Lift High The Priest

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest

Jesus And The Yuppie

Mark 10.17

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation. 

We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).

Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.

But he wants more.

What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.

Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:

“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).

The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.

Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.

And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”

But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.

And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.

Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.

In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves. 

But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.

The Divine Yet

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Survivor, divine anger, prayer droughts, proper terror, the spiderweb of scripture, grammatical turns, sharp swords, wealthy Christians, and the gift of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Yet

On The Road (Again)

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name of Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were are the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the woman had said; but they did not see him.” 

I haven’t been here all that long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because some of us having been coming to church for so long that we know longer know why we do what we do, or we are new enough that we just assume this is what we do without knowing why we do it.

And yet, everything we do, and I mean everything, has a purpose.

Throughout the month of October we’re going to look at some of the different things we do as disciples and we’re going to talk about why we do them. Today we begin with why we worship the way we do.

For the last 2,000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century and the time of the Acts of the Apostles, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to contemporary gymnasiums with folding chairs, to the comfort of our couches via the internet, worship is what we do as Christians.

Worship follows a liturgy. Liturgy comes from the Latin Liturgia which means “work of the people” and it is the work we do when we worship. You might not know it but our liturgy has four distinct parts regardless of whether we’re in the contemporary or traditional service: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth

These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specially connected with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So today, we’re breaking up the sermon into four little mini sermonettes in order to see the connections between the strange new world of the Bible and our world today.

Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, the disciples responded by breaking bread and sharing a cup during which their eyes were opened to the presence of God, and then the disciples were sent out to proclaim what they saw and heard.

So, we begin at the beginning – Gathering. 

But, when does our worship actually start? Is it when the candles are finally lit? Is it when I step up to make an announcements? Is it when the live-stream starts?

Worship, believe it or not, begins long before we even enter the building. God is actively and intimately involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in our thoughts while we’re making our way to church, in our conversations in the parking lot, and even in the silence as we sit in the pews before the first note it played and before the first word is offered.

And, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we bring our experiences and our thoughts and even our anxieties to church. They are not meant to be left outside of our doors! They are very much a part of how we worship because speaks into our experience. That is: church is not some reprieve from the greater world even though it can be – church gives us the vocabulary to understand the greater world around us.

God then continues to gather us as the candles are lit. The light here is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, the light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and our discipleship. 

Similarly, the music in our time of gathering centers us and proclaims, literally, that we have entered something different, in space and in time, than what we were doing before. The melodies and the words and even our movement are part of how God encounters us and gathers us for this work.

Because worship is work. Or, perhaps better put, worship is a habit. We do it over and over and over again to retune our minds and tone our bodies in order to be God’s people in the world. 

This is how God gather us every week, just like God in Christ gathered the disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

After Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on and on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, sharing words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks to us and our experiences today.

Our scriptures, more often than not, come to us on Sunday morning from something called the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings for every Sunday on the liturgical calendar and actually unites our local churches with all sorts of other churches – there is a very good chance that what we proclaim from the Bible on any given Sunday is also what is being read in other churches both locally and globally. 

We boldly read and proclaim God’s holy scriptures in the knowledge that God will someone speak through them to us about who we are and whose we are.

However, the sermon, unlike everything else in our liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, some are sad and pensive, and some are bold and demanding, but they are always determined by the scriptures to which they point.

Karl Barth put it this way: the one thing preachers must do in preaching is open the eyes of their churches to the treasure of scripture that is spread before us, and then gather those treasures and pass them on to the congregation. 

In other words, preachers dare to speak about God. And God, bewilderingly, chooses to speak to us through preaching. 

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God in Christ proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So, let’s hear what God has to say to us today…

Sermon: A one-sentence sermon – God meets us on the roads of life, proclaims the Good News through likely and unlikely places, is revealed when we eat at the table, and sends us to the share Good News to all who will hear it. Amen. 

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. And, while they gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. And then, and only then, were their eyes opened to the Truth in their midst. It was only in responding to the words on the road, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, were they able to recognize how their hearts had burned within them.

