This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including subtitles, Andy Root, sacramental theology, unnamed characters, healing, airplane confessions, inadequate prayers, poetry and prose, American Beauty, weddings, karma, James Joyce, boasting, ordination, and leadership. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Consequence Culture
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
In the summer of 2007, having completed my first year of college, I volunteered to help lead a youth mission trip for my home church to New Orleans. It had been two years since the devastation of hurricane Katrina, and parts of the city were still in desperate need of help.
We spent our days in the sweltering heat exchanging crow bars and sledge hammers for demolition. Every house we approached had been boarded up since the storm, and we were tasked with removing everything we could so that city inspectors could deem whether or not the framing was safe for rehabilitation, or if they would have to tear the entire thing down to the foundation and start over.
The mildewed sheet rock was easy enough to pull down, as were the piles of clothing that remained stacked in various states of disarray. But the mangled children’s toys, and the warped family photo albums were another thing entirely.
Mission trips are often marked by laughter and singing and frivolity.
But not when we were in New Orleans.
What I remember most is the silence.
But that’s actually not true. There is something I remember more than the silence.
On our final day, shortly before we were scheduled to fly home, we were given the tour of the lower ninth ward. This was the spot hit hardest, and unlike our modest de-construction work on houses in other parts of the city, the lower ninth ward was devoid of everything. No trees. No bushes. No houses at all. The only evidence that anyone had ever lived there were rectangles of concrete organized in a grid pattern.
A tour guide was leading us through the neighborhood, pointing to memories of the past never to return again, and at some point he said, “The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.”
The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.
Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to that. I know I heard it, in as many words, after hurricane Sandy in New York, I know I heard it after hurricane Harvey hit Houston.
And, more often than not, it’s Christians who make those kinds of theological claims!
And every time it makes me wonder if they’ve ever actually read the story of Noah and the Flood.
Shortly after our first parents stumble out of the garden of Eden, never to return again, things go from bad to worse. Sin abounds on the earth, enmity between God’s creatures plagues the entirety of creation. By the 6th chapter of Genesis the state of things is so bad that God regrets creating creation.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to the heart.”
Things are so bad off that rather than try to rehabilitate the state of things, God decides to flush it all down the toilet and start over.
Except for Noah and his family and two of every kind of creature.
Noah found favor with God and was a righteous man.
Therefore Noah receives his divine commission, specific instructions for a rather large nautical vessel, and prepares for the day of judgment.
It rains for forty days and forty nights.
Let us pause for a moment.
This is a beloved tale in the church. We teach it to our children with flannel graphs and plastic toys. We act it out in vacation bible school and we sing songs about it.
I understand the sentimentality of the animals being something worthy of childlike reflection. But this is a horrifying story.
Water is strange. Without it, we die. Too much of it, we die. We are surround by water prior to birth, but in life water is often an uncontrollable agent of chaos.
And in this story Noah and his family were spared, but literally everything else in creation is destroyed. What we often miss is that when the seas recede and the ark lands on solid ground, the Noahic family was surrounded by abject devastation.
I know of no children’s version of this story that contains this important and devastating detail. Save for the Brick Testament which, somehow, makes it even worse.
Moreover, according to the strange new world of the Bible, God floods the world not as an act of caprice, but out of a desire to cleanse creation from unrighteousness. It is not a random event in which God intervenes on behalf of Noah and his family.
The flood is willed by God.
The situation of creation could not be improved. The trajectory from the garden did not lead us to getting better all the time, but getting worse. And perhaps the most frightening part of the story isn’t even in the story. It’s how true it all still is today.
Try as we might, and we do try all the time, we can’t make ourselves righteous.
We try to right ourselves in subtle ways, like how during the pandemic the ubiquity of Peloton’s (stationary bicycles) shot through the roof as people were spending more time at home and wanted to spend more time working on their health but a staggering number of the devices were purchased only to be used once or twice or not at all.
