A Theory of Change

Matthew 5.13-20

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches other to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be call great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Jesus is in the middle of his proclamation. He is preaching his sermon on the mount. And whenever Jesus teaches there are fireworks, in large part because what he has to say runs counter to everything we think we know.

The sermon begins, innocuously enough, with a bunch of blessings. Albeit, a bunch of blessings don’t make sent according to the convictions of the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

And then Jesus turns the discourse over to a reflection on salt and light.

Ya’ll, Jesus says, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. 

In other words, ya’ll bring the flavor and people are going to see me through you. It’s a beautiful bit of metaphoric reflection. Jesus takes these simple images and symbols and uses them to help us see who we are and whose we are.

But they come with warnings – the salt that provides zero flavor is worthless and the light that is hidden is nothing but more darkness.

And then comes the new teaching. It’s actually all new, but this is the beginning of the end for us. This is when Jesus’ sermon starts to make us squirm in our pews.

I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets. I’m not here to destroy the past or leave it behind. In fact, I have come to fulfill it.

What in the world does that mean?

We, the people of God, have always had plenty of trouble observing God’s commandments from the ten handed down on Sinai to the other six hundred or so from the Old Testament. And yet, Jesus says, if any of us break any of these commandments, or if we teach anyone to relax them, we will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.

And that would be enough to cause us pause. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Listen – unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

What if we tried to distill it a little more? What’s really at stake?

In another part of the Gospel, while not in the middle of a sermon, some do-goodery religious types try to trap Jesus with those questions: Which commandment Jesus is the most important?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Thanks JC! Sounds easy!

But, of course, we can’t even do those two commandments. We all worship other things, thereby not loving God. And, when push comes to shove, we generally look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors.

Even John Wesley, founder of what became the Methodist movement tried to whittle it all down to three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and observe the ordnances of God.

But we don’t do those either!

Jesus says, unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oddly, within a few years of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, St. Paul will write to the church in Rome, “None of us is righteous, no not one.”

What then, are we to do?

Christians have, from the very beginning, struggled with this part of Jesus’ sermon. And, to be completely honest, it will only get harder next week as Jesus goes on his rant about “You have heard it was said, but I say to you…”

Maybe we can feel a little better about our meager righteousness, if we have any at all, because the scribes and the Pharisees, whom we are supposed to compare ourselves, weren’t very righteous to begin with. Sure, they had all the outward signs, they obeyed the law and they showed up for worship and they knew all the rules. But they followed the law at the expense of others, leaving behind the widowed and the orphaned to fend for themselves. 

And yet, if Paul is right that none of us is righteous, what in the world are we doing?

Every organization, and every church, subscribes to its own theory of change. We human beings are not static creatures, and there is always a gulf between where we are and where we can be. The theory of change that an institution embodies shows what they think works.

For instance, the self-help industry believes that we can help ourselves. We merely need to read the right books with the right tips and we will finally become the best version of ourselves. And yet, if those books worked, there would no longer be a self-help section in book stores.

And the church has a similar theory of change, or at least we do without knowing it or acknowledging it. We assume that if people read their bibles, or pay attention to sermons, or show up for the right small groups, they will begin to move in the right direction. 

The great challenge with this theory of change is that it doesn’t work.

Have you ever tried to have a rational argument with someone of a different political persuasion about why they’re wrong? Or have you ever tried to convince a smoker to stop smoking?

Have you ever tired to tell a bunch of sinners to start being more righteous?

We can’t will ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, into better behavior. We can’t get rid of our sin on our own. Only God can do that.

Therefore there is a difference between what we call the Law and the Gospel. 

Jesus is hammering his listeners with the Lawthere is no leniency whatsoever. Which should leave us shaking in our boots or, to put a more liturgical spin on it, it should bring us to our knees. Which, incidentally, is kind of the point.

The primary purpose of the Law, the call to righteousness, isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us. 

It reveals the truth of who we are – that no matter how many books we consume, or sermons we receive, we will forever be sinners in need of grace.

