The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
Fred Craddock was a preacher and then a teacher of preachers. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Craddock’s contributions to the field of homiletics (preaching) are incalculable. At the heart of his homiletical teaching was a desire to bring the congregation into the sermon, rather than attempting to dump knowledge into the minds of the congregation. And, at the end of the day, Craddock was a great storyteller and his stories always pointed to the story we call the Gospel.
Here’s one of those stories:
“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about the church. Sometimes the preacher would call and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants – it doesn’t care about me. They just want another pledge, another name to add to the roll.’ That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival. The pastor would bring the evangelist and tell him to go after my father, and he would just say the same thing: ‘The church doesn’t care about me, they just want another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times, until I didn’t. He was in the veteran’s hospital, down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and the x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, plants and flowers were covering every available surface, there was a stack of cards 20 inches high next to the bed, and even the tray that was supposed to hold the food he couldn’t eat was dominated by flowers. And every single one of those things were from people from the church. My father saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”
Church is, and can be, a lot of things. It can, of course, get caught up in the machinations of the world and start to use the methods of the world to achieve its ends.
Stewardship drives can get caught up in dollars and sense rather than bodies and souls. New membership classes can get caught up in filling the pews rather than transforming hearts. Even food programs can get caught up in making a good impression on the community rather than treating those who receive the food with dignity, love, and respect.
And yet, the church, even at her worst, exists for others. We are a community of people who seek to live out a commitment to loving God and our neighbors. We receive the Good News in order to become Good News ourselves. It might not seem like much, but a well timed card, or a phone call out of the blue, or even a hastily put together email can be the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
Hear the Good News: Christ has a knack for taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary – things like water, and bread, and wine, and even us. Thanks be to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. My time in seminary would start the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on my theological journey.
So, like any good millennial, I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches” and I decided to try out the one with the least bad website.
I meandered through the open front doors and stood awkwardly in the narthex.
It was empty.
No ushers. No greeters. No nothing.
So I walked into the sanctuary, hoping against hope that the website had been accurate in terms of the church’s worship time, because there wasn’t a soul in the sanctuary.
I paced around for a minute or two contemplating the strangeness of the situation, when a I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and discovered a rather old and disheveled looking man who blurted out, “You must be new. We’re having worship in the fellowship hall. Follow me.”
And so I did.
We navigated a few frightening corridors, all while passing long-forgotten Sunday school rooms, until we entered the dimly lit fellowship hall. Folding chairs were arranged in a haphazard semi-circle, a leaning piano rested in the corner, and there was a make-shift plastic folding table altar next to a podium.
As I crossed the threshold to the space for holy worship, the preacher encouraged the couple dozen present to rise for the opening hymn:
Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee.
Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.
Then we settled in for worship. We prayed. We listened. We heard a sermon about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to God what God first gave to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we keep worshipping in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.
After the benediction was shared, we were invited to the other side of the room where lemonade and cookies were waiting to be consumed. The preacher promptly pull me aside, introduced himself, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry you had to hear all of that on your very first Sunday. I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.”
I made some sort of comment that attempted to soothe his worries, when the little old man who led me to the sanctuary came up and said. “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”
I attended that church every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.
A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What should we think about this situation in the strange new world of the Bible? Because right here, in one sentence, we have the whole truth about one person, and also the entirety of humanity.
This is what life can do to us.
Life, at times, seems to be everything we intend it to be. We have the right job, the right spouse, the right whatever. And then life happens. Usually, without warning, life comes at us pretty fast and we find ourselves sitting by the roadside of life. A wayward diagnosis, an argument leads to a fight which leads to words that can’t be unsaid, a company folds, on and on.
Blind Bartimaeus sits by the roadside. That’s what they called him – named by what he couldn’t do. The only thing others could see about him was that he couldn’t. Forgotten or, worse, tossed aside. If he disappeared maybe one person would notice, but life would continue on its merry way whether Bartimaeus did or not.
