This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Andrew Ware about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 6.1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11). Andrew is the pastor of Beech Grove UMC in Suffolk, VA and he is the host of the Active Faith podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-care, holy terror, calls to confusion, last paragraphs, physical faith, congregational singing, gospel repetition, storying the story, and fearful fishing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Clearly Confounding
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.
It was awesome.
It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.
Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”
As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.
Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.
The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”
Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever.
Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.
Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.
Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.
But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen.
Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t.
When we’re dead, we’re dead.
Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.
We say things like, “so and so passed away.”
What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body?
We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”
Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.
After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.
I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”
“My daddy died” she interrupted.
“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”
“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”
Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.
What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.
Everything else is a mystery.
And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture.
St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.
So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?
What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.
Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others.
Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.
It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.
When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.
And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise.
There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV.
Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.
Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.
That, Capon says, is heaven.
Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.
Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.
And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.
Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.
We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.
Heaven, in short, is fun.
What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.
Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess.
God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.
God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.
In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead.
That’s not just great news, its Good News. Amen.
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Most preachers have a good “first sermon story.”
There’s the tension of having gone from one side of the pulpit to the other, the expectations of all the people in the pews being somewhat responsible for the first time preacher, and the confounding hope that this call is, in fact, real.
I have a friend who was so nervous to prepare and preach his first sermon that he bought a book of “famous sermons” and decided to preach one of them rather than his own.
I have another friend who got up into the pulpit, poured her heart out, and was asked if she would consider being the next pastor of the church she had just preached in right in front of the current preacher!
I was a teenager when I preached for the first time. I felt called by God to the work and when I told my pastor he immediately put me on the schedule to get up in the pulpit. The assigned text was from 1 Corinthians about the body having many members each with their own responsibility. And afterward, I had people tell me again and again, “That’s the best sermon I’ve ever heard!”
Let the reader understand: they all lied. But at least they were kind in their falsehood.
For a long time I’ve thought about the impulse of that congregation to compliment my homiletical efforts despite the fact that it was terrible, and I eventually realized that they loved it not because of what I said, but because I was the one who said what I said.
That is, in me they were seeing themselves – they witnessed God working through one of their own. And they loved it.
And yet, Jesus’ first sermon, and the response from the gathered people, was completely different.
Jesus does all the things any good student of the scriptures would do – he takes the scrolls, reads the text, and sits to teach.
But he doesn’t offer exposition, he doesn’t give the gathered people three ways to be better adherents to the Law, he doesn’t even give them a good joke to cut through the tension of the air.
Instead, Jesus says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing it.”
As in, “The Messiah is here and he is me.”
And the people don’t rush forward to congratulate Jesus on his preaching, they don’t offer him a position as the new rabbi in town. No, they say, “Who the heck does he think he is?”
Jesus applies the prophet’s words to himself; he is the herald who announces a transformation of grace, freedom from sin and suffering, and impossible possibility.
The people, having heard this word, demand a sign. “Prove it, you son of a carpenter!”
Jesus rebukes their desire, noting that “no prophet is accepted in their hometown.” And the sleepy little gathering of the faithful turn into a lynch mob. They march Jesus to the edge of a cliff to end his life, but he mysteriously and miraculously makes his way through the crowd and he leaves.
Jesus is rejected, not for preaching about better behavior, not for strict commands, but because he proclaims the gospel. The gospel is offensive to those who hear it because it runs counter to just about everything else in life – it is everything for nothing, it is the proclamation that we can’t save ourselves but someone can and will, it is the announcement that things are changing for good and we aren’t the ones who are doing the changing.
And we can’t stand it! When God in the flesh comes to us and offers us the greatest gift of all, we chase him to the edge of the cliff and eventually we nail him to the cross. But the Good News is that, three days later, God comes back to us.
The gospel is one of the strangest things around: God does what God does for you and me without us having to do anything in return. But that’s also why we call the Good News good.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, Luke 4.21-30). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including flyover country, James Spader, prophetic calls, wordy words, faithful funerals, re-construction, seasons of refuge, Jurassic Park, wedding requests, unfamiliar preaching, and the condition of our condition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Homecoming
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.
During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”
The room was silent.
Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”
The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.
Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.
It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.
After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.
But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.
Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”
Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith.
For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.
We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.
We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.
God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting.
Nine members of the church were killed.
The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.
He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”
So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.
A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”
So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.
There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.
And we wept.
And then we prayed some more.
How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today.
Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.
So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.
We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices.
And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church.
What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.
This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.
Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?
Without all doubt we may.
And perhaps we must. Amen.
What, exactly, is the Bible? Why do/should Christians read it? Is there a proper way to read it?
The Virginia Annual Conference for the UMC has an annual challenge of reading through the entirety of the Bible and Rev. Matthew Smith and I were recently invited to record a podcast for the conference about Bible basics. You can check out the episode here:
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Most weeks we find leftover detritus in the pews after worship. There’s the occasional candy wrapper, a handful of loose change, and (my favorite) children’s drawings. The drawings are usually confined to the margins of various pieces of paper like offering envelopes or prayer cards and whenever I encounter one I am hit with waves of nostalgia.
There’s no telling how many bulletins I covered with Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and comic book heroes over the years.
But, at some point, either from pressure applied by my parents or the wandering gaze of other church members, I gave up my artistic Sunday morning pursuits and I attempted to be a good Sunday morning worshiper. I said all the right prayers, sang all the right hymns, I stood up and sat back down just like everyone else. And yet, there were plenty of Sundays when the sermon could not hold my attention and I needed something to do.
