Joyful Obedience

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [C] (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent disciplines, Handel’s Messiah, The Muppets, Christmas unicorns, Home Alone, prodigal love, J the B, the refiner’s fire, the Daily Office, darkness, God’s grace, missional moments, the Lord’s Table, and universalism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Joyful Obedience

Vulnerability

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Tell me about your last fight.

That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.

There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything. 

There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.

But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”

To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”

I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.

And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”

Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.

Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.

Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.

Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.

And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.

This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One. 

I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.

And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.

We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.

And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.

And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.

So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.

Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.

Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?

When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…

I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little  twinge of vulnerability.

I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.

And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.

However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.

The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!

In the end, that’s Advent.

More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.

Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me. 

Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents. 

Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.

Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!

Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.

Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.

This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.

I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!

In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.

And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.

But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.

And that’s a big if.

But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.

And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!

That’s wild stuff.

It’s what we call grace.

Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.

God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.

Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.

That’s not just great news, its Good News!

Happy New Year! Amen. 

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

Matthew 6.25

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

The older I get the more complicated Thanksgiving becomes.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of delicious food, eavesdropping on grown up conversation, and running around in the cold until one of the aforementioned adults beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say the one thing that will set everyone off.

And that’s not even mentioning the logistic nightmare of figuring out who will cook what and how in a tight time frame!

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). This year we are likely to hear opinions on presidential decrees, gubernatorial soundbites, and judicial rulings, just so that everyone else can know exactly what side of what issue we are on.

Which is remarkably strange, at least from a Christian perspective, considering the fact that Jesus came to destroy the very divisions we so desperately cling to and want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Thanksgiving Liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience.

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Meditation:

Jesus boldly proclaims in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness that, “One cannot live by bread alone.” It is certainly true that we need food to survive, but we need more if we want to really live. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is more than merely sharing food. It is through our conversation and our prayers and our thanksgiving (the action, not the holiday), that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. In many ways the table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table to which we are beckoned again and again even though we don’t deserve it and we cannot earn it. So let us rejoice in the knowledge that, through the power of the Spirit, God has done great things for us.

Prayer:

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table around which to gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. Work in and through us such that our tears turn into laughter, and our mourning into rejoicing. Let the feast around the table give us a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

The End Of The World (As We Know It)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)

The Gospel Truth

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

I don’t know if any of you remember this but, a few years ago there was this very contentious presidential election. Someone named Hillary Clinton and someone named Donald Trump both really wanted to be president. More money was spent during that election than any other election in history (until the most recent presidential election). Families were divided in a way that they never had been before, or so said the talking heads on all the news channels every night.

I, myself, tried to bring some semblance of fidelity to the season by hosting a prayer service in which I sought to remind people that, through Christ, we have more in common than our political proclivities would allow us to believe. I planned to break bread with all who gathered so that, no matter what happened with the election, we would remember that we belong to the kingdom of God and that we, together, are disciples of the King of kings.

“Welcome!” I intoned from the pulpit to the crowd. “Welcome to our church for our worship service. However, before we begin, I would like all of the Republicans to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, all of the Democrats can move to the left, and anyone else can take a seat somewhere in the center aisle.”

No one laughed.

Apparently, the presidential election wasn’t funny, not even in church.

Well, when the day of the election arrived, I made my way to my voting location which just happened to be the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. I pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Red Hats screaming at Blue Shirts and Blue Shirts screaming at Red Hats. Yard signs adorned every available spot on every available yard. And I can distinctly remember all of the poll workers looking decisively dreadful.

I ascended the outdoor stairs into the church’s fellowship hall and took my place in line. I waited patiently for my opportunity to fill out my vote and did some people watching. I saw slumped shoulders, furrowed brows, fidgeting fingers, and it was as if the previous months of political vitriol had sucked the very life out of our community. 

And then it was my turn.

I filled out my form, brought it over to a machine that promptly consumed it with a ding, and sighed a relief knowing that it was finally over.

Then I looked up.

And right there, stretching across the wall of the Fellowship Hall was a mural of Jesus.

It wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross.

