This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lenten practices, the frustration of Facebook, dismantling the patriarchy, obedience, cosmic plans, one man to ruin them all, death’s dominion, funeral feelings, and the futility of resistance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eve Was Framed!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-8, John 20.19-31). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life on the other side of the resurrection, the best kind of hangover, The Sorting Hat, subversive obedience, gimmicky teasers, the most important psalm, proper agency, death breath, and doubt. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Holy Week Hangover
What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?
I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including how jubilee is not a time on the calendar, the beauty of purple paraments, currents events matching up with the lectionary texts, Barth bombs, the Wizard of Oz, and ugly Christmas trees. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Appearance Of Perfection
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
When was the last time you felt really joyful in church? When, in this space, were you so overcome with a feeling of delight and celebration that you could barely contain it? When was the last time you left church feeling like you were walking on a cloud rather than struggling under the weight of the world?
Years ago I went to a church service on a Sunday morning and claimed my normal pew about midway up on the right hand side. There were a handful of us in our mid-twenties that attended the services every week, and because everyone loves seeing young adults in church, most people ignored us for fear of driving us away.
Anyway, I arrived at church and prepared for worship. About halfway through the first hymn a young man, maybe slightly younger than myself, jogged down the aisle and sat down right next to me. Because the service had already started we couldn’t say anything to one another, and we continued to face forward throughout worship. During the sermon I, a seminarian at the time, was hanging on every word coming from the pulpit, but the young man next to me was doing everything in his power to stay awake.
I could feel his head bobbing up and down with every sharp word from the sermon, he kept readjusting himself as if that would keep him awake, and at one point he even slapped himself in the face.
I tried my best to be a good Christian and ignore the young man next to me, but at some point his leaning back and forth became so exaggerated that I was worried he would pass out mid movement and smash his face on the pew in front of us. So, at a particularly pensive and quiet moment in the sermon, I leaned over and said, “Hey buddy, if you put your hands like this (in the form of prayer), rest them on the pews in front of you, and then lean your head down, no one will know that you’re sleeping.”
The young man didn’t even glorify my option with a word of gratitude, but he quickly leaned into his hands and promptly began snoring just loud enough for the rest of the people in the pew to hear.
When did the church lose its sense of joy?
I have some wonderful memories from the churches of my past and the kinds of experiences that filled me with the Spirit. But, if I’m honest, when I think back over the totality of my church experience, those Sundays were the exception to the rule of people falling asleep in worship.
When did Easter Sunday become the only day that the resurrection made a difference in our lives? When did the weight of the world grow heavier and more determinative than the joy of knowing the Lord? When did dozing off in church become normative?
Maybe we lost our joy when we also lost touch with what it means to pray.
Throughout the month we have been spending time each Sunday addressing one thing we do as Christians. We started by talking about why we worship the way we do, and last week we talked about why we study the bible. And today is one of the hardest to talk about: why do we pray?
One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we desire peace. When we need something, we ask God to provide through prayer.
Another reason we pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.
Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of an acute need. More often than not our prayers are sadly alast resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos of life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.
And where’s the joy in that?
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from a jail cell. And the church in Philippi was going through its own problems. And yet Paul had the gall to speak of joy.
Joy, for the apostle, comes not when we master a particular discipline, or when God drops that little bit of manna from heaven that we need. Instead joy comes when we experience God’s action and presence even when life is difficult and full of pain.
Prayer, for Paul, is intimately connected with joy. Prayer is about being with God, and not a technique. When we let go of the desire to be the savior of our own lives, when we realize that God alone is the author of our salvation, we find the joy that comes with prayer, or better yet, we find the prayer that comes with joy.
Paul commanded the church of Philippi to rejoice always, and he does this in the plural. Prayer and joyfulness in the Christian life is not something we seek out on our own for our own good. Joy, in the fullest sense, is incomplete unless it is shared.
But the church had its problems. Co-leaders Euodia and Syntyche were apparently at odds with one another, and Paul commands them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
What a word for the church today…
While we are denominationally fighting over the church’s stance over everything under the sun, while churches are putting together budgets and arguing about priorities, while we sit in pews next to people who sometimes drive us crazy, Paul speaks through the centuries a difficult and important word: “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
How in the world can we be of the same mind in the Lord? It’s hard enough to get people to agree on what restaurant to go to after church let alone being of the same mind.
