Hell No!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 21.8-21, Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17, Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including advice for pastors, Liturgy of the Ordinary, the practicality of the psalms, prayerful humiliation, dying to sin, abusing the Word, and The Size of the Problem. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hell No!

The Sower Reconsidered

Matthew 13.18-23

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. 

And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”

He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.

If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.

If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.

If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.

If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.

Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.

It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.

But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.

More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.

And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.

That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.

Do we like that?

When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.

But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.

And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.

It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.

The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.

But, back to the Sower.

The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all. 

No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.

And that’s scandalous.

Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.

What about bad people?

What about people who don’t believe?

What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?

Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.

Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again. 

Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?

Nope.

Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning? 

A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.

Like Jesus buried in the tomb.

It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.

Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.

And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”

Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything. 

Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.

Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.

But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?

They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying. 

The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.

Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!

The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.

We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives. 

You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!

You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!

You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!

If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News. 

If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.

Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be. 

Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do. 

And that’s the best news of all.

It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go. 

We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.

Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.

Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.

The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.

In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.

Jesus gets what Jesus wants.

The only problem occurs when we get in his way.

And we sure love to get in His way.

Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”

But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.

You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.

Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.

That’s getting in the way of Jesus.

Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.

Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”

Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.

We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own. 

We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.

We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen. 

The Bewildering Word

Romans 5.8

But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.

I, along with a few other pastors, have been leading a weekly online Bible study throughout the Pandemic. Each Wednesday afternoon we’ve gone through a particular set of verses and made the whole thing available to our respective congregations while we cannot gather together in-person.

I’ve loved every minute of it.

Talking about scripture with others has always been something I’ve enjoyed (hence being the whole pastor thing) but getting to talk about scripture with other pastors is a strangely rare occurrence. For, more often than not, clergy are tasked with talking about scripture to their church communities rather than with those who similarly feel called to do so.

Every week I’ve learned something from the Bible that I didn’t know before. This has been partly due to the fact that the pastors participating represent different denominations and therefore theological trainings and experiences. And I know that I am a better pastor for it.

Yesterday, we were talking about Matthew 9-10 and Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to go out to proclaim the Good News. And, in the midst of our conversation, we got a little bogged down in our reflections on this particular verse: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

We, the pastors, took turns reflecting theologically about the time and space aspect of the proclamation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and how we might come to grips with the transformation wrought in the person we call the Lord.

And, here’s what I offered: “Being a Christian is often nothing more than hearing God say, ‘I will not abandon you,’ over and over again until you realize it’s true.”

The kingdom of heaven who is the person of Jesus Christ has come near to dwell among us, regardless and in spite of our earnings and deservings. While we were sinners Christ died for us – not before nor after. Right smack dab in the middle of our biggest mistake, Jesus said, “Okay, I’m willing to die for that.”

That’s a really bewildering word. Sometimes we only need to hear it once and it changes everything forever. But for others, it takes a lifetime of hearing it Sunday after Sunday before we realize its true.

I have friends who, after being married for a little while, decided to adopt a child. They went through all the proper channels and eventually traveled to Guatemala where they met G who was 15 months old. They returned home with him and their lives were properly upended with all the responsibilities that come with parenting. 

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, my friends received a phone call from the lawyer who helped them find their son. The lawyer shared that there was a family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named A, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer wanted to know if my friend were interested in adopting another son.

However, the lawyer explained, this 5 year old was allegedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to be rid of him after all, and he didn’t speak any English.

My friends said yes.

Those two boys are now about to enter high school and make plans for life after high school, respectively. They are some of the most incredible young men I’ve ever had the privilege to call friends, and my life is better for them being in it.

But I know it wasn’t easy for my friends, their parents.

In the beginning, right after A arrived, they had to sleep with him in his bed for months, all in the hopes that he would understand that they wouldn’t abandon him. Night after night they would whisper in his ear “We’re not leaving,” and “We love you,” and “This is your home.” They believed in what they were do so that we would one day realize that no matter what he did, no matter har far he fell, there was nothing he could ever do that would separate their love for him. 

It took a very long time, but for a five year old Guatemalan boy who had been passed from family to family, it was the only way for him to understand what their love, what love at all, looked like.

And that’s exactly what God’s love looks like for us.