It wasn’t even Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Instead it was a mural of Jesus laughing his butt off.

And it was perfect.

The disciples have betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, dragged before the High Priest and scribes, and now he stands accused before Pontius Pilate.

“Who are you exactly?” the political occupier intones. Mind you, when Jesus entered the city on the back of a donkey, surrounded by a modest crowd, Pilate was also entering the city, but he came with pomp and circumstance, imagine horses and soldiers and banners and such. 

And now, a few days later, the two of them sit face to face.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” As in, “Are you a threat to my emperor’s empire?”

“Do you really want to know, or did others tell you about me?”

“Look, why do you keep answering all my questions with questions? It’s your own people who have delivered you to my throne, so tell me, what did you do?”

“My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not from this world. If it were, my disciples would be storming the gates of your palace and doing everything in their power to take your power away. But, as it is, my kingdom is different.”

“So you are a king then?” Pilate asks.

“If you say so. But it really doesn’t matter. For this I was born, for this I came into the world. I’m here to tell the truth. And everyone who belongs to the truth listen to my voice.”

And Pilate says, “What is truth?”

That’s where the text for today ends: this unanswerable question dangling in the air.

But I want to remind all of us what happens next, for I believe it actually answers the question…

After this, Pilate goes out to the religious leaders again and tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. And yet, Pilate knows there is a custom every year on Passover during which the empire’s representative would release one person from captivity. So Pilate goes to the crowds and he says, “Do you want me to release Jesus, this so-called king of the Jews?” And they yell in response: “No! Give us the insurrectionist Barabbas instead!”

Pilate let the crowds choose who they will save, Jesus is beaten and bedraggled, he is adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, he carries the instrument of his own death to the place called The Skull, and they put an inscription over him that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Why was Jesus killed?

That’s almost as difficult as a question to answer as, “What is truth?”

After all, wasn’t Jesus just trying to get us all to be a little kinder to one another? If the Gospel, and the ministry of the Lord, is merely, “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” then why did Jesus end up on the cross?

You don’t kill someone for asking you to be nice.

You kill someone when you can’t handle their truth.

What happens in and to Jesus is not something that is personal or private, as we sometimes water down the faith. What happens in and to Jesus is very public and political. If the authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus they could’ve taken care of it easily and tossed his body in some random alley in Jerusalem. But they wanted to make an example of him. This is what happens for those who call into question the truth of the empire.

And yet, here on Christ the King Sunday, we confront the terrifying and life-giving reality that our King rules from the cross. Jesus’ throne is not built on the blood of his enemies. His throne is cruciform. The only blood it contains is his own. 

Notably, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in large part as a response to the horrific and murderous realities of WWI and the rise of fascism all across Europe. 

Celebrating the reign of Christ is but one way of proclaiming the gospel truth – If we believe that Jesus is Lord then that means something has to change about who we are and what we do. 

Or, to put it simply, what we believe shapes how we behave.

The salvation wrought by cross and resurrection involves making us citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship.

The world tells us to earn all we can.

The kingdom tells us we already have what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first.

The kingdom tells us that the last shall be first.

The world tells us that we are defined by our mistakes.

The kingdom tells us that we are defined only by our King.

It doesn’t get more political than this in church. And yet, inherent in today’s proclamation is the challenge of coming to grips with what it means to pledge allegiance to our King. We live in a democracy, we don’t know what it means to have a King. 

Kings are not chosen.

So, to be clear, Jesus is not our president. And for good reason. We never would’ve picked him. 

Turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Take up your cross and follow me?

Those don’t make for very good campaign slogans.

Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in the church or even in our wider culture, we never really pick Jesus. When all is said and done, when the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to dwell among us, we nail him to the cross.

We, to put it bluntly, pick Barabbas instead.

Which makes some of Jesus’ final words are the more powerful: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus isn’t trying to win an election, he’s not trying to convince us of anything, he’s not offering empty promises about the next 2-4 years. 

Instead, Jesus elects us to a kingdom that we would never choose on our own – he brings the future and the truth to us.

