This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [C] (Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Lenten observances, first fruits, Karl Barth on time, doom and gloom, institutional identities, rocking climbing, angelology, imaging salvation, preaching anxieties, Twitter, and temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Words About The Word
Monthly Archives: February 2022
The Future Present
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.
And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.
Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.
And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.
And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.
It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”
But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.
“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”
And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”
And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle.
Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us.
Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”
As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”
Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.
Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.
The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.
And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel.
Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.
And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him.
He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.
There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.
And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.
Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.
The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.
Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.
Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.
We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.
Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.
But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.
Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists.
Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France.
The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy.
Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.
And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.
And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear.
The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation.
It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.
Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency.
And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.
There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.
We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.
Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.
They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.
Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”
But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves.
We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.
Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?
It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.
The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!
We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.
And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.
We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.
But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen.
A Chance To Feel Self-Righteous (with Fleming Rutledge)
Five years ago the Crackers & Grape Juice team had an idea for a new lectionary podcast and we have published an episode every Monday since. Our first guest was Fleming Rutledge and she knocked our socks off (as usual). We are reposting that first episode because Fleming’s thoughts and comments are just as relevant today as they were five years ago. In it she talks about what she deems the “current preaching crisis,” the desire to appear prophetic, and the call to stand under the judgment of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Chance To Feel Self-Righteous
A Modest Proposal
2 Corinthians 3.17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. The poster was published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and it displayed a haunting image of two people in grief holding one another, and underneath the image were these words: “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.”
Hauerwas then explains how, for over twenty years, students (and professors) would knock on his door with anger and frustration. They would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”
And Hauerwas would reply the same way every time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Last night Russian forces invaded Ukraine, assaulting by land, sea, and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two. Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and countless Ukrainian citizens are currently fleeing for their lives.
And Christians here in the US have already floated around a bunch of possible responses from flooding the Ukrainian military with money, arms, and technology, to invading Russia to make them pay for what they’re doing, to praying for peace.
Jesus commands the disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which looks nice on a cross-stitch hanging on the wall in your living room until you start to see images of bombs exploding and parents frantically trying to rush their children to safety.
War is always complicated, ugly, and even addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few other things can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Way conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness made manifest in machine guns. War is the depth of our depravity.
Even the word “war” fails to express the frightening nature of the act. We so quickly connect the word “war” with the “righteous” outcomes of our wars.
Can you imagine how differently we would remember and even think about wars if we called them something else? World Massacre II? The Vietnamese Annihilation? Operation Desert Carnage?
Part of the strange witness of Christianity, and an all too often overlooked aspect of the faith, is that Jesus rules in weakness. God in Christ reconciles the world through the cross. Our salvation is wrought not with the storming of the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the powers and the principalities with a mobilized military, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.
As the images continue to flood in from Ukraine, as the talking heads on every news channel tell us how we should feel and think about the images, I find myself grateful (oddly enough) for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church because it already outlines how we (Methodists) think and feel about war.
Namely, that war is incompatible with Christianity.
“We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and the example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.”
It might be a modest proposal, but we have to start somewhere.
1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
A United Methodist Bishop received a chain saw one Christmas and quickly went to work with it. And then, on New Year’s Eve, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed ahold of his sleeve, threw him to the ground, and in a matter of seconds did some serious damage and he was rushed to the emergency room.
The bishop later reflected that, while riding in the back of the ambulance and the sirens were ringing, if he died because of blood loss, he hoped that his wife would be smart enough to tell everyone that he died chopping firewood for poor orphans.
While in reality he was really just trimming some hedges that weren’t yet in need of trimming.
However, he didn’t die.
Though at moments he wished he did.
He went through serious surgery and was stuck in the hospital for quite some time while he recovered.
And, it was during this time that a well intentioned chaplain entered the room and offered “pastoral presence.” The bishop had enough pastoral presence in his life, but he motioned for the young man to come in. The chaplain looked over the bandage wrapped around his arm and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
The bishop replied, “Sometimes.”
“Well then,” the chaplain intoned, “I suppose your accident caused you to do a lot of praying?”
And that’s when the bishop realized that throughout his whole ordeal he hadn’t felt moved to prayer in the slightest. He shared, later, that his lack of prayer was not due to a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The bishop was quick to note that there are scores of healing stories in scripture, that Paul considered healing a sign of God’s active grace, that the book of Acts points to the power of Christ working to heal through the disciples, and that even James the brother of Jesus calls for the people called church to pray of the sick that they might be healed.
Why then was he, a bishop in the church, so reluctant to pray?