Perhaps the only way to be of the same mind in the Lord is through prayer.
Paul wrote to the church, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In this world and in this life, all of the anythings and everythings can become sources of endless worry, or they can become the stuff of prayer.
That’s not to say that we need to deny the reality of suffering, or ignore it as much as possible, but maybe in recognizing that we cannot handle this life on our own, that we need one another and the Lord, we can be a people of prayer and of joy.
It should come as no surprise that people tend to flock to the church not when things are perfect, but when things are falling apart. My office phone rings not with news of success and of joy, but with sadness and fear.
That’s why the missing demographic from church is the so-called millennial generation, my generation. People my age are largely absent from church because we have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves us feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do with judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference.
But that’s the thing: The church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God.
And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down. Even some of the most suffering people in the world can put on a mask for an hour a week in worship. But from where I stand, I see a people who are troubled by the weight of the world, a people who are afraid about what might happen next considering what we saw on the news any night of the week, a people who need the joy that comes from God more than just about anything else this life has to offer.
And, rest assured beloveds, God answers our prayers. God knows what we need before we can even bring the words to our mouths, and God answers our prayers in ways we can scarcely imagine. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, God’s time is not our time.
I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers; but the real kind of prayers. Not the “please help me with my algebra test” prayer; but the deep and almost unmentionable hope for an experience better than what we currently have.
I love asking people if God has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has responded to our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us in joy until we have eyes to see what God has done.
In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will invite each of you to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. Where in your life do you need to experience more joy? What major decision do you need help discerning? What is the “everything” you need to make known to God?
So, we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the prayer inside of the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of you to write down your names and addresses on the front of the envelope and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God.
We will hold on to the envelopes for a number of months, and we will pray over them as a church while hoping that you will continue to make your prayers known to God. And, after time, we will mail them back to you.
Prayer changes things and sometimes the thing prayer changes, is us.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord. I urge all of you who are currently quarreling with one another to be of the same mind in the Lord. And to the rest of you, help those who are in need, because this is important work that we are doing as God’s church. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your joy be known among one another so that we might feel how the Lord is near. Do not worry about sufferings of your life, but bring everything to God in prayer, and the peace of the Lord, which is perfect joy, will be with you in Christ Jesus. Amen.
I listen to a lot of music. Between running at the gym, sermon preparation, and a host of other activities, I am constantly sifting through new albums throughout the year. Below is my list of the top 10 albums that were released in 2016.
10. Wilco – Schmilco
Wilco’s tenth studio album is filled with the stuff that makes Wilco Wilco. Tweedy’s twangy vocals, smooth harmonies, and poetic verses easily solidified this as one of my most listened to albums throughout the year.
9. White Denim – Stiff
I started listening to White Denim during my freshman year of college and I have looked forward to each of their releases ever since. Though not as enthralling as their earlier albums “Exposition” and “Fits”, “Stiff” moves and grooves from beginning to end. Part of what keeps bringing me back to White Denim is their relentless desire to blend genres into solid music.
8. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee
Hailing from Durham, North Carolina, Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Heart Like a Levee” is like listening to Megafaun’s best songs on one album. The use of blues and folk rhythms allow the record to come through warm and inviting while also staying true to the form with melancholy when necessary.
7. Big Thief – Masterpiece
Adrianne Lenker’s voice haunts me. From the fragility of the song Paul to the emphatic harmonies on Masterpiece she has clearly found her calling.
6. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Will Toledo has recorded A LOT of music (some from the backseat of his car; hence the name). With the release of “Teens of Denial” Toledo has started to receive critical acclaim and he deserves it. This albums contains a lot of honesty which is ironic considering 2016 is being called the year of “post-truth”.
5. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Olsen’s 2014 “Burn Your Fire for No Witnesses” is easily one of my favorite albums of the decade, and she followed it with a solid collection of songs on “MY WOMAN”. Though not as haunting as the simple strumming and singing from her previous album, her songwriting has matured and kicks with force. Her vibrato still lingers between my ears whenever I hear the songs Sister and Woman.
4. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
Without a doubt, I listened to “The Wilderness” while writing sermons more than any other album this year. The musical project of a bunch of friends from Austin, Texas, Explosions in the Sky is one of the most contemplative and moving post-rock bands I’ve ever heard.
3. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
Greta Kline’s sweet voice rings through on each song of “Next Thing” and was one of the biggest surprises (for me) of 2016. I bought the album on a whim after hearing about it on All Songs Considered and I kept coming back to it throughout the year.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
The most needed album of 2016.
1. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
Maybe it’s because I became a father this year, and Andrew Bird’s recent step in fatherhood shaped the album, but “Are You Serious” was my favorite album of the year. From beginning to end every song drips with the flavor that has comes to define Bird’s music: haunting harmonies, moving melodies, winsome whistling, etc.
Kyle Morton – What Will Destroy You
Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band – The Rarity of Experience
Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
On Wednesday morning, my little sister went to the elementary school where she is fulfilling a student teaching requirement. Like every other day, she gathered with the young children in their classrooms, explained and demonstrated their projects, and then went around the room to help individuals as needed. One particular young girl was clearly distracted from her work, and when my sister asked if everything okay, she looked up with terror in her eyes and asked, “Am I going to get deported?”
On Wednesday morning, thousands of angry citizens gathered in California to protest the results of the election. Though initially peaceful, the protest quickly turned violent and the crowd began attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas was fired into the crowd to break up the demonstration, the people only shouted their chants even louder, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump.”
On Wednesday morning, a woman walked into a Wal-Mart somewhere in the Midwest while wearing her hijab. She went down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walked up, grabbed her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab, and said, “That would look better around your neck. This is our country now.”
On Wednesday morning, countless Trump voters woke up to the news they prayed for, only to receive hateful and violent comments from friends and relatives alike. They received emails and notes saying things like: “If you voted for Trump, you’re the reason America has fallen apart. If you voted for Trump, you are a bigoted racist sexist monster.”
On Wednesday morning, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan formed a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There were shouts of “go back to your country,” and “we’re making America great again.”
On Wednesday morning, a man was driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounded his car, pulled him from the vehicle, and dragged him through the streets. They attacked him because he had a Trump sticker on the bumper, and videos show the crowd screaming, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it.”
Throughout scripture, if the Israelites are told to do one thing more than any other, it is to remember. Remember the covenant God made with Noah and Abraham, remember the acts of God which liberated you from slavery in Egypt, remember the care God provided to you in the wilderness through water and manna, remember the mighty deeds of God delivering you to the Promised Land, remember the story and teach it to you children, and your children’s children.
It is easy to remember God’s salvific work in the world when things are going our way. When we rest contently in the communion of our friends and family, when we check the bank account and see our savings increase, when we sleep comfortably in our beds with the heat pumping through the vents. It is easy to sing a song to the Lord when we feel like everything in our life is part of God’s great victory.
We can grab the hymnal and belt out the great songs of our faith. We can be reconnected with the great tradition of the church, and the story of scripture, which helps to root us in our discipleship. We can sing because we feel God’s marvelous work.
However, it is hard to remember and be thankful for all of God’s deeds when it feels like our lives are falling apart. When we wake up and see that our candidate lost the election, or when we wake up and are belligerently berated for voting for the candidate that won, when we are terrified about how we will pay all the bills by the end of the month, when we throw dirt onto the coffin of someone we love, when we shiver in the loneliness of life wondering if anyone even cares about us. It is hard to sing a song to the Lord when we feel like everything in our life is crumbling under the weight of suffering.
We struggle to lift up the hymnal and sing the songs of faith because they feel so disconnected. How can we sing the Lord’s songs when life feels so miserable? How can we sing when people on both sides of the political aisle are filled with anger, fear, and resentment? We fail to praise the Lord through song because we feel like there’s nothing worth praising.
And yet the psalmist calls for us to sing a new song. We might be sitting by the rivers of Babylon and still we must sing. We might’ve voted for Hillary Clinton and can’t believe she lost, and still we must sing. We might’ve voted for Donald Trump and our being attacked for our political opinions, and still we must sing.