Basically, the function of the Law is to get each of us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we will ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

When we are in a space to ask that question, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.

We are not far from the Gospel – the Good News.

The Good News is that Jesus makes us righteous because we cannot do it on our own.

But there is a question that lingers: How?

I mean, I recognize the irony in preaching a sermon about how sermons can’t and don’t make us change. But if you’ll bear with me for a just a bit… The sermon on the mount, this proclamation from the Lord, is what begins to constitute the community we call church. The sermon is not about giving us tips on how to be better people, instead it functions to help us see that we’re not very good to begin with and yet we are welcome in a place, this place, despite our inability to be good. 

The law, the call to righteousness, drives us and downright forces us to the gospel. It requires us to rest in and trust Jesus’ amazing grace to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. 

In other words, the only way we can ever change is through our hearts, and not our minds. 

Change is only ever possible through relationships, not requirements.

But even that is almost impossible. Its so difficult that only God can really do it.

Change, transformation, occurs through the gift of the Holy Spirit such that our desires, not our minds, start to shift. 

Or, as Paul says “Our hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

People are changed not through their will, their choices and actions. And neither are people changed through their minds and the consumption of knowledge. People are changed through their hearts, through love. 

And judgment kills love. When we feel judged, ie when we are told what to do, we hide our love away and we put up walls and we resist.

St. Augustine says, “The law commands rather than helps. It teaches us what is wrong without healing it. In fact, it increases what it does not heal, that we might seek the gift of grace with even greater attention.”

The church, then, exists not to judge the world, but to proclaim the gift of God’s unending power and love in the person of Jesus Christ. We do what we do to help others encounter the profound wonder of Jesus. The experience of being met by God in our need is the heart of our faith. 

Basically, guilt only ever produces more guilt. Love, on the other hand, is full of impossible possibility. 

Love actually changes things.

A few years ago I was listening to the radio when I was bombarded by a story of grace, a story of love, a story about a man named Daryl Davis.

– Daryl Davis Picture – 

Davis is a black blues musician and, for the past 30 years, he has spent his free time doing something outrageous – befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. And, a result of those friendships, 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.

How did he do it?

Did he go to Klan meetings with pamphlets about their racism? Did he encourage them to read certain books that would help reframe their thinking? 

No.

He did something much harder and much more dangerous.

He befriended them.

It all started in a bar call the Silver Dollar Lounge when, after playing a set of music, a white man walked up to thank him for his performance and told him that he couldn’t believe a black man could play the blues so well. Davis was so confused by the comment that he asked if he could buy the man a drink and they sat down to talk. And talk they did. They talked about music and musicians, about how the blues originated with black musicians, and after offering a set of recommended records to buy the white man said to Davis, “You know, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a beer with a black man.”

Again, Davis pushed to find out why, and the man pulled out his KKK membership card from his wallet.

However, that conversation led to a friendship that led to the man leaving the KKK behind forever. Not because Davis judged him, but because he befriended him. The man’s heart, to put it one way, was strangely warmed and he was never the same.

Why do we give ourselves over to wondrous music? Why do we make friends and invite them over for dinner? Why do we ooh and ahh over various sunrises and sunsets? 

We do so out of the simple delight in the goodness of creation but also because half of the planet’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.

In short, we fill our lives with loves out of a delight for what they point us toward: the kingdom of heaven.

But make no mistake: love, the kind of radical love that leaves to KKK members turning in their robes, the kind of delight that actually leads to any change is downright dangerous.

And yet, ultimately that’s the kind of radical love that God has for us, a people completely undeserving. But God keeps showing up, even to the point of the cross, with nothing but the Gospel.

In the bread and cup, in the singing of our faith, through the hard wood of the cross, we all receive a righteousness that far exceeds anything the scribes or Pharisees could ever hope to accomplish – the righteousness of God.

The Gospel does not promise the possible – it deliver the impossible. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ gives what the law demands.