At first he wondered if his lack of prayer could be attributed to the fact that God had better things to do with more people in need than his little chainsaw accident. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about his aversion to the regular prayer requests he had received countless time before throughout his ministry.
That is, he was sick and tired of everyone being sick and tired in their prayers.
We’re at the tail end of what we call the season after Epiphany. Transfiguration is coming. Ash Wednesday is coming. Lent is coming. We will shortly make the journey inward to confront the condition of our own condition leading up to the cross on Good Friday, and yet, we’re still dealing with the shock of the incarnation.
Sure, most of us have packed away all the Christmas decorations weeks ago. Though, if you drive around the neighborhood around the church, you’re still likely to catch quite a few Christmas lights dangling from gutters.
But the proclamation of Christmas is one that lingers even when we move through different liturgical seasons. God, bewilderingly, refused to stay above and instead got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, and moved in next door, as it were.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, chose to be a people, a family, what we now call church.
We are the body of Christ in the world.
And how is our body faring?
Some of us we are tracking our calories constantly, or our exercising doesn’t count unless we can post it somewhere on social media. Some of us are struggling to fall asleep at night as we run through the list of things that terrify us. Some of us are making plans for the next degree, or the next job, or (heaven forbid) the next spouse.
We’re obsessed with our bodies and our physical well being. It dominates our prayers to the degree that if we ever ask someone to pray for us there’s a better than good chance that our request has to do with our, or someone else’s, body.
It dominates our waking, and sleeping life, so much so that many of us have devices strapped to our wrist that not only tell us if we move enough during the day but also if we’re getting the right kind of sleep at night.
And for those of you keeping score at home, I’m wearing one of them right now!
Our health and well being, or lack thereof, is constantly being reinforced through commercials designed to sell us on bodies that we will never have and beauty magazines that will only ever make us feel ugly.
And here’s the Christian message in the midst of all of it: it’s not up to you.
Your salvation isn’t up to you.
You can’t earn it through perfect church attendance on Sunday mornings.
You can’t earn it by giving more through the offering plate than the person next to you.
You can’t earn it from developing an 18 pack of abs.
You can’t earn your salvation because it is a gift given by the only One who can: God.
And yet, the gift of salvation, our very resurrection from the dead, means that our bodies matter today. It means that, once we come to grips with what God did and does, our being in the world changes.
The Corinthians to whom Paul writes his epistles, the Christians he derides for their foolishness, were living as if their bodies no longer mattered – they were giving in to their desires to such a degree that it was harming themselves as individuals and as a community. They were getting drunk on the wine from communion, they were trading bedfellows, they were letting their flesh and blood dictate everything about who they were.
And Paul says, “No! Listen: we’re not there yet. We’re still in our bodies in this mortal life, but the resurrected life is coming.”
Our bodies are important. As I’ve noted before – Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one. It’s why we baptize with water, and we share bread and cup. It’s why we take seriously the needs of the hungry, and the poor, and the outcasts. And it’s why we are bold to pray for the health and well being of ourselves and others.
But all of that is a long cry from the obsessiveness that we have with our own bodies today.
None of us have the body that we really wish we had. And if we do, we resent how much work it takes to make our bodies look and feel that way. And the older we get, the more we discover that our bodies are not as trustworthy as we thought they once were.
Certain foods don’t sit like they used to. It’s harder to lose the holiday weight. No amount of lotions and creams can make our wrinkles disappear. And that’s not even mentioning the inability of our bodies to ward away sickness.
The bodies we are in can’t be, and won’t be, perfect.
Paul puts it this way: the flesh is weak.
That’s why he admonishes the Corinthians to not give in to each and every little desire while, at the same time, he reminds them (and us) that we need not beat ourselves up over whether or not we look and feel like we want to look and feel.
Certainly, there are moments during Jesus ministry when he healed those in need, but those moments are remarkably ambiguous. He didn’t heal every sick person in Judea, and even when he did heal he often told people to not tell anyone about it.
Whatever Jesus’ mission was, it was about more than physical restoration.
Consider: Each and every person that Jesus did heal eventually died.
Even Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.
Outside of scripture we should note that churches were the location for, and eventually created some of, the very first hospitals because taking care of the last, least, lost, little, and dead is part of the work of God.
But only recently has our obsession with our bodies come to dominate just about every aspect of life.
Including our prayers.
That’s not how Jesus prayed, nor it is how Jesus taught us to pray. Bread and trespasses are mentioned in the Lord’s prayer, but our illness and discomfort are not. I have heard prayers and I myself have prayed prayers about every medical diagnosis you can imagine, but I rarely pray for God’s strength to help me love my enemies, I’m not often asked to pray for someone to have the courage to actually forgive the person that harmed them.