We sing a new song because God is doing a new thing. God is working in and through the people of this church to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Whether through a bible study, a prayer, or a simple smile from a pew on Sunday morning, God is doing a new thing here through the establishment of a community based on God’s love and not our own political opinions. God is doing a new thing here by giving us the strength and the courage to pray for, and love, the people who don’t agree with us.
We sing a new song because in singing we proclaim God’s victory. And to be abundantly clear, God’s victory is not in a new president being elected to the White House; we do not praise the Lord for a victory of one political candidate over another.
God’s victory is altogether different.
In singing of God’s victory, in praising the Lord for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, we break free from the tyranny of things, and the bondage of our own modern Babylon. With one voice, let me say that again, with one voice we reject the messiness and despair of our world and look for God’s mercy and grace.
Over the last week, and throughout the entire election, we witnessed greed, and anger, and derision in one another and ourselves. Our communities are no longer neighborhoods of neighbors, but are instead isolated walls of division that prevent us from encountering God in the “other.” Instead of joining together in worship on Sunday mornings, or gathering together for celebratory block parties, we are consumed by computers and phones that promise “true” communities through social networks of people who look like us, think like us, and behave like us.
And yet God offers a new thing to this new community we call the church. God offers us himself in Jesus Christ, the one for whom we sing. Jesus Christ was, is, and always will be the new thing God is doing in this world. The life, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man shows how God can make a way out of no way, how God defeated death, and how God frees us for true and perfect freedom.
So we sing a new song, because in singing we proclaim that God lives and reigns. We sing because the world is about to change – God is changing it. We sing not because we are happy, and not because we are sad, but because we have a song to sing, a song about our God who loves, cares, and remains steadfast.
For we know that those on the margins of society, the ones who are afraid in the wake of the recent election, the children who are afraid of being deported, are the very people God calls us to love and care for. Through the songs of the past and the stories of scripture we experience the importance of ministering toward the sojourners for we, like them, are strangers in a strange land.
We know that that violent protests calling for the murder of Donald Trump are an abomination to the Lord. God implores us to remember the sanctity of all life from a young girl in an art classroom to the new president-elect of the United States of America. Through God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ we know there is goodness in all people, and we are the ones often tasked with looking for it while others turn blind eyes.
We know that threatening people of other faiths is in fundamental dissonance with God’s willingness to elect us gentiles into the great covenant of the Israelite people. For a long time, we were the strangers from the outside looking in. We were the ones viewed with suspicion and unease. And that to do that to others now, is to forget and be ignorant of God’s love made manifest in the one who died on a cross for the world.
We know that denigrating and berating people for their vote is the equivalent of the judgment God commands us to abstain from.
We know that making a human wall to prevent minorities from entering a school is in sharp contrast to the one who invites all to the table and to the feast.
We know that violently attacking someone for a bumper sticker, for their political identity, is the beginning of a slippery slope back toward a world in which 6 million Jews were murdered, blacks were segregated from the rest of society, and Christians were stoned and beaten for believing that Jesus is Lord.
And we know all of this because we know Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we receive the story of our own lives that transcends all other identities, including our political opinions. Jesus Christ is the one who transformed, and continues to transform the world. We sing our songs in praise of the Lord because Jesus Christ makes a way where there is no way.
Not a way of ignorance and lazy unity, but a way of unrelenting commitment to the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.
Not a way of isolation and fear, but a way of courage in our convictions about who we are and whose we are.
Not a way of violence and death, but a way that brings forth new life and new opportunities for all to discover the beauty of the infinite.
So we sing a new song to the Lord, for God has broken the chains of our slavery to political isolation and frees us to love one another without fear. We sing a new song of God’s unending love and amazing grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We sing a new song in response to God’s mercy that reigns like a flood. We sing a new song because the Lord is doing a new thing. Amen.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Jesus came down with them to a level place and mingled with the crowd. Instead of ascending to a pulpit position of superiority, Jesus stood among the people where he can feel what we feel. His sermon, if we want to call it a sermon, is short and to the point: It’s time to weep. Blessed are you who are empty now and disappointed. Fortunate are those among you who grieve and know that the pain won’t go away. Lucky are you who have something to cry about.
But woe to you who have lots of money, because your lives are never going to get any better. Beware if you are full now, you will grow hungry. Take care that you are not filled with laughter, those chuckles will soon turn into tears.