That’s why the love of God is strong enough to change things, even us.

Or, as Luther put it: God accepts none except the abandoned, makes no one healthy but the sick, gives sight to none but the blind, brings life to none but the dead, and makes no one righteous except sinners.

Sinners like you and me. Amen. 

#Blessed

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the youth of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church about the readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Our conversation covers a range of topics including youthful church members, confirmation, divine requirements, humility, the outward signs of a Christian, foolishness, sanctuary signage, preaching, Karl Barth, and blessings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: #Blessed

Wading for Jesus

Matthew 4.12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

We have a new bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference, her name is Sue Haupert-Johnson. She was interviewed this week by the Conference office in order to introduce to the people called Methodist in this place. And, among all the interesting and theological bits from the interview, she was asked about our vision. 

Those without vision are doomed to perish, the scriptures say. So it was a worthy question. And this was her response: “Vision doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the people. However, the heart of the vision of the church always contains this question: How do we introduce people to Jesus?”

John the Baptist is arrested.

That’s how our scripture starts today. It’s an odd beginning, and one that is all too easy to breeze over without realizing the implications of such an introduction.

Why is John arrested? The last we heard of him in Matthew’s Gospel he was out in the wilderness, far removed from the movers and the shakers, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. That doesn’t sound like much rabble-rousing, let alone enough to warrant being thrown behind bars. But, of course, he did call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “a brood of vipers!” Even still, it’s not like he was committing a crime.

However, whenever the power that be are called into question, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop those questions. 

John has a sense, a glimpse, of what the world could be. As the herald of the One to come, he stands squarely between the times and beckons the gaze of those with eyes to see that not all is at it seems. Something is on the way. And that something has a name: Jesus.

The drama begins.

John is arrested and how does Jesus react? He retreats to Galilee. That’s a bit odd when you take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible… I mean, we’re talking about the incarnate God! Perhaps we would prefer it if Jesus called the people to arms, if he stormed the gates of the prison to free his cousin, or any other number of reactive activities. 

But, instead, Jesus responds to John’s arrest by preaching.

Words are powerful things, more powerful than we often give them credit for. John’s words were so powerful that they put a target on his back. Jesus’ words wind up sending him to the cross. And today, our words are just as powerful, they can build up and they can destroy. 

Jesus’ mission and ministry in Galilee is for a purpose, one that Matthew begs us to see. Jesus preaches in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

That text might sound familiar, and if it does it’s because we read those words every Christmas Eve – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The great light, now, happens to be the One who preaches in Galilee. 

And then the text moves to the call of the first disciples. 

Jesus is preaching, but he’s also searching. He’s looking for those who can help manifest and live according to the strange new world we call the kingdom of God. Notably, Jesus does not call his disciples from the powerful or the elite, he doesn’t create a big board of draft prospects for kingdom work, rather he calls those who are ordinary knowing that, with the power of the Spirit, they can do extraordinary things.

There are no crowds yet waiting to see what the hope of the world can do, the Pharisees and the scribes haven’t started their plot to get rid of him, because this is still the beginning. And one day, while walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the lake. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets behind and followed him.

That’s it.

Luke’s Gospel adds some flavor and flourish to the story with some drama out on the water, but according to the Matthew the call of the first disciples was as quick as “Follow me.”

Much has been made about this moment in scripture and what it means for us today as followers of Jesus. 

In other words, this is the story of the first call and what we, in turn, are called to do.

Life, today, often feels a lot like U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We on the search for something. Some of us are looking for fulfillment, or purpose, or belonging. We look for it in people, jobs, vocations. 

