reindeer robotically frolicking across the yard, and there was even an inflatable Santa Claus waving manically back and forth right next to the chimney.

Let the reader understand: Today is the 7th of October, a full 79 days before Christmas!

The creature of habit in me scoffed at the scene this morning. I thought, “Do these people not know the importance of keeping seasons in their season? It was one thing to see Halloween candy in the stores around the 4th of July, but Christmas decorations before Halloween???”

So I kept running, turning my thoughts over and over in my head until I realized that having Christmas decorations up already (or still?) is actually perfect for the time we find ourselves in.

The psalmist reminds us that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Which is just another way of saying, there’s no season in which God’s love is not steadfast. 

The incarnation of God in Christ is a forever and always event, not something to be simply relegated to a particular month or a particular set of decorations. Christmas is now and forever and that’s Good News! It’s really Good News in a culture in which we live according to Presidential Election cycles more than the Gospel of Jesus, when we withhold love from one another because of particular political signage adorning front yards or bumper stickers, and when our habits have all been turned upside-down by a virus.

By the time I got back to the house, and had my theology straightened out, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I should get out my own Christmas decorations. After all, now is the perfect time to remember that Jesus is the light of the world, born to us and for us, and he is the reason for every season. 

The Condition Our Condition Is In

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 32.1-14, Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fall peaking, Ghostbusters, contemporary golden calves, justified happiness, rectification, gear grinding, twitter burns, wedding garments, and partying like Jesus. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Condition Our Condition Is In

In The Know

Philippians 3.4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.

A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true. 

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.

A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.

Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.

Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.

Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!

Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.

He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.

But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.

And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.

As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross. 

And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.

“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.

Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.

Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.

In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God. 

For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.

Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves. 

Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.

This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago. 

However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.

And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.

The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.

Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.

And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free. 

Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.

For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy. 

It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.

What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.

And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.

Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.

Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.

In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.

Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.

Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.

Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.

Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.

And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!

No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.

So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

5 Ways You Can Help Your Church

When the pandemic struck, many churches quickly made the leap to online worship in order to keep their respective communities safe. As a pastor, it has been a joy to see so many other churches adapt to the situation, and to witness their worship as I was usually relegated to my own services on Sunday mornings. 

And yet, while churches navigate what it means to be the church in the midst of such uncertain waters, many of them are in need of help. 

Here are five ways you can help your church:

  1. Support You Church With Your Financial Gifts
    1. Consider making an extra financial donation to your local church if you are able. Many churches have had to cut programs and ministries throughout the pandemic because their typical Sunday offerings have diminished while not worshipping in-person. Making an offering to God through a financial gift is akin to Jeremiah’s willingness to purchase a vineyard in spite of not knowing what was coming next – it is believing in a world we cannot yet see because we know God remains steadfast even when we don’t. And, to make matters easier in our present moment, most churches have now enabled online giving through their websites so you can give without have to leave the house. 
  2. Share Information About Your Church
    1. You can tell neighbors/friends/family members about your local church and how they’ve been able to provide a sense of God’s grace and mercy in a time when the world feels like its teetering on the edge. And, because so many churches have moved online, its never been easier to “share” what a church is up to because all you have to do is share the information on your respective social media pages. The more people who gather for online worship/devotionals, the more churches can create partnerships with new, and even familiar, faces.
  3. Contact Someone From Your Church
    1. Our ability to be in touch with one another has never been easier. Whether its sending a text, writing an email, or making a phone call (do people still make phone calls?), making a connection with someone else right now can be the difference that makes all the difference. If you don’t know how to get in touch with someone from your local church, contact your pastor – I am sure they will be delighted to connect you with someone. The tie that binds us together is Jesus, and we need to live into that tie now more than ever.
  4. Share Your Ideas With Your Pastor
    1. The pandemic has isolated us from one another in ways previously unimagined. And, because of our respective separations, pastors are not having the normal interactions that help them discern how the Spirit is moving in terms of sermon and Bible Study preparation. If you have ideas for a new sermon series, or a topic to be covered in a devotional, or anything else that might pertain to your church, send it to your pastors. The church was never meant to be a solo endeavor, and sharing ideas with the pastor, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, can bring about some incredible opportunities in the Kingdom.
  5. Pray. Pray. Pray.
    1. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, once said, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” If there was ever a time to pray – it’s now. Prayers for your church, for your community, for your country, for the world. As the old hymn goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.” And, if you are unable to bring yourself to pray, reach out to your pastors and ask them to pray for you. Chances are, praying for others happens to be their cup of tea!