Love the people who drive you mad. Pray for the people who make your lives miserable. If anyone hits you, offer yourselves willingly. If someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt too. Give your money to the poor. Treat everyone the way you wish you were treated.
This good news doesn’t sound much like good news to us. In fact, it sounds like bad news. If you’re anything like me, you squirmed when the liturgist read Jesus’ words from the bible. And if you didn’t, maybe you weren’t really listening.
Our lives are being turned upside down, whether we want them to be or not. For those of us comfortable with our wealth and salaried jobs, and for those of us desiring deeper pockets and larger paychecks, we will never be truly content. For those of us who are full from stocked refrigerators and overflowing gardens, there will come a time when we hunger for something that no consumption can ever satisfy. For those of us who will laugh with joy on Tuesday evening when our candidate is elected, our laughter will turn to mourning and weeping when things don’t change the way we thought they would.
Jesus’ good news sounds more like bad news.
Blessed are you who weep. To be sad, to be overly emotional, is regarded so negatively these days. Many of us see tears as a weakness, a weakness that’s supposed to be kept private and locked away. But it takes great courage to weep, to open our eyes to the brokenness of this world and our own lives, and know that it is incomplete.
We might be satisfied with our lives at the moment, we might be fine with a world of sadness and emptiness, and if we are, then the blessings of Jesus’ sermon are not meant for us.
But we might be unsatisfied with what’s happening right now. We might be here in this sanctuary because we want a dose of hope and reality in a world filled with despair and deception. Perhaps we believe and know that neither presidential candidate can, or should be, our messiah. Maybe we are filled with grief over the Standing Rock tribe protesting against the principalities and the powers. Perhaps we are filled with sorrow after a black church in Mississippi was set on fire last week. Maybe we cannot hold back the tears because this place reminds us of someone we’ve lost. If so, then Jesus’ strange words are meant for us.
I’ve done a lot of funerals over the last few years. I’ll be in the midst of something totally different when the phone will ring, and just the breathing on the other side is an indication that someone died. I’ll talk with the funeral home about arrangements, schedule a time to meet with the family, and we will try our best to faithfully weave together a service of death and resurrection for the dead.
More than a year ago, two of our church members died a day a part, and their funerals were scheduled for the same day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. While meeting with both families I asked them to share reflections about the person who died so that I might faithfully proclaim their lives from the pulpit. Both families said they wanted the services to be a “celebration of life” and they asked me to focus on the “good times.”
I knew the man and woman who died well enough to know that when the families asked me to focus on the good times, one didn’t want me to talk about how the dead man was estranged from his wife, and the other didn’t want me to talk about how the dead woman lost her son years ago.
At the time I smiled and nodded along, knowing full and well that life is messy and filled with sadness and shame and disappointment, even if they wanted me to omit it from the pulpit.
And then both families, independent of one another, gave me a bible that belonged to the person now dead.
In the days preceding their services, both bibles sat on my desk. Both were well worn, earmarked, filled with clippings, and had lots of notes written in the margins.
The first one belonged to the man and when I picked it up I flipped through the Old and New Testaments to read whatever he wrote about living a faithful life. In the margins there were dates corresponding when the text was preached about in church, there were question marks and exclamation points, and there were other scribbles that were impossible to decipher.
And when I was moving through the New Testament I nearly dropped the bible in my lap. In big and bold letters in the margins were the words, “Wedding Scripture.” It was clear that this page had been read perhaps more than any other as I could see depressions in the page from where his thumbs used to rest. And covering all the words were the remnants of his teardrops.
The second bible belonged to the woman, and likewise I lifted it up to flip through the Old and New Testaments. Hers was filled with countless lines under particular scriptures, pages were earmarked with stars scribbled next to names and dates, and there was a stack of obituaries tucked behind the back cover. I made my way through the bible and stopped when I came to one of the most well known passages in the book of Revelation. I saw the name of her dead son next to the words, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain.” And covering all the words were the remnants of her teardrops.
We see tears, and emotions, and hunger, and grief as weaknesses. But Jesus saw something far worse than weeping – what’s worse is the dangerous deception of believing that our lives are secure, stable, and perfect. Jesus would have deplored the bumper sticker reduction of life to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Woe to us who feel too comfortable, too settled, too blessed.