I have a friend from seminary who embodied this searching perfectly. Every few months there was a new fad that dominated his existence. At first it was the desire to eat in a more local and healthy manner. He cultivated a backyard garden, read recipes book, even interned with a local farmer in between his classes. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the garden was overrun by weeds, but by then he was on to the next thing: Barefoot running. He listened to some podcast about how our modern shoes are bad for our posture, and he became convinced that he needed to start running, every day, without shoes. So he did. He adopted a running calendar based on his class schedule and figured out the optimal times and places to run barefoot. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the weather started to change and running sans shoes was starting to take a toll on his feet, but by then he was on to the next thing: Reading a book every three days. He encountered some article online about the devolution of our minds and the necessity to read as much as possible as quickly as possible. So he did. He set up timed alerts on his phone that told him when and what he was supposed to read. Every moment of the day was calculated down his average page per minute so that he could finish a book every three days. And, for awhile it took, until it didn’t.

I could go on. He certainly did.

He still hasn’t found what he was looking for.

And though curiosity is good, and frankly we could do well to have more of it in some ways, when it comes to the realm of the kingdom, we’ve got it backward. The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.

Perhaps that’s why the reference to Isaiah before the call of the disciples is so important: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. In the darkness of our lives, when we least expect it, God shows up.

The disciples weren’t looking for a teacher to follow, or a barefoot running regimen to adopt, or a spiritual guru who could help bring fulfillment to their lives. If they were looking for anything, it was fish. And then Jesus shows up with the nerve to flip their vocation completely upside down. 

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

God in Christ shows up, and then gives us something to do. Though, how we respond to that call is as varied as the people who Jesus delights in calling. What comes to your mind when you hear the commission?

Evangelism can sound like a dirty word in United Methodist circles. It is often manipulative and preys on individual fears in order to get people in the pews. 

Some will take evangelism as our responsibility to save souls, or win people for Jesus, or knock on doors until we find someone who is willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Some will stand on street corners shouting about the end times, while others (a few blocks away) will hand out tracts with 3 simple steps to make sure you go to the right place when you die.

On and on.

Fishing for people. It’s the Lord’s metaphor, so we’ve got to work with it. Though, I’m always a bit fearful of the language since fishing is inherently a coercive endeavor. We try to trick fish into eating something fake in order to reel them in. 

Maybe that’s not the best metaphor for evangelism. Except for the fact that fishing requires us to go where the fish are. 

Therefore, perhaps we are called to wade for Jesus just as much as we are called to fish for Jesus. The earliest Christians weren’t converted to Christianity because they were looking for something, or because they were convinced or duped by the disciples. The earliest Christians were encountered by the living God and they couldn’t help but follow. 

Wading into the muck and mire of a stream to catch a fish is inherently a messy and frustrating endeavor. The same is true of wading into someone’s mess. But that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Each of us here are here because, somehow, God showed up in our lives. And, more often than not, God shows up through someone else. 

There’s a big difference, a huge difference, between trying to convince someone of the Gospel, and living according to the Gospel. For, living according to the Gospel, puts us in relationships with people we would otherwise ignore and, because God has a sense of humor, it usually results in someone seeing how we live and then asking, “Why are you the way you are?”

And the answer, of course, is Jesus. 

Notably, the word evangelism just means, bearing the Good News. After Jesus called the first disciples he went through Galilee proclaiming the Good News and great crowds began to follow.

He didn’t try to coerce them, or frighten them, or even convince them. He just preached the Good News. 

Hear the Good News: You are loved by God. There is a place for you in God’s church. There is nothing in your life, no matter what you do or leave undone, that can ever separate you from God’s love. 

Introducing people to Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow. How we introduce people to Jesus is actually quite easy. It’s the why we introduce people to Jesus that we often overlook. We, of course, do it because Jesus tells us to. But also because our lives have been changed by God and we want that for others. My life is fundamentally better because of the church’s willingness to relentlessly wade into the muck of my life reminding me of the Good News when everything else sounds like bad news. 

I am who I am because God waded into my life. 

Following the Lord will bring us places and to people we would never have picked on our own. Living according to the Gospel will make us appear strange to those who have not heard it. Strange enough that they might wonder what happened to us. 

And, of course, it’s not what happened to us, but who: Jesus.

