A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

The Lamb Lamp

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, marriage, vikings, dreams, communal discernment, ecclesial friendship, world-turning, the joy of judgment, Eugene Peterson, fear, timelessness, church architecture, peace, and endings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Lamb Lamp

What’s Wrong With The World?

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist. 

But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. 

In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

What a righteous slogan.

The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.

Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.

I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.

It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”

That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.

All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!

It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.

Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross. 

If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!

We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.

Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.

The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another. 

Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.

And then he died.

In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship. 

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the now-dead man’s insults and I grabbed her by the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him.”

To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary for worship.

Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing. 

The New Newness

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 11.1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including love, books, ordination, dietary restrictions, the rule of threes, kingdom expansion, the praise of creation, funeral texts, tangible promises, commandments, Makoto Fujimura, and newness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The New Newness

We Are What We See

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” 

That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.

George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”

Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”

Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”

Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”

And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”

It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.

Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”

I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”

And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”

Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.

We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office. 

Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.

And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”

In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.

In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.

In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven. 

Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”

You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.

How could any of those people be blessed?

If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.

But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.

There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.

At least, not according to the world.

But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.

The kingdom of God.

And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.

We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.

I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community. 

But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.

Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.

The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.

Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.

Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is. 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.

The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal. 

John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away. 

Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.

Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.

This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.

On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.

But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this: 

John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.

There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!

We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.

God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.

All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours. 

Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

As the old prayer book put it, we are miserable offenders.

We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal. 

What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.

Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.

John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below. 

Believing is seeing. Amen. 

The Business of Forgiveness

There’s a lot of talk about acceptance/tolerance in the church today. We ask people to be more understanding of others, we create curricula of theological teachings that are so watered down so as to say not much of anything, and we assume that being Christians is the same thing as being nice.

But how would you like to be the one tolerated

Tolerance is always a position for those who are in power. And the kind of power we have in the church is best exemplified in the One whose arms were outstretched on the hard wood of the cross. Put another way: We Christians do well to remember that we worship the crucified God.

Tolerance, therefore, is not something we should be in the business of. If the church is in the business of anything, it is the Jesus business.

And the Jesus business is run by forgiveness.

Hymn 560 in the United Methodist Hymnal is titled “Help Us Accept Each Other.” It is a catchy little tune of self-congratulation that is indicative of a church that no longer has anything left to say. If Jesus came so that we would merely accept each other, then there’s no good reason for him to die on a cross. You only kill someone when their very being in the world threatens to upend everything you think you know about the world. 

Jesus died on a cross because his existence in the world called into question the powers and principalities that produce a vision of tolerance rather than an ethic of sacrificial love. 

At the heart of Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus loves us even though Jesus shouldn’t love us. We all do things we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we should do. 

The “church of acceptance” leads to the fundamentally unchristian sentiment of “Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin.” We all know we’re supposed to love sinners, that’s what Jesus did. And yet, Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

The distinction is important. “Loving sinners” places us in the position of power in regard to others whereas “loving neighbors” reminds us that we, ourselves, are also sinners.

In the lexicon of the church this is made manifest whenever we gather at the table and hear: “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.”

While we were yet sinners. Not before and not after. But right smack dab in the midst of our sins, God in Christ loves us and forgives us.

That’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we simply don’t deserve it.

Consider the parables: More often than not they end with someone throwing our the ledger book, or offering mercy before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Or consider Jesus’ life: He pronounces forgiveness from the cross, reconciles with the abandoning disciples in the upper room, chooses the murderous Paul to be the CEO (chief evangelist officer) of the first century. 

Jesus knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and the ones we’re proud of), Jesus knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, Jesus knows our self-centeredness, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus has seen all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, Jesus witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, Jesus is aware of our internet search histories, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus is there with us in the comments we leave on Facebook, Jesus hears us when we scream in the car hoping no one else can hear us, Jesus knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps, then, we should change the words to the aforementioned tepid tune in the church:

Help us forgive each other as Christ forgives us; 

Teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. 

Be present, Lord, among us, and bring us to believe

We are ourselves forgiven and meant to love and live.

On Thinking Theologically

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.

And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”

It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.

On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country. 

Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)

The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.

He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.” 

I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.

We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc. 

And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place). 

The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.

We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end. 

It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.  

Grace Like Rain

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Greek exegesis of Mark, chapel shadows, resurrection reminders, a hopeful ecclesiology, little deaths, goodness and mercy, church camp, resolution, the great ordeal, unbelief, and prayerful discernment. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Like Rain

We Are The Songs We Sing

Revelation 5.11-14

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

“Were you crying during the first hymn?”

She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.

We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.

The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.

But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?

I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”

John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!” 

John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.

And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?

A song.

A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again. 

And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.

Listen to this: My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.

And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.

We are the songs we sing.

The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”

Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?

In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.

Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.

It is a strange love. 

Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.

That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.

Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.

And yet God loves us anyway.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.

Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.

We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”

And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.

They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.

Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.

A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.

And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.

C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”

I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.

More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!

At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants. 

Worship gives us Jesus.

There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”

Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”

Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”

And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.

Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.

Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible. 

John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time. 

And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.

The last word in worship is “Amen.”  Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”

Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.

We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.

A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed. 

The residents sat in abject silence day after day.

We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.

I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”

And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.

It was Amazing Grace.

Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:

The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright singing as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

We are the songs we sing. Amen.