And sometimes we try to right ourselves, save ourselves, in some not so subtle ways. We give our lives over to busyness hoping that so long as we have something to show for our lives, our lives will live on after we’re gone, or we put our hope in political machinations that will surely make the world a better place.
But it doesn’t work that way – we can’t right ourselves.
And yet, Noah, in the eyes of the Lord, is deemed righteous.
The Bible gives us zero examples of what that might mean or look like, though he does do what the Lord tells him so that’s got to count for something. The only thing we can say about Noah’s life, and his righteousness takes place after the flood.
You see, when we tell this story, and even when we read this story, it ends with the rainbow. The sign of God’s new covenant with creation. Which would be a fitting conclusion. But the story keeps going. And when the waters finally recede, the first thing Noah does is cultivate a vineyard and he gets good and drunk from his own wine, so much so that he shames himself in front of his children and he curses one of them.
So much for being righteous.
Which means, in the end, the flood is a failed new beginning, at least as far as humanity is concerned. We are not better off after it than we were before it. And the rest of the Bible keeps steering in this direction.
In just a few chapters the descendants of Noah will get it in their thick skulls to build a giant tower so they can be just like God. Abram is called into a life of impossible possibility and continually pretends to be something he is not. Jacob is blessed only because he pulls one over on his father. Joseph sees the future and is literally sold into slavery by his brothers.
I could go on.
From Eden to Egypt, from progress to prophets, the people of God go from obedience to disobedience over and over again. We are miserable offenders who, when push comes to shove, look out for ourselves and only for ourselves.
But the story of the Bible isn’t a story about us, thanks be to God. The story of the Bible is the story of God.
The waters recede after the flood, Noah and his family wander among the graveyard of the Earth and God sets a rainbow in the sky. “I am making a new covenant,” says the Lord, “and this shall be a sign to you and to me.”
God reminds God’s self.
That’s a bit strange.
But perhaps God needs the reminder of the promise because we fail to keep up our end of the bargain.
In most covenants, if one of the parties breaks the rules, the covenant is over. But this covenant, marked by the rainbow, unlike every earthly covenant, is not contingent on our obedience. That is: God remains steadfast even if we don’t, because we won’t.
God’s love and faith and grace always exceed what we can do.
We are absolutely addicted to keeping score in this life. I did this for you but you didn’t return the favor. We all have these little ledger books in our mind about what we have done and what has been done, or left undone, to us.
And yet, right here in Genesis 9, we catch a glimpse of how God has hung up the ledger book forever. God promises to never ever again cover the earth with the destructive powers of water as a judgment against us even though God has every right to judge us. We have failed to be an obedient church, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, on and on.
But instead of giving us what we deserve, God hangs up the bow.
God saves the world not from our brokenness, but instead in our brokenness.
We don’t like that.
We never have.
It’s why we present these perfect version of ourselves in church, or at work, or at school, or online. We love the idea of getting better all the time. But God doesn’t meet us in our perfection. God meets us exactly as we are, wherever we are.
We can’t get back to Eden on our own. We certainly try, and usually make a heck of a mess while doing so. But instead of getting back to Eden, God brings it to us. That it has a name: Jesus.
In the fullness of time, in the incarnation, God comes into the muck and mire of life, a life no better than it was before the flood, and becomes the living water for us, which makes a way where there is no way.
The whole crux of the Noah story is that, in the end, God hangs up the rainbow and says, “I’m never going to do that again.” That’s the promise. It’s the first covenant of grace and mercy. The rainbow is a reminder that God is for us, no matter what!
Listen – Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to saves sinners and only sinners.”
Jesus does not write us off for our faults or our failures. Instead he says, “You are mine and I am thine. No matter what.” Amen.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The Bible repeats itself.
There are literal phrases that show up word for word in different sections, relevant themes pop up over and over again, and there are call backs (and call forwards) all over the place.