The Circumference of the Kingdom

1 Corinthians 10.10

Now I appeal to you, brother and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

We were in the middle of nowhere North Carolina and I was receiving a tour of the town from a local clergy person. He pointed out the local watering hole, the 7-11, and the mortician’s brick and mortar funeral parlor.

From my vantage point in the front passenger seat of the aging preacher’s beat up truck it looked like every building was slowly falling apart and no one was bothered to do anything about it. Until we got to the end of the tour and there was a huge, recently leveled, field and construction equipment was strewn about in every direction.

“What’s this going to be?” I asked.

The preacher said, “The new baptist church.”

“What happened to the old baptist church?”

“It’s still here, we passed it a few blocks back. The church got into a big knock-down-drag-out fight about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So half the church left to start their own.”

“Do they have a name for the new church?”

“Yeah, they’re calling themselves Harmony Baptist.”

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of Jesus, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind with the same purpose.”

In other words, “For the love of everything holy, please stop being so stupid and start getting along with each other!”

It’s notable that, since the very beginning of the church, we’ve been in conflict. The book of Acts is filled with one vignette after another of the church being churchy with their disagreements. All of Paul’s letters, in some way, shape, or form, beg the recipients to start acting like the body of Christ into which they were baptized.

And the church comes by it honest.

For, to start, the church is filled with people like us: a bunch of no good dirty rotten scoundrels (even if we don’t want to admit it). But, more importantly, conflict is actually what makes the church the church!

Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was filled with dissonance. The Pharisees and religious elites were quick with their accusations of blasphemy, the powers and principalities thought the only way to stop Jesus was the cross, and even the disciples were forever rebuking the Lord for his various proclamations and actions. 

If there’s one thing we can count on in the church, it’s conflict. 

No church has even found a way to follow the crucified God free of fiction.

And yet, friction is, often, what leads to transformation!

Case in point: the early church struggled with the rapid rise of Gentiles in their midst and had to figure out how expansive God’s kingdom really was. And, at the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church formally stated that no matter what scripture said, Christ’s salvation went beyond the bounds of Judaism. Therefore, matters of religious law such as circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were no longer required for those who followed Jesus.

Today, Jesus still refuses to leave us to our own devices and thoughts and even dreams about who the church is for. Jesus delights in sending people into our lives that we would never have picked on our own. And then, because he has a sense of humor, Jesus will see fit to make sure we read some of his words in church on Sunday like, “Love your enemies.”

We know that Jesus is at the center of what we call the kingdom of God, but we cannot know the circumference of the kingdom. In other words, we can’t decide who Jesus is for.

Or, as Barth put it, “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”

Or, as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!”

God’s grace is ever expanding and never-ending. Remember: Jesus commands us to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Good News. And, as such, we can expect arguments, differences, and even divisions to sprout up again and again. Perhaps that’s why God keeps inviting us back to the table, pardoning us for our mistakes and shortcomings, and offering the body and the blood that makes all of this possible in the first place.

It’s not easy being the church, but nothing important ever is. 

The Best Laid Plans

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans

The Beautiful Mess

John 1.29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Here, toward the beginning of the calendar year, I’ve been doing some thinking. We’re in the midst of a sermon series titled “New Year, New You” and I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Things are not as they ought to be.

We can listen to the talking heads wax poetic about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle and all that. But I think it’s far more insidious.

We are so obsessed with our financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our dominant religion. We worship money and the accumulation of it. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

Did you know that, as a nation, we spend more money on national defense every year than on all of our programs of social uplift combined? Surely, that is a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something’s gotta change.

Now, let us pause for a moment. How did all of that make you feel? Do you agree with what I said? Do you disagree? There’s a better than good chance that saying what I said left most, if not all, of us feeling uncomfortable.

And yet, nearly everything I just said is not original to me. I stole those bits of proclamation from another preacher, one by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things that made people uncomfortable that he was murdered. 