Prayer is, and must be, more than bringing our wish lists to Jesus, asking him for occasional help when our bodies are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to.
Prayer, instead, is the risky attempt to let Jesus speak.
That bishop, the one who nearly cut his arm off, the one who didn’t pray in the hospital, he said he was ultimately reluctant to clasp his hands together in petition because the last thing he wanted was to risk a visit from Jesus, who usually shows up making our lives harder and not easier.
The bishop also said that one of the joys of following Jesus (and he used joy sarcastically) is that Jesus usually shows up even when we don’t pray, and sometimes because we don’t pray.
He experienced Jesus in learning how to be dependent on someone else in his healing, something that most of us avoid at all costs – we never want to be a burden.
He experienced Jesus in the reminder of his own fragility, and his destiny to return to the dirt from which he was created.
He experienced Jesus as the only hope in the world he really had, because were his salvation up to himself, he really would be a lost cause.
There was a time when health didn’t mean just freedom from pain and physical discomfort – health meant wholeness, even holiness. And sometimes holiness is nothing more than coming to the realization that what makes the Good News good is that it isn’t up to us – it’s up to God.
Which is foolishness according to the world. The world bangs us over the head every chance it gets about the need for us to be self-made creatures, to make our own destinies, to pull ourselves up by our boot straps.
Grace, from that perspective, is complete foolishness. It is everything for nothing. It is a divine lark in the midst of overwhelming frustration. It is the only thing we need and the only thing we don’t deserve.
Our bodies will fail us, but God won’t. Maybe some of us will be fortunate enough to experience some divine healing in this life, but all of us have already received the greatest healing of all – the gift of salvation.
In the end, the only thing we have to do is trust God. And when we do that, well, then we’re living in grace and by grace.
No matter what happens to us in the course of that trust – no matter how many things we do or leave undone – if we can trust that God, by death and resurrection, has made all things new, then we can rest in our gift and relax.
The whole diorama of all our mediocre performances (which is all we can ever really offer anyway) can’t stop the Love that refuses to let us go. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our works were rotten, then he certainly isn’t going to flunk us if our bodies aren’t perfect.
Do you see? That means we can fail again and again and still live in the life of grace.
Because, at the very worst, all we can be is dead and for the One who is Alpha and Omega, that’s no trouble at all. Amen.
Lost In A Cloud
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Andrew Whaley about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [C] (Exodus 34.29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 2.12-4.2, Luke 9.28-43a). Andrew is the lead pastor of Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Sufjan Stevens, Because Of Winn-Dixie, theological sunburns, the necessity of community, rediscovering the sacred, freeing freedom, stained glass language, Transfiguration challenges, and dissonance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lost In A Cloud
Too True To Be Good
1 Corinthians 15.12-20
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not be raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
He boarded the plane, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs during the flight. He was a pastor and a professor of theology and he knew better than to tell people, on a plane, what he did for a living.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at his average sized seat, and squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The preacher stuffed another small bag under his seat, and closed his eyes.
“Is that a Bible?” His seat mate intoned.
The preacher looked down and saw the spine of the Good Book sticking out for all eyes to see.
“What are you, a preacher?”
“Something like that” he responded while crossing his arms and closing his eyes, again.
“Well, I’m not a believer” the man said.
“That’s fine,” the preacher said without opening his eyes, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference what you do, or don’t believe. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher thought that would keep his seat mate quiet for the remained of the flight. But he was wrong. Even though he sat there with his eyes clothes and arms crossed, the man started talking, and he didn’t stop.
First it was just the usual flying-next-to-a-stranger chit chat but eventually it turned serious, and the preacher’s seat partner started talking about Vietnam.
That’s when he opened his eyes and really listened.
The man went on and one, talked the entire flight, describing all the terrible things he did and how, went he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about what he was told to do.
Eventually, the man said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What you mean ‘confessed’? I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to had over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”
And suddenly, he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plane, and said, “But I already told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt, and stood up over the man and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what’s inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one person to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign lit up and dinged for the whole cabin to hear, and a steward came over and asked the preacher to sit down. However, he ignored it, and placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But you can’t do that,” the man whispered, while his eyes watered up.
“Oh yes I can, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear it, and the man became a puddle of tears and he wept over himself like a child.
The rest of the plane was silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
When the plan finally landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the good news. So the preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “If what you said is true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “It takes a miracle for all of us. It’s too true to be good. That’s why we call it the Gospel.”
That’s a true story and I love it. I love it because its so good and true.