For instance: If you were to read the assigned texts for this Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary you would encounter the radical departure of the prophet Elijah into the fiery whirlwind (2 Kings 2), the psalmist’s meditation on the holiness of God (Psalm 77), Paul’s proclamation about the freedom of the Christian (Galatians 5), and Jesus’ challenging call to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9). On the surface they might seem like completely unrelated texts and yet they all hammer home the call to follow the unknowable God.
The repetition of the Bible is also mirrored in the repetitive nature of our worship. We mark the year with the same liturgical seasons returning to the same themes over and over again. We do so not because the liturgical calendar keeps spinning like a broken record, but because we need to hear and receive these scriptures over and over again.
In life there is this beautiful desire to return to the familiar from a different angle. It’s why so many of us enjoy “cover songs”; the beauty of the original is brought to us through different voices and instrumentation that heightens what we already know.
In the life of the church this takes place every week when a preacher stands up to preach. The texts have remained the same for centuries, but every Sunday a preacher tries to offer a new “cover song” to the gathered people called church.
A few years ago David Zahl preached in Charlottesville, VA and offered a proclamation about Jesus’ beatitudes. However, rather than offering the predictable “this is what Jesus said and this is what Jesus meant,” David rewrote the beatitudes for the church today. I encourage you to read through his “cover” of the text, and I hope you discover something familiar and something new at the same time:
Blessed are those whose lives don’t add up,
For they will be released from score-keeping.
Blessed are the humbled and the humiliated,
For they have been relieved of the burden for self-righteousness,
Which is the great enemy of love.
Blessed are the brokenhearted,
For cracks are where the light gets in.
Blessed are those for whom death is not a metaphor,
For they have been returned to reality,
Which is the dwelling place of God.
Blessed are those who cannot abide another funeral,
For they have loved deeply.
Blessed are those who can’t seem to move on from loss,
For they will not look to themselves for consolation.
Blessed are the left behind, the overlooked,
And those for whom life feels like an ordeal,
For Jesus surrounded himself with people like these.
Blessed are those whose fears and anxieties exceed the reach of their coping mechanisms,
For only those in need of help will be helped.
Blessed are those who years for the world to be put to rights,
For that yearning is a form of hope.
Blessed are the cursed out and cancelled, especially for reasons of their own making,
For they will be quick to listen and slow to judge.
Blessed are the brothers and sisters who refuse to condemn their siblings for not making better choices,
Because there but for the grace of God go they (and may yet still go).
Blessed are the forgivers,
For at the end of the day, as Saint Dolly Parton tells us, what else is there?
Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven,
For they have nothing left to hide.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the location of the Lord, mantle-passing, lament, the divine reality, Herbert McCabe, freedom, the fruit of the Spirit, Gilmore Girls, hellfire, and the seriousness of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Freedom Of The Christian
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.
This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.
I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.
And for good reason.
It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.
Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.
Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.
Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.
We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.
We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.
All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.
But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts.
Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.
Which begs the question: What went wrong?
As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.
You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story.
Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.
Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.
“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”
“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”
“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”
“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”
“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”
And so the seeds of doubt are planted.
The end of the beginning.
She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back.
And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?
They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.
We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.
And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”
Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.
And what’s the answer?
I’m right here God and I’m lost.
We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.
And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.
And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.
And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.
But what about God?
God comes looking for us.
You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us.
When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”
Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine.
We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.
We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.
We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.
And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)
And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.
Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree.
The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.
Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.
Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.
On Thursday United Methodists from across the state will arrive in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference. Holy conferencing is in the DNA of those from the Wesleyan Tradition and we gather together in anticipation of the Spirit moving in our midst. It used to be that Annual Conference was a time for worship (and only worship) but over the centuries it has become a time of bureaucratic politicking with a little worship sprinkled on top. I have hope for our gathering this year, the moments in which God’s grace will shine brightly in the darkness, but I am also keenly aware that conferencing often shows the church at her best and her worst.