It’s been almost 55 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow, businesses and schools and all sorts of institutions will close to observe a holiday given in his name, and yet I wonder what it is we remember about Dr. King. Perhaps our minds move to his “I Have A Dream Speech,” or maybe we remember his calm demeanor in the midst of such a perilous time.

However, a year before Dr. King was killed he was widely regarded as one of the most hated men in the country. 63% of respondents in a poll right before his death admitted to being vocally opposed to his words and works. 

It’s hard to remember this, let alone acknowledge it, because everyone today loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But we love him now because it’s so much easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging and upsetting the status quo.

In other words, it’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For both Johns, the gospel writer and the Baptist, the image of the Lamb of God is central to their understanding of Jesus. We might talk about and think about Jesus as our teacher or our example or some other identifier, but for the Johns, Jesus is the Lamb of God.

And not just a lamb, but the Lamb – the Passover Lamb.

The church today is very comfortable as a safe and sanitary space where the realities of life, and by that I mean things like suffering, are kept at bay. We are good to mention the plight of Ukrainians in our congregational prayers, we will ask for volunteers to help with Family Promise, and all sorts of things. But when it comes to church, we like things neat and clean and ordinary.

We’re not comfortable with death or illness or questioning the status quo.

However, the church, weirdly, is called to be different. The church takes our over-manicured lives and says, “You’re a mess! You don’t want anyone to know it, and you don’t even want to admit it yourself, but things are falling apart!”

Behold the (Passover) Lab who takes away the sin of the world.

The church is a far cry from where we started. When God first gave specifics on how to worship to the people Israel it was messy: Build a temple, and take animals likes doves and bulls and slaughter them there. Take their blood and pour it over all sides of the altar.

Why? Because there is no transformation without sacrifice. 

Moreover, before God’s people made it to the banks of the Red Sea, waiting on a miracle, they had already experienced their miraculous deliverance from Egypt with Passover.

Take a lamb for each family, God says, a perfect and unblemished lamb, and bleed it out completely before you hang it to roast, make sure that none of its bones are broken. The lamb shall be divided in proportion to the people who eat of it. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

I’m getting you out of Egypt, says the Lord. Take the blood from the lamb and mark it on your doorposts so that I will know to passover as I bring my vengeance upon the people of Egypt.

It’s not for the faint of heart!

And, though we avoid it today at all costs, we still rely on blood for our worship. We no longer slaughter animals every week, but only because Jesus became the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast. 

Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and messy. 

But that’s what church is all about. It stands in stark contrast with so much of what we want our lives to look like. We want people to think we are perfect even though we are far from it. We want everything to be nice and orderly even when life is tearing at the seams. 

Church, in different ways, is God’s way of looking at the mess of our lives and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m going to save you anyway. ”

Some of John’s disciples are there when he makes his radical proclamation. They understand, somehow, that the new Passover Lamb is right there in front of them. So they leave John behind to follow Jesus. 

They sacrifice whatever their lives might’ve been to follow the Lamb.

The life and ministry of Jesus who they follow is neither neat nor clean. Notably, Jesus is forever spending time with messy people and their messed up lives. His ministry is among and for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Even today, we worship the God who willingly chooses to enter into the muck and mire and mess of our lives, which means things are liable to get messy along the way of our own discipleship. 

And yet, that is Good News!

It is Good News because God comes to us in the brokenness of our health and the shipwreck of our family lives and the worst of our mistakes.

Or, as the liturgy puts it, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us.

Do you see? God saves us in our messes, not from them.

When John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he means it. He, somehow, knows the future in his present, he knows what will happen to the incarnate God when the holy encounters the unholy. 

Notice, the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or those with perfect Sunday attendance in church. 

The Lamb takes away the sin of the world, all of them. 

That’s why we can sing, “My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!”

And yet, the very next verse says, “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

What is the Lord descending to do? The Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are redeemed by the Lamb already. And yet there’s a bit more to it as well. Even now Jesus is taking our sin away. Like Dr. King, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.

It’s a both/and. We are set free from the foolishness of our past while at the same time we are called to live new lives here and now based on that redemption.

Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us, he delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the Kingdom of God. 

And in its messy in the Kingdom.

I started the sermon with stolen quotes from Dr. King, a man committed to seeing and bringing about a different world. His commitment cost him his life. And I think he knew that it would. For, the night before he was killed, he delivered one of his most moving speeches. Notably, Dr. King was in Memphis in support of a new union for sanitation workers.

That final night he stood before a packed auditorium and ended with these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead.

The Lamb of God brings a kingdom the world doesn’t want – the blood of the Lamb makes a difference and that difference means we are now different. 

God does not accept the current realities of the world. God is still contending against the powers and the principalities. God will get us to the Promised Land. 

It’s like God is saying to us today: “Come and see what I can do – come and see what we can do together. It’s going to be messy, but change always is.” Amen. 

We Begin (And End) With Grace

1 Corinthians 1.3

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.

I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.

I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!

Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.

What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it. 

Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”

Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace. 

It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems. 

God is perfect; we are not.

God is holy; we are not.

We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God. 

And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God. 

The Gospel According To Francis Spufford

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford

The Adventure Begins

Matthew 3.13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Tell us what you remember about your baptism.

So spoke the instructor in my Spiritual Formation class in seminary more than a decade ago. We were huddled in a basement classroom, devoid of any natural light, squirming in our plastic chairs, wondering who would be the first to share.

“I remember,” one of them began, “being afraid.”

He described the fear of Y2K and what horrors it could bring. And so, on the last Sunday of the calendar year, he marched up to the font at the end of church and asked to be baptized because, as he put it, “I wanted to make sure I would go to heaven if the world ended when we hit the year 2000.”

“I remember,” another classmate began, “feeling pressured into by my friends.”

She described the teenybopper convictions of her closest friends who told her she had to be baptized. She didn’t even go to church. But then, one Sunday, she was picked up in a minivan by one of her friend’s parents, and a bunch of strangers surrounded her at the font and water was dumped all over her head. When she got home, soaking wet, her parents demanded to know what happened, and all she could say was, “Jesus happened, I think.”

“I remember,” someone else intoned, “the storm.”

She described her reluctance to attend church her entire life until, well into middle age, a particular tragedy drew her in the direction of mystery that happened to be her local church. She started reading the Bible, participated in worship, joined a small group, and felt like God was calling her to be a Christian. So they scheduled her baptism, and in the middle of the service an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through the town. All was well until they began praying over the water and lightning struck nearby with the thunderclap shaking the sanctuary. In the silence that followed she, apparently, shouted, “The devil ain’t got me no more.”

And then I raised my hand and said, “I remember nothing. I was 19 days old.”

We can only ever begin again, Barth once said. Christians, those who follow Jesus, are ever in a state of starting over. We have a liturgical calendar that folds in on itself every year, we return to the same scriptures and the same songs and the same prayers not out of tireless commitment to the old, but because they make us new.

We can only ever begin, again.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when churches across the world read about Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan. 

It’s a bit odd, when you take a step back and think about it, that John is the one who baptizes Jesus. It’s odd for a variety of reasons. Notably, John shows up in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. He looks out on God’s people who have completely lost their way and he beckons them back, again, to the truth of the Lord who delivered them from captivity into the Promised Land. Like all the prophets before him, John speaks with clarity and authority and power about repentance.

And yet, what does Jesus have to repent? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John?

Repentance is such a churchy word. Where else can you hear that word thrown around with such reckless abandon?

What is it? Repentance is not feeling bad about what we’ve done, or thinking differently than we once did. Repentance means nothing more than turning around, or returning. The church, in our unending concern with encouraging people to think for themselves and make all the right choices, often confuses God’s kingdom with the benefits of the kingdom. 

We talk about turning our lives around so that we can finally find our purpose. We talk about repentance so that we will finally start behaving and make the world a better place. We talk about making changes or resolutions in order to finally become the people God wants us to be.