Notice, the preacher didn’t sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the sadness with talk of duty or responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead, he offered absolution.
He, to use the language of Paul, took the man out of his sins.
It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Paul is worried about his friends in the faith, his Corinthian Christians – that’s what the whole letter is about. They’re drifting away from the path of the truth and the life and the way that Paul first shared with them.
He catches wind that they are no longer sharing the eucharist together, so he writes about the body of Christ having many members.
He learns that they are fighting constantly over who is the best and who is the worst, so he writes about Christ alone being the head of the body.
And here, in chapter 15, he gets to the heart of the matter – the resurrection of the dead.
Paul, if you can’t tell, is spitting logic through the pages of his epistle – “This is it you Corinthian Christians! It’s this or nothing! Everything, and I mean everything, depends on the truth of the One who is truth incarnate.”
He writes first of the story that he shared with them – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
It’s an announcement about things that happened – not a collection of generic religious principles, not a list of things to do or not to do.
The heart of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So Paul doesn’t pull any punches – If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools, and we are still in our sins.
It’s hard for us Christians, today, to hear the radical nature of Paul’s proclamation. We forget that this letter was written, sent, and read by Christians before any of the gospel stories were written down. We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, there’s a good chance that the Gospel would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to Gentiles like us.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been in vain, and Christian preaching is nothing more than wishful delusions and empty gestures.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with our faithless worship all while expecting people to live into a new world order that doesn’t really exist.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then the only thing we can offer the world is a pious lie that leaves us completely and utterly hopeless.
But, let us remember: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.
And yet, the desire for proof remains. We’re addicted to certainty, us moderns. We want clarity above all else, and we can’t imagine a world outside the binaries of our distinctions.
But what is life if not a mystery?
I can’t prove the resurrection. No one can.
Believe this, believe that, we say in the church. And somehow the genuine character of one’s belief has become the litmus test for Christianity. Which is made all the more strange when we consider the amount of doubt right smack dab in the Bible!
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “What a lost people we must be to think that God really cares whether we believe in Him or not.”
You see, one of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not continent on our belief. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still Lord.
We can’t prove it; we can only trust it – we can only point to it, and to the results of it around us.
Consider – Mark’s gospel tells us that, on Easter, the women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
But they told somebody something, otherwise, none of us would be here.
We experience Easter even now, all these years later. Some of us rejoice in the Good News, and some of us are terrified by it. And yet, Easter is why we are here. We’re here because, one way or another, we have heard the call of the Risen Christ, even when we may not have known that was what we heard.
Maybe some of us are here because we’re looking for proofs. I say look around, and you will begin to see it.
The women who went to the tomb that Easter morning were looking for and expecting a dead Jesus. And the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead. He ain’t here! He’s in Galilee. Go!”
When Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross, when he drew all things unto himself, he took all of our sins, past, present, future, he nailed them to the cross and left them there forever.
Therefore we are no longer in our sins, they do not define who we are, we have been set free forever and ever.
In church speak we call that absolution.
It is the proclamation of the promise that Christ made to us through his death and resurrection.
It is the declaration that even though Paul has a lot to say about sin, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – namely all of the them.
It is the conviction that Christ will keep coming back to us, banging us over the head if necessary with the only thing we really need – forgiveness.
God so loved the world that God got down from the throne and condescended to our miserable existence to reduce us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.
God so loved the world that God broke forth from the tomb and left behind the chains of death so that death will never be the final word.
God so loved the world that God died and lived again in order that we might do the same and no longer live lives defined by our sins.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their encounter with the Holy One of Israel. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow, or the next day, or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. And later, when asked why he kept answered the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
It’s too true to be good. It’s Gospel. Amen.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week I paced through the “seasonal” aisle at the grocery store looking for the right Valentines. Was I searching for the items that would perfectly convey my love for my wife? No. Instead, I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could distribute during his celebration of the holiday in his kindergarten class.
Tucked away behind the heart shaped boxes of chocolate varieties was a solitary box of Mandalorian Valentines, and I knew that Elijah would delight in giving them to all his friends.
And this morning, as I walked him to school, I asked him if he knew why he was bringing Valentines to school and he said, “I’m sure it has something to do with Jesus.”
And he wasn’t wrong!
Valentine’s Day is a particularly striking holiday because of the juxtaposition from how it started to what it looks like today.
There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. That is, their commitment to the kingdom of God was such that the powers and principalities believed the only way to stop them was to kill them.
But perhaps the most famous Valentine was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought in his blind daughter and asked for her to be healed. If Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.
Valentine, then, placed his hands on the girl’s blind eyes and her vision was restored.