Since the 1780s the Wesley brothers used Charles Wesley’s “And Are We Yet Alive” hymn to open society meetings, and the denomination has been doing it ever since. On Thursday the representatives from Virginian Methodism will lift up our voices and sing the same song. It is my hope and prayer that, this year, we might hold fast to the words of the hymn throughout our gathering and know that, no matter what, the divine “yet” of God’s grace is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
If you’re unfamiliar with the hymn, the lyrics are as follows:
And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!
Preserved by power divine to full salvation here,
again in Jesus’ praise we join, and in his sight appear.
What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the utter most, till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42 & Psalm 43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper introductions, For All Mankind, Gary Oldman, hipsterdom, Mt. Horeb, melancholia, Mockingbird, silence, journeys, perfect prayers, Martin Luther, the tonic of grace, living among the dead, and freedom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Are You Doing Here?
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.
Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.
A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.
His name was Paul.
After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.
He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.
The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.
Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.
In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
It’s a scandalous proclamation.
What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.
Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost.
We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good.
Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for Trinity Sunday [C] (Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the podfather, personification, worship planning, advice, trinitarian metaphors, interpretative lenses, babes and infants, reading backwards, communal requirements, hope, and confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Standing In Grace
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Dear Paige, Maggie, Keeli, Braelyn, Liam, Emma, and Sophia,
On this, the day of your confirmation, I have decided to write a letter instead of a sermon. Though, for what it’s worth, most sermons are like letters anyway. And, because this is the occasion of your confirmation, it is also a letter for all who call this church home for, God is confirming their faith just as much as yours.
Therefore, let me begin in a scriptural way: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
There is no way that you can possibility comprehend what is about to happen to you. Part of the life of faith is coming to grips with an adventure that, though we know not where we are going, we at least know who is with us along the way: That who has a name: Jesus.
50 days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, after Easter, the disciples were all in one place together. They had recently witnessed their Lord ascend to rule at the right hand of the Father, and were rebuked for keeping their eyes in the sky. And without knowing what would happen next, they were confronted by the wild and reckless Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is all about the unknowability of God. Whenever we think we know what’s going to happen, whenever we congratulate ourselves for finally figuring out the divine, God pulls one over on us and we’re left scratching our heads.
The sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the disciples – divided tongues as of fire appear among them and they were able to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.
Fun fact, the story gets even better, because when they busted out of their gathering place the crowds who encounter the disciples accuse them of being drunk even though it’s only 9 in the morning. They are accused of being drunk because they are stumbling around into a new strange world that they can scarcely wrap their heads around.
I hope that, in some way, you leave from church today staggering around like those first disciples. In fact, I hope that happens every Sunday, because when the Spirit encounters us, we can’t help but walk away altered.
Those early disciples, the ones who walked the roads of Galilee with Jesus, the ones who spoke with tongues of fire, they were compelled to tell the Good News to all who would hear it, because, it was the difference that made all the difference.
Through your confirmation we have bombarded you with all sorts of things – scripture, creeds, tradition, prayer, denominationalism, sacraments, mission. You’ve been exposed to all the parts that make the church the church. But above all, in confirmation you have been taught the faith. But this is only the beginning.
Learning the faith is like learning to speak a new language. You can read all the books in the world about it, but you can’t do it until you do it. And, just like a language, you can’t learn it without others and without practice.
A few months back one of you asked, “How can you tell the difference between God speaking, and your gut?”
That is easily one of the all time best questions asked of a preacher. It’s a great question because all of us have that question, and because the answer is right in front of us every Sunday.
Whatever it means to be Christian, it at least involves the discovery of friends we did not know that we had. You see, church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather together with people who think, speak, and act differently than themselves.
None of you go to school together. Think about that for a moment. Whereas most friendships are born out of commonalities like schools, or extracurricular actives, you only know each other because of Jesus.
And that’s true for the rest of us as well!
The only real thing we have in common is Jesus.
That’s important. For, the only way any of us can ever hold fast to the promises of scripture is through the community we call church. In order to hear the promises of God we need others to declare those promises to us over and over again, particularly when we feel like we can’t believe them or that they’re no longer true.