It’s a reckless and confounding divine desire to remain steadfast even when we won’t. 

It’s the forgiveness offered before an action is committed. 

It is what we in the church call the Gospel.

Just like my friends cradling their son in their arms night after night, God will never let us go. And that is Good News.

Hold My Beer

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 18.1-15, Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, Romans 5.1-8, Matthew 9.35-10.8). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the co-hosts of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including protesting in sacred places, better Trinitarian texts, laughing in church, impossible possibility, limitlessness, craziness in the pews, transactional theology, and communities without communion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hold My Beer

Uncomfortable

Matthew 13.1-13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable

Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.

Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are. 

Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable. 

Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables. 

And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story. 

We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.

If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.

But they did.

We did.

Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”

But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.

Instead, he tells stories.

That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.

In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.

Including us.

Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.

And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.

It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”

“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”

His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”

There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated. 

We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.

We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.

But, that’s not what Jesus does. 

Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him. 

He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.

Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”

Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week. 

For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.

There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race. 

On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations. 

The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.

For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.

The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.

Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”

Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.

“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”

“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”

“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”

But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”

The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.

A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”

So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes. 

The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren. 

Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.

Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible. 

And that work is uncomfortable. 

We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us. 

It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.

Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf. 

We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.

In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears! 

And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway. 

And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.

Someone Reigns!

Matthew 28.16-18

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed the,. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explained later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time, and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III). 

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote about the childishness of the Vietnam War in his later years.

And it brings me great comfort that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us still reigns. That, as Christians, we know how the story ends which frees us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself. 

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for one minute these days and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God choses to do so in God’s infinite freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been vanquished forever.

Which is all to say, Christians, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ see the world differently. We rebel against the insidious power of despair and seek out ministries that reflect the graceful work of Christ who came to raise the dead. 

Someone reigns – that someone is Jesus Christ.

He is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Lies We Wrap In Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to pray in the midst of a time like this. A time when all you have to do is get on Twitter or television and you’re bombarded with images and videos from our local community and across the nation of people in anguish and fear, and the ways others are responding to it.

This morning, I arrived at church and went to the sanctuary to pray as I always do and I was at a loss for what to share with the Lord. I felt like I had no words to offer in regard to everything being experienced.

From protestors being hit by police cars, to the President tear-gassing a church so that he could have a photo opportunity with a Bible in his hands, to the countless images of violence being perpetrated against those who are demonstrating peacefully.

It’s difficult to know how to put into words how I’m feeling, how to communicate it to God, and how we should (perhaps) all be feeling about this. And I was reminded this morning, particularly as a pastor who feels like I always have to be coming up with new, fresh, and insightful things to say, that I can rely on the words of others.

And, in particular, I can rely on the prayers of others.

Karl Barth once said, “To clasp hands together in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That’s how I try to think of prayer whenever I pray whether it’s individually or corporately.

Therefore, I would like to share a prayer from someone else, a prayer that has meant a lot to me, and feels even more important considering the condition of our current condition:

Lies We Wrap in Love – Stanley Hauerwas

Lord, we often ask you to invade our lives,

To plumb the secrets of our hearts unknown even to ourselves.

But in fact we do not desire that.

What we really want to scream,

If only to ourselves, 

Is “Do not reveal to us who we are!”

We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions.

Yes, we know another word for a life of illusion is hell. 

But we are surrounded by many caught up in such a hell – 

People too deficient of soul even to be capable of lying, 

But only of self-deceit.

Dear God, we ask for your mercy on all those so caught,

Particularly if we are among them.

The loneliness of such a life is terrifying.

Remind us, compel us to be truthful, painful as that is.

For without the truth, without you, we die.

Save us from the pleasantness which too often is but a name for ambition.

Save us from the temptation to say to another what we think he/she wants to hear

Rather than what we both need to hear.

The regimen of living your truth is hard,

But help us remember that any love but truthful love is cursed.

The lie wrapped in love is just another word for violence.

For God’s sake, for the world’s sake, give us the courage to speak truthfully,

So that we might be at peace with one another and with you. Amen. 

So, whether it’s with your own prayers, or the prayers of those who came before, I pray that today you find a way to clasp your hands in prayer such that is a beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. 

Three Words

Genesis 1.1-3

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 

God speaks creation into existence.