So I did the only thing I could do: I reached in front of me, grabbed a pew Bible, and I started reading.
This is my confession: I fell in love with the Bible not because of some gifted homiletician, or from a remarkably profound experience of Vacation Bible School, but because I read the good book Sunday after Sunday while worship was happening around me.
There’s this moment in the Old Testament when the priest Ezra pulls the holy scriptures up and the gathered people rise in reverence and then fall to their knees in prayer. Their love for the Word is palpable from the pages of the Bible precisely because they understood it to be the remarkable thing that it is.
And yet, today, I’m not sure how we feel about the holy scriptures.
It doesn’t help that we often use it like a bludgeon against those with whom we disagree.
It doesn’t help that the words within it get cherry-picked to make whatever argument we want to make.
It doesn’t help that the Bible can leave us scratching our heads more than wanting to stand up in reverence or pull us down in prayer.
But perhaps we can reclaim a love for the scriptures when we start to see them as the strange new world that God has made for us. Or, to put it another way, maybe it would help if we stopped reading it as if it’s an instruction manual of religious behavior and instead we started watching it like a movie.
You can’t understand a movie, or say anything about it really, until you’ve consumed the thing as a whole. The Bible is the same. It is not meant to be taken apart in these little discrete segments – it is meant to be seen, appreciated, and understood as an entire proclamation.
When you start to see the Bible like a movie you start to appreciate how all the separate parts might be entertaining or enlightening but in terms of their meaning, you cannot know what it is until the end. Each story/chapter/verse seems like it’s going somewhere, but only when you see Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave, all the sudden you start to understand what’s behind everything!
So the next time you’re in church on a Sunday morning, or watching the livestream from the comfort of your couch, and you grow bored with the preacher up in the pulpit, reach for your Bible and enter the strange new world that God has made for you.
It might just change your life.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, age differences, textual reverence, liturgical moments, the gift of rediscovery, the equity of the Law, restoration and reconciliation, new gifts, pulpit shadows, and Martin Luther. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take It Up And Read
1 Timothy 2.8-14
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.
We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.
It was awful.
It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.
And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”
It was perfect.
I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon.
It was perfect.
But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”
I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.
Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.
The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.
But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible.
Well, sort of.
There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.
Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Men should pray, Paul says.
Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.
Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.
Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.
Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.
And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…
However, scripture says other things as well.
Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.
And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible.
And the Gospels are no different!
Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.
Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!
Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.
And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.
And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.
And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.
It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.
Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.
God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.
It’s really as simple as that.
And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.
Which leads us to Galatians.
Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.
Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us.
Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.
The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each.
In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way.
The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it.
Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.
But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
It’s a bit I often use when I’m preaching for a wedding. Something about how, in the Gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven and he has some rather strange and bizarre answers. The kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like… treasure buried in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like… yeast. On and on. But the thing Jesus compares the kingdom to most of all is a feast, a party.
I like to bring this up at weddings because immediately following my part, the newlyweds usually lead everyone in attendance to a reception during which they celebrate. It is my attempt at showing how the marriage ceremony, the part with all the religious language, is connected to everything that happens after. Or, to put it bluntly: Jesus is just as much present in the celebration as the ceremony.
And so it came to pass, during one particular wedding, that the bridal party actually listened to what I was saying throughout the ceremony to such a degree that, for the rest of the evening, they shouted “Party Like Jesus!” every time they lifted their campaign flutes.
I’ll admit that it was a rather contradictory moment, and yet it held the promise of the Gospel!
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, a fair amount of Jesus’ ministry took place over a cup of wine with friends. He, to use the language of Robert Farrar Capon, was literally the Spirit of the party. Therefore, we do well to remember that feasts (maritally oriented or otherwise) are blessed opportunities to have a little slice of heaven on earth.
I love that Jesus compares the kingdom to a feast because a feast (more often than not) is something we’re invited to. It is an ever ringing reminder that no matter what we do, or leave undone, God is the host, and God likes crowded tables. There is no bouncer at the party, save for a king who insists on dragging in people off the street. There is no list of pre-requisites to enter, save for recognizing that we have no business being at the party to which we’re invited. There isn’t even an expectation of reciprocation, save for the fact that we’re encouraged to stumble out from the party doing whatever we can to share the joy of it with others.
Or, as Capon put it:
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is the floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
And, because I believe that music often does a better job at conveying theological claim than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in the party spirit:
Miner is a folk-rock family band based in Los Angeles. Their propulsive “Tomorrow” is simple in terms of its lyrics and yet profound in its arrangement. The thematic “waves washing over” are conveyed through the repetition of the vocals and the drums which build throughout the song. In a time when it feels like we’re bombarded by nothing but bad news, the proclamation of the Good News of better days is something, I think, we can all use right now.
Real Estate is known for their catchy guitar earworms, and their easy rock feel. When I saw them live a few years ago everyone in the audience exuded happiness as they swayed back and forth to the music. The band covered the Grateful Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” back in 2016 and I love returning to this track for a little boost every so often. I hope it does the same for you.
May Erlewine is a singer-songwriter from Michigan who teamed up with the Woody Goss (of Vulfpeck fame) Band for an amazing record in 2020. The single “Anyway” has funky drums, a picky guitar riff, and a smooth melody. Who wouldn’t want to hear “I’m gonna love you anyway” over and over?