But God really does love you, in spite of all the reasons that God shouldn’t.
The noise of the world will be deafening at times, trying to tell you what to think and what to believe. But it can never compete with the wild rushing wind of the Spirit, the various languages that rose up for the Gospel, because those words reveal who we are and whose we are.
In life we are habituated by many languages. Like the language of literature, the language of baseball, the language of dance, the language of music, they all form us and shape us in ways seen and unseen. But today, on Pentecost, we are reminded that our first language is the language of faith and that before we are anything we are Jesus people.
The only way we can tell the difference between whether God is speaking to us or we’re listening to our gut, is by sharing it with others and having it confirmed by them.
We told you over and over again during this season of confirmation that: Baptism is God’s way of saying ‘yes’ to us, and confirmation is our way of saying ‘yes’ to God.
The simplicity of that sentence betrays the confounding nature of confirmation. Saying ‘yes’ to God means being caught up in God’s story in the world, it means receiving friends you never knew you had, it means fumbling out into the world not knowing exactly what the Spirit is up to.
And even though you will be confirmed individually, confirmation can only take place with and by others. The same is true of the sacraments. You can’t baptize yourself, and you can’t give communion to yourself. It is something done to us within the community of faith by others.
We only learn what it means to be Christians by watching other Christians within the church and doing what they do. To be Christian means being together. Which, of course, isn’t easy. Particularly because we believe in telling the truth, even to those we love.
But, as Tom Holland of Spider-man fame put it, “I personally think if something’s not a challenge, there’s no point doing it, because you’re not gonna learn much.” (That’s for you Sophia).
Being a Christian might be the greatest challenge of your life. Not because it comes with all sorts of rules and requirements, but because it runs so counter to the rest of the world.
The world worships the first, the greatest, the found, the big, and the alive.
But God comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
The world runs by deception and destruction.
The Kingdom of God runs by mercy.
The world is full to the brim with bad news.
Jesus comes to bring Good News.
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, the tall and the small, the old and the young, the good and the bad. It’s not because we earned it. It’s not because Jesus was finally pleased with all of our faith. It’s because we needed it.
And we still do.
It is my hope and prayer that, throughout your lives, you will hear the Good News: You are part of an adventure that is made possible by God’s relentless grace. You have a place in God’s church no matter what you do or leave undone. You are loved by God and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You are forgiven.
When we went on our confirmation retreat to Alta Mons there was a considerable amount of content we had to cover. We had to explore the theological proclamation of the Trinity, we had to tell the whole story of the Bible, we had much to do.
And chances are, you won’t remember any of it. And that’s okay. The life of faith takes a lifetime. But, even though you won’t remember most of that content, I do hope you remember the feeling of being together, of going on a walk as the sun went down and being silent with God, of laughing hysterically at the dinner table with every new revelation about the people sitting next to you, of singing songs by the campfire, of sharing bread and cup by the waterfall.
You see, those are the real marks of a Christian. Not a list of good deeds to make us feel better about ourselves. Not perfect attendance in church every single Sunday.
Being together is what makes possible being Christian.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen: On the day of Pentecost, one of those seemingly drunk disciples got up to preach and afterward 3,000 people welcomed the message and joined the way. Scripture says they responded to God’s Spirit by devoting themselves to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
People often assume that the church’s primary business is to get people out of their badness and into a life of goodness. But it isn’t. If that happens, well then that’s wonderful. But the primary mission of the church is to proclaim grace, to tell the story, to share the invitation to the cosmic bash we call the kingdom of God.
God’s love does not depend of what we do or what we’re like.
There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, we can do to make God love us any more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.
God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.
God is a shepherd who never gives up searching of the one lost sheep, a parent who is always looking down the road for the prodigal and any excuse to throw a party, a sower who keeps scattering seed no matter the cost.
I hope you see and know and believe that the language of faith is surprising. You might even come to a time in your life when you find yourself surprised that you are, indeed, a Christian. But you need not be surprised. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is full of surprises. Just look around. Amen.