Some of us are here this morning because we can’t imagine being anywhere else. It is Sunday after all. But there’s a good chance that a whole lot of us are here because we are looking for the truth.

For as much as the kingdoms of the world are built on the blood of enemies, they are also founded on fabrications – the world is built and sold and traded on lies.

But not here.

Not in the church.

We are an outpost of the kingdom of God in foreign territory.

We are strangers in a strange land.

Many of us are suffocating under the oppressive power of deception. The powers and principalities of this world are constantly vying for our allegiances. They do everything in their power to convince us that power come through strength, that tribalism will rule the day, and that the most important animal is either a Donkey or an Elephant. It’s why so many of us now dread the Thanksgiving table because it forces us to confront that wayward uncle with the undesirable political opinion who, with every extra glass of wine, continues to say things that boil our blood. 

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They, in large part, exist to instill a sense of freedom that actually results in isolation. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that just leads to more division.

But here’s the Good News, the really really Good News: Our King rules from the throne of the cross, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, ours included.

And that’s why Jesus laughs.

Jesus laughs at our foolishness in thinking that we can save ourselves, that we can fix all the problems in the world. 

You want to know what’s wrong with the world? We are!

When the bonds forged by the names on our bumpers become more determinative than the bonds that are forged in baptism, then we have fallen prey to the elephant and the donkey in the room.

But we are Jesus people! We believe that telling the truth is the beginning of a revolution of the heart. We confess Jesus as our Lord which means that the most important political animal is Lamb of God!

Jesus is the truth incarnate come to set us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Someone Reigns!

Psalm 93.1

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved. 

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explain later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III).

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he publicly ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the atrocities that took place during the Vietnam War. 

And it brings me great comfort to know that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us (still) reigns over the cosmos. Barth’s final proclamation is decisively Christians in that we, as disciples, know how the story ends which feeds us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself.

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for five minutes, or scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite and bewildering freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who ever could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been obliterated forever and ever.

Which is all just another way of saying, Christians see the world differently. We see the world through Christ which means that all earthly means of power fall powerless to the King of kings who rules not from a throne built on blood, but instead from a cross marked by his own blood. 

Therefore, we, through the power of Spirit, have the courage and conviction to rebel against the insidious power of despair and, instead, seek the means of grace and the hope of glory that are the brick and mortar of the Kingdom of God.

Someone reigns! That Someone’s name is Jesus Christ! Thanks be to God. 

The King of the Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom

Lift High The Priest

1 Samuel 2.1-10

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren have borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah is miserable.

She’s in a situation no longer permissible these days – polygamy. That is, her husband is married to two women, Hannah and Peninnah.

Hannah’s misery is born out of her inability to bring a child into the world while her rival has produced numerous offspring for their husband.

You can just imagine Peninnah walking around the house with children dangling from either arm while the rest of the herd pummel one another in the next room. “Oh Hannah, its such a shame you’ll never get to be the kind of blessing I am. You’re lucky that our husband has such pity on you, otherwise, who knows what might happen to you!”

It’s got all the makings of a mid-morning soap opera!

Every year Elkanah goes to make his sacrifices and he gives portions to his wives and to his offspring, and he even gives Hannah double portions because he loves her in spite of her childlessness.

And that only makes it worse.

So this year, Hannah weeps from the depths of her soul. She goes to to the temple, throws herself to the floor, and makes a pledge, “O Lord! If you would only look upon my misery! Please give to me a son. If you do, I will dedicate him to your work.”

Meanwhile, Eli, the priest, overhears her ramblings and accuses her of being drunk.

“No,” she says, “I haven’t anything to drink. I’m drunk with sorrow and with hope. If only the Lord will listen to me.”

And the priest says, “Get out of here, the Lord has listened to you.”

In short order, Hannah is pregnant and she eventually gives birth to her son, and names him Samuel, which means “God is exalted.”

Now, if this story were a movie, or a Netflix special, we all know what would happen next: The new mother would rejoice over her baby boy and they would live happily until it came time for her to make good on her promise and there would be some sort of epic show down because, you know, you’ve got to be careful about what you pray for.