And the world looks quite different from the roadside. It looks different from the hospital bed, or from behind bars, or from the fear of living paycheck to paycheck. There is nothing that one can do from the roadside but to accept fate and recognize that this is what life will be.
And yet, Bartimaeus, in his blindness, sees the truth of the world. He understands, like others in his position, what we who feel on top of the world miss – life is cruel.
Sometimes we get a taste of it, we visit someone in their distress, we sit in these pews for a funeral, but we do whatever we can to return to the comforts of our lives as soon as we possibly can. We live under the power of denial that life will continue on however we want it to, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
And then, another One comes onto the scene. This is another person who, like Bartimaeus, is about to be pushed by the world to the side of the road, to be thrown out among the dead. He has friends, they follow him, and yet they are fools. They argue about greatness and power and prestige. And, in the end, they will all abandon him.
So what happens between these two figures?
Bartimaeus is at the very bottom of life, both geographically (Jericho is 900 feet below sea level) and literally. He has no hope in the world. And yet, the hope of the world happens across his path that day.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowds beckon the beggar to shut his mouth. Can’t he see that the Messiah doesn’t have time to waste on him?
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
And the Lord stands still, and calls upon the blind beggar by the roadside. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks.
It’s the same question he just asked the thunder brothers. Do you remember what they asked for? “Lord, let us sit by your side in glory, can we have cabinet positions in the kingdom of God?”
And what does Bartimaeus ask for? Mercy!
This blind man, left to the ditches of life, sees more clearly than anyone else. “Lord, let me see again!” “Go, your faith has made you well.” And immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Notice: Jesus heals Bartimaeus, reverses the misfortunes of the world, and orders him home. Go live the life you never had Bartimaeus.
But he didn’t! Because if Bartimaeus had gone back to a normal life, we surely wouldn’t be here talking about him. After his life is changed, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.
Jesus is in the business of transformation – of taking us from where we are, to where we can be. That’s what church is all about. We don’t do all of this just to sing a few songs, and think a few lofty thoughts, and feel a few warm fuzzies only to do it all again next week. We do this because it changes us.
You know, for what it’s worth (pun intended), the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than anything other topic except for love. Which, of course, relates to money and possessions. Where our treasure is, there are hearts are also.
Following Jesus on the way is all about coming to grips with a new reality in which giving of ourselves in the only way we know how to live because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and does, for us.
Our giving, whether it’s our time, our talents, or our tithes, connects with how we, and others, experience little slices of heaven on earth here and now. Or, to use the language of our scripture today, they give us opportunities to have our eyes opened by Jesus to the truth.
In just the last few months alone I have witnessed the transformative ministry of God through this church. We welcomed in gobs of kids for Vacation Bible School and taught them about the virtues of discipleship. We sent our youth on a hometown mission trip in which they truly lived out their faith by loving their literal neighbors. We restarted all of our Sunday school classes and small groups in which, through the powerful work of study, we’ve grown in Christlikeness. We’ve even brought back our different music stylings from the praise band at the early service to the different bell choirs at the traditional service all so that we can retune ourselves to God’s frequencies in the world.
All of those things are made possible by and because of giving – the giving of talents, times, and, tithes.
Generosity changes us. It changes us in the immediate because our brains release endorphins when we do things for other. And it changes us in the long term because our giving now makes things possible for others later.
We have a church history room down off from Memorial Hall. There’s a remarkable quilt that details the different developments of Methodism, there are pictures of the building throughout the decades, and boxes full of old paperwork.
This week a woman came by the church because she was baptized here, she was married here, and is now back in town and she wanted a change to remember. So she and I sat together in the history room, we looked over the old attendance records where she was able to find the names of long gone friends and family. It was a remarkable experience.
After she left I went back into the room for a moment and found myself bowled over with emotions. 100 years ago a group of people were so committed to the Good News, despite the world being filled to the brim with bad news, that they decided to start this church. And for one hundred years Christians like us have been gathering again and again to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to it with giving.
People gave their time, talents, and tithes without knowing at all how it would bear fruit, and they did it anyway.