Overcome by the miracle, the judge agreed to get baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.
Later, Valentine was arrested (again) for his continued attempts to share the Good News and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine attempted to convince the Claudius to convert to the faith, but then Valentine was condemned to death unless he renounced his own faith.
Valentine refused and was beheaded on… (wait for it)… February 14th, 269.
Later additions to the story proclaim that, shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a letter to the young girl he once healed and he signed it, “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspire the holiday we now enjoy.
So, what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of roses?
The book of Genesis is full of family betrayals and deceits. Particularly dreadful is the story of Jacob being sold into slavery by his brothers because they couldn’t handle their own jealousy. Jacob makes a name for himself in Egypt and eventually reconciles with the very brothers who abandoned/betrayed him when they come looking for food to eat.
Jacob’s love for his brothers was such that, even though they ruined his life, he “kisses them and weeps upon them.”
Love is awful like that. It can make us do crazy and bewildering things. At least, they are crazy and bewildering according to the world.
But consider what we do on Valentine’s Day: we throw away gobs of money on trivial and fleeting items. The flowers will eventually fade and the chocolate will expire.
But others will say that St. Valentine’s willingness to die for his faith, and Jacob’s willingness to forgives his brothers, is even crazier.
Love is a crazy thing.
It also happens to be how God feels about us.
God, in Christ, full of hope and grace and mercy mounts the hard wood of the cross to die for us. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
You Don’t Have To Be Responsible
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Andrew Whaley about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Genesis 45.3-11, 15, Psalm 37.1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50, Luke 6.27-38). Andrew is the lead pastor of Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Frozen Chosen, the death of Christendom, striking the familiar, preservation, delighting in delight, body positivity, Christians as losers, Karl Barth on neighbors, and the uniqueness of the church. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: You Don’t Have To Be Responsible
Winning By Losing
He came down with them and stood at a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, and respected for you will mourn.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the cheek, give to everyone who begs, on and on.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 is filled with wonder and with confusion. It has attracted and bewildered Christian for centuries and centuries. For as many answers as it provides, it leaves us with even more questions.
Like the parables, the Sermon is designed to pop every circuit breaker in our minds; it doesn’t explain things to our satisfaction, but instead calls to our attention the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
Basically, we can help but walk away from Jesus’ sermon with our minds abuzz.
In the realm of the church, explanation is not the same thing as proclamation – though most of us prefer the former rather than the latter. We like things to be nice and orderly, we want things tied up neatly in a bow.
And Jesus rejects that desire completely.
Jesus, in his Sermon, isn’t telling us what works – he’s telling us what the Kingdom of God is like.
One of my professors from seminary, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it this way:
“A common interpretation is that the Sermon is a law that presents an impossibly high ideal to drive us to a recognition of our sin. It is meant to drive us to grace. In other words, it is not really meant to tell us what to do but rather to remind us that Christian moral life is about love. This internalizes the Christian life so that what it means to be a Christian is to do whatever we do from the motive of love. “Love and do what you will” — bad advice if I have ever heard it! It has an even worse effect on christology; why would anyone ever have put Jesus to death if it is all just a matter of being loving?” – Stanley Hauerwas, A Sermon On The Sermon On The Mount
We are so very tempted to read all of Jesus’ words in his Sermon as a list of virtues that good people ought to have. We walk away thinking we’re supposed to be poor, or hungry, or persecuted because of our faith. We convince ourselves that turning the other cheek or praying for our enemies will make us righteous or blessed.
Yet, what we miss is the fact that Jesus’ words assume there are already people in the community called church who find themselves in such positions.
Being blessed, according to Jesus, does not mean, “If you do this, then you will be rewarded.”
Being blessed, according to Jesus, means, “If you find yourself in a position like this, you are blessed because you are part of a community that makes all the difference in the world.”
Again, Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples, or us, that if we just muster up the courage to love our enemies then we will no longer have enemies. He doesn’t offer these words as a formula for how to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, loving our enemies and turning the other cheek generally guarantees that we will continue to have enemies who delight in hitting us on the cheek.
Christians don’t win by winning – we win by losing.
Remember, we worship the crucified God.
Jesus offers this Sermon to us, these descriptions and admonitions not because they will change the world. He proclaims all of it because the world has been changed by Christ forever, and we can no longer act as we once did.
We Christians are a weird bunch, in the end. We believe in impossible possibilities, and we pray for people the world never would, and we refuse to believe that anyone is a hopeless case.
And yet, without us living in such strange and faithful ways, the world will have no way of ever knowing what grace, peace, and mercy actually look like.