But this isn’t a movie, and it’s not a day time soap opera, this is the Gospel of God. 

Hannah raises the child until he is able to eat solid food and then she drops him off at the house of the Lord at Shiloh forever.

Which is where our particular scripture today picks up. It’s in response to the gracious work of the Lord, and returning the child back to God, that Hannah can’t help herself from singing: “My hearts exults in the Lord! My strength is exulted in my God. There is not Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God!”

It’s a touching story. I know quite a few people for whom this is their favorite text in the entirety of the scripture. And it’s made all the more powerful by what happens next: The child Samuel sleeps in the temple at night and he hears the voice of God calling to him, “Samuel, Samuel.” And it’s this Samuel who will become the priest who anoints Saul king over Israel, and eventually David as well.

But we’ll save all of that for another sermon.

What we have today – a woman who begs and the Lord who responds, it’s one that calls us to consider another woman and her child, who we will be celebrating in just a few weeks.

And it calls us to consider how the strange new world of the Bible compels us to narrate our lives as part of God’s work with us. Week after week we return to this bewildering and wonderful text not just as a reprieve from the wider world, and not just because it’s got some exciting narratives, but we also do so because it is alive – it has something to say to us today about who we are and whose we are. 

Ultimately, one of the profound declarations from this whole book, and from this story in particular, is that we don’t belong to ourselves. Despite all the pontificating from the world about our rugged individualism, the Bible tells a very different tale: our lives never really belong to us. That’s what we dare to proclaim in each and every baptism; God has desires, choices, and efforts that help to make our lives into something God wants. 

Each of us are gifted. 

I’ve been here long enough already and have enjoyed enough conversations with most of you to know that is true. Each of you bring your own experiences and gifts and graces to our community of faith and we cannot be what we are without you.

That’s the real beauty of the church – it is filled with a bunch no good dirty rotten scoundrels, myself included, and yet God delights in using our gifts to be gifts for others.

Let me put it this way: Rarely does God give us gifts that are solely for our own personal benefit. God gives us gifts so that we might actually use them for the kingdom.

Priests, pastors, reverends, whatever you want to call them, they can be a lot of things, but more often than not they serve to help us see how God can use who we are for others.

Priests point out the power in people.

There’s this great German expression, “Eine gabe ist Eine aufgabe” – a gift is an assignment. I think that’s what’s at stake in our scripture today and, frankly, in the life of all those who follow Jesus.

Gifts are intimately connected with vocations. God has given us good work to do based on what good we can do. And it is through our calls that our future becomes intertwined with God’s future. Our lives count for, and mean, something as they are caught up in God’s loving purposes in the world.

God calls people. Scripture points to it over and over and over again. And our own experiences point to it as well.

Have you ever heard God call you by name? Honestly, I haven’t. At least, not the way that scripture often portrays it. And yet, as sure as I am standing here I know that God continues to call people. Even me.

I’ve never known a time outside the church. Baptized at nineteen days old – confirmed in the church as a tweenager – ran the sound system on Sundays – played in various bands for the church. All of the good churchy stuff.

And I loved church, but not in a way that I thought I would be doing this kind of church work for the rest of my life. However, one December when I was a teenager, one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident. And like countless times before I stood in the back of the sanctuary and ran the sound for the service. But afterward, when I gathered with my friends and we tried to take steps into a future without someone we loved, I found myself reaching out and comforting other with words that we not my own. That is, the language of the faith was pouring forth from me not because I wanted to, but because God wanted me to.

And so it came to pass one late December evening, I was walking along the sidewalk on Ft. Hunt Road in Alexandria, Virginia, and I felt pulled to my knees. And I prayed and I prayed and I prayed, and when I stood up I knew this was what I had to do with my life.

No parting of the clouds, no big booming voice, just a feeling. But it was enough.

God calls us to use our gifts to be gifts for others. Part of my vocation, part of my call, is helping others to see (or hear) how God is calling them. I point toward the cross in order to help us see how God might be nudging and pushing us in certain ways.

Sometimes it happens over a cup of coffee, or hearing a hymn, or sitting down in a Bible study, or even the proclamation from the pulpit. After all, God works in mysterious ways!