That’s the kind of mission we’re caught up in today. Planting seeds with our time, talents, and tithes so that they might bear fruit in ways we can’t even imagine. Jesus’ great gift makes gift givers of us all. What we do as a church is nothing short of eye-opening endeavors in which we are given opportunity after opportunity to be blessings to other because we have been so blessed.
We are all Bartimaeus. Life has knocked us down at some point or another. We’ve felt the weight of the world come crashing down upon us. We’ve felt abandoned to frightening fates in the ditches of life.
And Jesus come to us there in the ditch. Meeting us in our sins and in our shortcomings. The great gift giver comes to set us free. He opens our eyes to the truth.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.
The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”
Literally: church is good for you.
Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people.
The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.
Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.
To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone.
I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”
He was right.
And now we have the research to prove it!
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:
The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.
Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios.
The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including podcast statistics, popular theologians, ashy repentance, feasting on the Word, constant communion, The Holy Mountain, faithful architecture, the manifestation of mercy, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Altar Is The Whirlwind
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave or all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
There was an incident as a prestigious university a number of year ago, perhaps the same one where I went to seminary, during which, one random fall morning, their was a disheveled looking beggar sitting on the steps leading into the Law School.
The sight was quite the juxtaposition on the immaculately manicured campus.
The next week the same beggar, bandaged and certainly in need of help, sat by the doors leading into the School of Medicine.
One week later and the beggar was back again, bruised and bloodied, and this time he was laying down by the entrance to the Divinity School.
By this time, the university decided they had to put an end to these incidents and so they alerted the police to be on the look out for the questionable figure on campus.
However, when they surrounded the beggar a few days later, the beggar began removing his outer clothing and his bandages and his fake beard and produced a Student ID card. He was in the midst of his PhD in Sociology and had been conducting an experiment on campus.
The idea behind his escapades was to discern if people from certain academic disciplines were more or less inclined to helping a stranger in need. After all, he had a pretty decent set of variables to work with, and it didn’t take him long to set up the whole experiment.
Months later, when he published his findings, the campus was in a bit of a shock.
Apparently, while laying out in front of the Law building, countless students offered him money but that was the extent of what they were willing to do.
A fair number of students enrolled in the Medical School offered to examine his injuries or escort him over to the hospital.
And while perched in front of the Divinity School, not a single student nor professor stopped to offer anything. Well, they apparently offered lots of excuses but nothing more.
In fact, the story goes that they only person who stopped in front of the Divinity School was a janitor, who risked losing his job in order to help make sure the beggar was taken care of.
James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are idiots. Jesus teaches them about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus offers them miraculous food to eat when they see nothing but scarcity, Jesus even spells the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can and still, they miss it all. They approach their Lord and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom.
These fools want power while God in the flesh has told them time and time again that glory comes in weakness.
In short, the brothers Zebedee are out of their league.
And yet, just as Peter blurted out his own non-sequitur desire to build houses up on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John fumble out their desire for greatness.
Perhaps, like us, when these brothers are confronted with seemingly bad news, they prefer to keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.
“Excuse us JC, it’s all good and fine for you to talk about that Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over?”
And JC, like a good rabbi, answers their question with a question.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!”
“Okay,” Jesus intones, “I just want to make sure we’re all clear, then, about what that means. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, pay attention as I say this for the 50th time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to be great, you have to be the least. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to his his life a random for many. Got it?”
The disciples, James and John and all the rest, they want glory, they want power, they want prestige.
These fools are just like us! Looking for the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance!
But glory, according to the strange new world of the Bible, is not how we so often picture glory. We might imagine the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right college, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.
However, this is how Jesus describes glory: The Son of Man, God in the flesh, serving humanity from the hard wood of cross, rectifying the sins of all those who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons.
At the end of the day it’s important to remember that the Gospel, the Good News, is a story. It’s not a self-help program, it’s not a textbook with steps to salvation, it’s not program for perfect morality. It’s a story, actually the story, that renarrates all of our stories.