That might sound heady and overly theological, but it’s true. 

The witness of Genesis is not that God strung together sub-atomic particles to bring forth matter. Nor is it that God set up a tossed salad of building blocks in order to put the planetary bodies into place.

God spoke and it happened.

Much has been made about these words. Entire dissertations crowds the shelves at seminaries on these first verses in the Biblical record.

And yet, they are some that we avoid the most.

I can remember sitting in on a Bible Study with pastors from a small community in Western North Carolina when Genesis 1 was brought up. We politely alluded to the theological importance of particular verses, we showed off the little Hebrew we knew (if any), and pretty quickly the conversation came to a stand still. As the outsider, I felt it my responsibility to keep the study flowing so I asked, “Who was the last pastor to preach on Genesis 1, and what did you say about it?”

Crickets.

One by one the pastors sheepishly confessed that not a one of them had ever preached on Genesis 1.

Why? They didn’t know quite what to say about it.

As one now tasked with public proclamation on a regular basis, I empathize with the fear and trembling of my fellow pastors form the past. I know what it feels like to look at a text and scripture and feel as if there’s nothing I can say about it.

Which, after all, is kind of the whole point.

Preaching, at least faithful preaching, has little, if anything, to do with what a preacher has to say. Instead, it has everything to do with what God has to say through the preacher tasked with preaching.

Or, let me put it another way: Ellen Davis, noted Old Testament scholar, is known for saying that the best preachers are those who offer forgettable sermons. Their sermons are good precisely because they get out of the way to let the passage shine. At best, the hope should be that people don’t remember what was said from the pulpit, but the next time they come across the passage (whether reading at home or on another Sunday morning) they might hear something good, right, and true from the Lord.

So, here is my brief and hopefully forgettable thought about the beginning of scripture:

Words are far more powerful than we think they are. We might be taught that “sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true! I have plenty of friends for whom a nickname from the past still haunts them even today. 

Words can build up and they can destroy. They can make us laugh, or cry, or rejoice, or lament.

Words can set us to action, or they can make us sit back and think.

Today there are three words that have set the nation on edge: Black Lives Matter. 

Those words matter because they are true. Or, at the very least, they should be true. But to most white folks, black lives don’t matter. They’re seen as inferior, or dispensable, or burdensome. 

We see images and videos of looting taking place across the nation and instead of joining together in a collective witness against the horrific racism that plagues this place, we offer trite words on social media about how this isn’t what Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve wanted.

But we’ve forgotten. 

We’ve forgotten that when asked about looting Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Words are important. Speaking words brings new things into existence. But for my fellow white brothers and sisters, perhaps now is the time not to add our words to the fray. Instead, let us listen to those whom we have oppressed since the beginning of time. And maybe, maybe we’ll hear the Lord speak through them to us, bringing a new creation into existence. 

A Pretty Good Party Trick

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for Trinity Sunday [A] (Genesis 1.1-2.4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13.11-13, Matthew 28.16-20). Josh is a fried of the pod and a regular contributor at Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-justification, reading between the lines, trinitarian thoughts, Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, sabbath rest, low anthropology and evangelicalism, muddling in the middle, guilt management, and theological homelessness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Pretty Good Party Trick

All!

Acts 2.1-13

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. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Think and Let Think · All!

They were all together in one place.

A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.

But instead they were all together in one place.

A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.

Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.

They told them the Good News.

The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.

And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”

The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church. 

For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter. 

But, go read his sermon some time. 

It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.

So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.

But, go look at what the church does.

Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.

The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.

Really.

If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.

It’s ridiculous.

Just like the Spirit.

pentecost-painting-7

I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”

And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.

It’s shouldn’t exist. 

But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers. 

None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.

And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.

I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”

Which is fine. 

But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?

It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost. 

Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.

Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.

Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.

Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.

Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy. 

It still drives us crazy.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.

Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.

It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.

We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.

And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control. 

Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever. 

We just don’t act like it.

Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.

What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.

But that’s ridiculous!

Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.

Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.

We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.

But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.

Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.

And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid. 

We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.

We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.

Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.

But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.

Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?

Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”

The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.

The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently. 

Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.

In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.

Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.

Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.

Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.

Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”

And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.

Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.

But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.

Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.

And all really means all. Amen.