And those things are fine, they have their place. But they are not the Gospel. They are just the bonus, the 2-for1 deal which is handed over by the One who hands himself over on our behalf. 

The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus. Repentance is just the word that describes our activity whenever we encounter it.

John, out in the wilderness, is not offering a better way to live. The kingdom does not come about because we actually start doing the things we’re supposed to do. Rather, the kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and we are not worthy of it. That’s why we repent, we return. We wander off in all sorts of directions, but then in the waters of our baptism we return to the truth of who we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God. 

Wandering is at the heart of who we are. There’s this gnawing lack of something inside all of us. It’s why we flock to the self-help section in bookstores, hoping we will finally discover who we really are. 

And, again, if self-help books worked, there wouldn’t be any of them anymore.

Find yourself! Says the slogan for clothing companies, vacation destinations, and retirement portfolios. 

Do you want to find yourself? You don’t need to go climb a mountain, literal or figuration. You don’t need to sign-up with a spiritual guru or enroll in a CrossFit class. 

All you need is some water.

Look in it and you’ll see who you are. 

It used to be the case that, when a set of parents brought their child forward for baptism, they only had one name – their family name. And then, someone like me would say, “What name is given this child?” The answer would be the first public declaration of a person’s identity. Our first names, which in certain places are still called Christian names.

Names are gifts. We don’t get to choose them or pick them. They’re given to us.

And then, with the waters of baptism, we receive yet another new name. A larger and more important name: Christian.

Whenever I baptize someone, whether they’re a shiny new baby, or covered in wrinkles with gray hair, I always say the same thing: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – you are a precious Lamb of Jesus Christ.

I say that last part not because I was taught to say it, but because that’s what one of my grandmother’s has called me my entire life. 

I’m still growing into it.

It takes time for all of us to live into our names, that Christian name in particular. It’s something we return to every so often because sometimes we forget who we are.

It’s easy, all too easy, to forget our identity. The world will strive to tell us who we are, and what we should care about it, and what we should think. We’re told by the world, and others, that our lives are journeys of self-discovery whereas, in baptism, God finds us.

Our lives are the adventure of being lost and being found over and over again. 

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, was often prone to depression and anxiety. And he said that in those most awful moments, those dark nights of the soul, it was a great comfort to take a drop of water, place it on his forehead, and say, “I am baptized.”

Why?

Because we belong to God and that can never ever be taken away.

Or, as Paul puts it, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We return to that promise because sometimes we forget.

In the end, becoming and being a Christian is something done to us and for us before it is anything done by us.

In other words: faith requires others. Just like baptism. Someone has to hold us, pray over the water, tell us about Jesus and the promise of what he has done, is doing, and will do. Someone has to model that faith, a whole life of faith. Otherwise, we would have no idea what we are baptized into.

To know who Jesus is and what he means has got to come to us through others as a gift – a gift like grace.

Before the church was called church is was called EKKLESIA, which just means gathering. Church, then, is people who are together. People who hold fast to one another as we hold fast to the promise of the Gospel. 

And that’s why the church gives us this day, this same Sunday every single year, that we might remember who and whose we are.

I don’t remember my baptism. There was no peer pressure, or fear, or even reluctance. I had no choice in the matter. But the choice made on my behalf has made all the difference in the world. 

And that’s true for all of us, whether we marched to the font on our own or someone carried us to it. From the moment of our baptisms, it becomes impossible to explain our lives without reference to the water, the promise, the story, and the others who made it possible.

Baptism is where the adventure we call faith begins. 

Jesus’ baptism by John unleashes him into the world. The heavens are opened and he sets out on the adventure of preaching, healing, teaching, feeding, dying, and living again that makes possible the rectification of all things, even us. This is where his journey begins, as do our own, in the waters of baptism.

Don’t Look Back

Isaiah 42.8-9

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new. 

One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable. 

Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future. 

There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible. 

An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”

Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.

Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”

In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.

“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.

Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?” 

“What things?”

“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”

The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see

They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope. 

Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.

Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!