The third part of our liturgy is Responding. We do this on any given Sunday by offering our tithes and our gifts back to God, we listen to an anthem or a particularly moving song, we pray and consider how we might continue to respond to what God is saying, but the fullest and most faithful way we respond is by sharing the same meal that Jesus shared with the disciples on the road.

The holy meal is worthy of its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that when we share the bread and when we share the cup – that’s what being a Christian is all about. Through the power of the Spirit we are connected in the meal to all who have come before us, and we are connected to all who will feast long after we’re gone. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which all of us are beckoned in our deaths, and it is where we are consumed by that which we consume. 

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by offering ourselves and feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the disciples from the road. So, let’s respond to the Lord…

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples who sat at the table with the Lord when the fullness of the moment was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what that was like for, whenever we gather to feast, we experience the same. 

In worship our eyes are opened to the power and presence of Jesus in our midst.

The disciples were so moved bye their experiences of being gathering on the road and of hearing Jesus proclaim the scriptures, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard.

When we are confronted and met by the power and glory of God in worship, we can’t help but go forth to share the good news with all who will hear it.

Each week we “end” our worship with a benediction and a song but our worship doesn’t really end – instead we take what happened here with us into the world as people who live and speak the praise of God.

This is how we are sent forth week after week, just like the disciples who ran to tell their friends what they saw and heard. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world…

Kids Will Be Kids

Mark 10.15

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.

She loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.

They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.

The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.

A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”

It was Dr. King.

“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”

And she said, “For Jesus?!”

“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”

The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”

There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults. 

The Crisis of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 1.1, 2.1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12, Mark 10.2-16). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church connections, Karl Barth, honesty in church, divine equity, ecclesial integrity, reminiscent places, Christology, the power of names, the difficulty of divorce, communal covenants, and porcupines. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Crisis of Faith

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

The Story Within The Story

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22, Psalm 124, James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the conundrum of context, Lupin, sacrificial honesty, reading between the lines, the manifestation of memory, hermeneutical tools, The Brothers Zahl, stumbling blocks, and selfishness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Story Within The Story

If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

Wrestling With God

Mark 9.36-37

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

When I was serving my first church I would gather in the sanctuary with the church’s preschool students every Wednesday morning for Chapel Time. Each week I endeavored to bring them on a journey into the strange new world of the Bible so that they could learn more about God and more about themselves. 

I used the lights in the sanctuary and little hand held candles to talk with them about the gift of light that God gives to us (Genesis). We played hide and seek among the pews in order to remember the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes of Eden (also Genesis). I even had them line up in the center aisle to play “Red Light/Green Light” and drew a somewhat loose connection to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (also also Genesis).

And then one particular Wednesday, I sat down in the sanctuary with the kids to teach them one of my all time favorite stories – Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. A brief refresher: Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to re-encounter his brother for the first time in a long time. But before Jacob can meet his fate in Esau, a strange figure appears late in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lessons. And it’s during this ordeal that Jacob receives a new name: Israel (which means: you have struggled against God and prevailed).

In order to really bring the story to life I had the kids line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wrestling match. Each of them came forward and gave it their best shot and I would pick each of them up and spin them in circles above my head. But when our final two-year-old came forward I let him knock me to the ground.

But, strangely enough, while all the other kids were cheering for my defeat, the two-year-old in question wrapped his little arms around my neck and whispered, “I’m sorry Pastor Taylor.”

And so it was that, without planning for it to happen, I was able to take him up in my arms and say to all of the kids, “God loves us so much that even when we wrestle with God, God never lets us go.” 

To be a Christian today carries a degree of wrestling and struggling. It is challenging to take up the words of the strange new world of the Bible and compare them to this world; there is a friction between the Good News of scripture and the bad news that bombards us every day. 

We want to know why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people. We want to know that better days are ahead because we’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges. We want to know that children won’t fall asleep hungry at night, and that systems of oppression will be destroyed, and that justice will rain down like mighty rushing waters. 

Jesus never promised that any of this would be easy – but he did promise to be with us, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.