Whenever we enter the strange new world of the Bible, its impossible to miss how the whole thing, particular the New Testament, is organized around a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end that is really a new beginning.
And, like most journeys, we know we have somewhere to go, but we never really know what we will encounter along the way.
The same is true of the disciples, then and now. Disciples follow Jesus, but we clearly don’t know a lot more than that.
Following Jesus, then and now, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we do not know where it will lead and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the entire ride.
What are the marks of faithfulness, or discipleship, today? Do you have to be baptized? Do you have to have perfect worship attendance? Do you have to tithe?
Notably, Jesus never says to his disciples, “You have to believe these five propositions in order to be a disciples” or “You must engage in this list of Spiritual Disciplines.”
He merely says, “Follow me.”
And yet, the “merely” in that sentence is a betrayal of the magnitude of discipleship.
Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. It’s not about having some sort of emotional response to the Spirit, or making some sort of public proclamation about Jesus’ lordship. Those things can, and dare I say should, happen.
But they are not discipleship. They, to put it bluntly, are not the Good News.
In the end, discipleship is nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the road of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the safe and secure knowledge that he’s in charge.
Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians.
Discipleship is something done to us.
I’ve never not been a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life in and around and the church and don’t know know anything different. But even those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by making a decision. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually find ourselves within a community like this one.
That something is named Jesus Christ.
It just kind of happens that at some point we realize we’re caught up on the journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty Good News! It’s very Good News because it means the church has room for those with tremendous faith and for those with tremendous doubts. The church has room for those who feel like they’re on top of the world and for those who feel like their down in a ditch. It means the church is a journey, an adventure, in which we are always moving.
And yet, like any journey, there are signposts, guides, billboards that help us know where we are going.
To be on the way of faith, to be caught up in the adventure of grace, means imitating the moves of the master. That is: we learn and live and move and have our being by repetition, by habit, by practice.
That’s why Jesus is forever telling stories. Notice: Jesus stories are not about esoteric conceptions that college freshman debate in Philosophy 101. Jesus’ stories, instead, are centered down in the muck and the mire of life. Jesus tells stories about things like anger, justice, disappointment, fear, money, jealousy, forgiveness, relationships – you know, the things we all deal with on a daily basis.
Those stories, those words, they become the habits around which our lives are made intelligible. This happens because Jesus’ stories are always about himself, and if we take seriously the claim that we have been incorporated into His body, then they are also stories about us.
Here’s a parable that Will Willimon tells which, of course, riffs on one of Jesus’ parables:
“There’s a barber who, after a day of cutting people’s hair for money, goes out to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who, after a long day of serving people’s financial interests for money, goes out at night to cruise local bars, to pick up women for one night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible. Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about, why we are here. One is attached to Jesus. The other is attached to consumerism and selfish hedonism. So the interesting question to ask them is not the abstract ‘What do you believe in?’ But, instead is it the concrete question, ‘Whom are you following?’”
Faith is about following.
Jesus says to the disciples, then and now, “Take up you cross and follow me.” When we respond to that call, it means that Jesus will lead us place, places we might not ever imagine.
Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”
Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then the Lord takes us somewhere else. That journey might look like spending a few hours on a Saturday morning helping with a yard sale in a church fellowship hall. Or it might look like volunteering over with Kid’s Soar helping kids with their education. Or it might look like serving as an usher on Sunday mornings helping to embody the love of God in your interactions with others.
Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved by mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some joyful part of the journey. What we do in our service, which is but another word for discipleship, whether we’re volunteering with a local organization or helping at church to bring about a new vision of the kingdom, all of those things form us while we are doing them.
Discipleship, then, isn’t something we ever really finish; discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do. Which, in the end, it what makes it so fun. Amen.
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work.
Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”
So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)
The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life.
The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation.
We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).
Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.
But he wants more.
What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:
“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).
The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.
Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.
And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”
But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.
And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.
In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves.
But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Survivor, divine anger, prayer droughts, proper terror, the spiderweb of scripture, grammatical turns, sharp swords, wealthy Christians, and the gift of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Yet