But sometimes, it’s hard to discern how God is calling us. The difficulty stems from the fact that we are bombarded by stimuli from every direction – we are a people overwhelmed. Things are changing constantly and we can barely keep up with all of it. And sometimes the priests in our lives make it even harder! 

Consider Eli with Hannah: he doubts her faithfulness and accuses her of being drunk! It pains me to know that those of my vocation have failed to fulfill our vocation, myself included! Even priests are sinners in need of grace! But when faith is at work, when the Spirit is moving and we have the ability to respond, miraculous things take place.

Or, to put it another way, no matter how wild the world might become, and no matter how poor our priests might be, there is one thing that hasn’t changed, and it never will – the power of God’s unconditional love and the call on our lives from the One who is Love.

We don’t always know what the future will hold. The only safe bet is that the future will include both joy and sadness. However, in Jesus Christ, the great high priest, whatever the future holds, we know who holds the future. God is with us not only today, but tomorrow as well.

We worship the God who calls. God calls us to live for more than just our own selfish desires, God calls us to reach out to the last, least, lost, little, God calls us to use our blessings to be blessings.

Hannah and Samuel’s stories are, in fact, the story of Israel. And Israel’s story is your story, and mine, and ours. It it the story of salvation that comes through another child, born to set us free.

So today, hear the Good News, hear the call of God upon you lives: 

“By grace you have been saved. This is no small declaration! You are not a little bit saved. You have been saved! Totally and for all times. Yes you! Look to the one on the cross! Look to the one who broke forth from the grave! By grace you have been saved!” Amen. 

My Life With God

1 Samuel 1.10

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.

Bishop Will Willimon used to teach a class in which the first assignment of the year was a 3-5 page autobiographical essay titled, “My Life With God.” The idea behind the assignment was to take the time to properly reflect on questions like, “How does God help to explain your life?” and “In what ways has God shaped you into who you are?”

Willimon will often recount his joy with regard to that particular assignment because, every year, he was reminded of the myriad ways in which God really is the maker in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Of all the papers he read over all the years, his favorite began like this:

“I was a teenager from hell. I made my parents’ lives miserable. They weren’t surprised when, only after a year, I flunked out of the University of Texas, drinking and partying my way into oblivion.”

With an introduction like that, Willimon knew he was in for a good story!

The paper continued, “I hung around Austin for a while and, strangely, I got involved in a nearby United Methodist Church. I thought I was rebelling against the church, but I loved this church, adored the pastor, and got more and more involved. Then one Sunday afternoon I drove back to my little town in Texas to tell my parents the astounding news that I was going back to school and that I was going to become a Methodist preacher.

“When I sat my parents down and told them the incredible news, I was shocked when my mother immediately broke into tears and said, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ I couldn’t believe it! I thought she would rejoice! But then she said, ‘Do you remember that I told you your father and I lost a couple pregnancies before we had you? Well, when I got pregnant with you, I prayed to God that if he would only let me keep this baby, I would dedicate him to the Lord. And I would call his name Samuel, just like in the Bible.’ And I said to my mother, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?! You could’ve saved us all a lot of time and headache!’ And she said, ‘I didn’t know that it would work! We’re Methodists! We don’t take this stuff seriously!’”

Stories like the stories in scripture still happen all the time. 

People face seemingly unfaceable situations and they call out to the Lord in need. Despite the major moments of cosmic reordering, the Bible is made up primarily of intimate moments between people seeking out what it means to be in the world. That’s why Jesus tells so many parables (read: stories) that are about things we all experience: regret, jealousy, family dynamic, loss, fear, etc.

We worship the Lord who gives people unimaginable gifts, what we might otherwise call blessings. And we are called to use those blessings to be blessings to others.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Be careful what you pray for!”

The Playlist of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 1.4-20 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including door stoppers, double dipping, the importance of names, John Behr, the theology of death, singing the faith, prophetic calls, the “S” word, Good News, blessed assurance, Little Red Riding Hood, and apocalyptic language. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Playlist of Faith