The Presence Of God Is Awful

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dinosaurs in the New Creation, laughter, baptismal vows, Moana, Hildegard von Bingen, the power of words, divine fear, the jewishness of Jesus, acceptable worship, and true sabbath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Presence Of God Is Awful

The Church Of Tomorrow

Hebrews 11.29-12.2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.

Miracles do happen after all.

But astonishment?

No thank you.

We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.

And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?

“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”

How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!

Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word. 

But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.

But Rahab?

Do you know her story?

Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.

I wonder why they went there…

Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.

“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”

Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”

She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.

So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.

And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!

It’s downright astonishing!

But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.

Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future. 

The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.

But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness. 

We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me. 

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago. 

Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.

In short: you and me, we’re not alone.

We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. 

All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.

What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.

Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.

And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.

Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality. 

What we might call, the church of tomorrow.

Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.

The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”

To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now. 

Put simply: we’re different.

We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.

We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing. 

We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.

It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world. 

We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.

We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.

We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.

The church is God’s parable for the world.

We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.

The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone. 

The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.

The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!” 

I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.

The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.

You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen. 

Real Restoration

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 5.1-7, Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter handles, mysteries, This Here Flesh, dinosaurs, Narnia, vineyards, the invisible church, The Chicks, good gifts, rewriting the psalms, the faith hall of fame, martyrdom, division, and James Baldwin. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Real Restoration

Faith Doesn’t Paint Houses

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. 

We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.

Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.

Consider this church for a moment…

At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church. 

That had hope for things not yet seen.

They had hope for us.

Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.

I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.

Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.

We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.

And that’s faith.

Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.

But what is faith?

Better put, what makes faith faithful?

I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!

What is faith?

Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.

Faith is a possible wordle answer.

Faith is what keeps me going.

Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.

Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.

Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.

Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.

Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.

It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews. 

Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God. 

Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. 

Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his. 

What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.

It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out. 

I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”

“What’s a church?”

And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”

And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”

From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.

Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears. 

We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.

It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.

It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.

And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in. 

Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”

There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.

I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.

Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.

The only thing you have to do, is receive it.

Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.

Faith is merely a way of being.

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.

Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.

But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.

Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”

Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.

“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”

And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.

Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.

And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”

So what can you do?

You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.

So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.

But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.

Do you see? Faith doesn’t do anything.

Faith doesn’t paint houses. Painters do. Faith doesn’t fix the deck. Carpenters do.

Faith isn’t some special gadget that makes the impossible possible. Faith is just a trust in a person who can actually makes the impossible possible.

Faith doesn’t save us. Jesus does. Amen.

The Life Of The Party

Luke 12.35-36

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

We worship an odd God.

Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.

Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”

Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.

Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around.  The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.

Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.

Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.

It’s a strange parable. 

But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.

We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door. 

Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us. 

No wonder we call the Good News good. 

One Of Us!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us