Unlike many of us, Jesus saw the world for all of its cracks and its ugliness. He walked toward the margins of life, rather than avoiding them. And in so doing, he offers us something different, something strange, something unlikely, and frankly, something holy. You are blessed if you experience loss and feel the pain and cry your eyes out. Because one day, it might not be tomorrow, but one day you will laugh, you will sing, and you will rejoice.
This is the promise of the Good News that sounds like bad news; God promises us this hope even though we don’t know how it will happen, we only know that it will happen. For only God could come in the form of a baby, grow to preach the strange and upside-down Gospel, die on a cross, and then offer us hope in an empty tomb three days later.
What some of us forget, perhaps because we cannot help ourselves from skipping over Good Friday to Easter Sunday, is that the disciples ran for fear and wept for loss of their friend who died. They had to go through the grief and the misery of a friend buried in a tomb, they had to spill their tears of sadness before they could laugh on Sunday when death was defeated. Grief cannot be avoided, and it cannot be skipped over.
Blessed are those of us who suffer now, who grieve the loss of those we love, because we will laugh and rejoice in their, and our, resurrection from the dead.
But woe to us who laugh now, who feel not a care in the world, for there will come a day when the rug is pulled out and our laughter will turn to tears, and our dancing will turn to mourning.
This is as paradoxical as the life of faith gets, but that’s part of what makes us sinners into saints.
Today we remember all the saints. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and around the world. We know that some of them struggled to hear this very same proclamation as good news, and we know that some of them lived their lives under the tyranny of tears with an almost complete lack of laughter.
We read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for placing them in our lives, for being vessels of God’s grace, for helping each of us see what it means to follow Jesus.
It is hard to follow Jesus, to hunger for transformation, to love our enemies, to weep without shame, and today is a reminder that though we may feel crazy, we are not alone.
If we want to know what it takes to be a saint, we need not look further than Jesus’ sermon on the Plain. For a saint is anyone who is brave enough to grieve for the world, who resists the temptation to be satisfied with the status quo, who leave behind tear marks in well worn bibles.
A saint is anyone who comes to this table and knows they don’t deserve it.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression that “church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” This is true, but the line between sinners and saints is remarkably fine. We do well then to know that this place is a hospital for saints, a place for us to be made well.
If you’ve been looking for happiness in a new house, or a new job, or heaven forbid a new president… You will never find what you’re looking for. There will always be a bigger house, a higher paying job, a better president, and all of those things are hollow. Only the radical and literally life-giving dimension of God can fill those holes in our souls.
Instead, come to the table. Join with the church immemorial. Feast with the communion of the saints. If you are poor, then take what you need from the offering plate. If you hunger for change and righteousness in this world, be filled with the body and blood of Jesus. If you feel moved to tears, then weep without shame. Amen.
One of the remarkable things about posting sermons online every week, is the fact that I can look at the statistics of which sermons receive the most attention. For instance: Over the last year my sermon titled, “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?” is easily in the top three as well as a recent reflection on the Pledge of Allegiance.
But ever since I started posting sermons, there is one that has dominated in popularity. In August of 2013, in my second month as a pastor, I preach a sermon on Jeremiah 1.4-10 and I titled it, “The Power of Words.” Over the last three years thousands of people have come to the blog for this one particular sermon and yet there were only 80 people in church the day that I preached it.
Here is what I said…
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
The Power of Words
Words are powerful. The perfectly timed phrase or expression can carry more meaning and accomplish more than just about anything else. From the pulpit they carry even greater value because they are so connected with the Word of the Lord. At their best words can be used in a fruitful way, demonstrating the kind of building-up that the bible often refers to, in order than we can affirm one another in love. At their worst, words can be used in a destructive way, hurting those around us, and ignoring the truth of God’s role in the world.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany. This was the beginning of the Third Reich. Germany, the land that had produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for using his words in public propaganda for destructive purposes. Some of you here this morning can remember how the world shuddered when this began to take place.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian name Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though the talk was itself highly philosophical, it constructively argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use for the next twelve years, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
Bonhoeffer spent a significant portion of his speech discussing the differences between a true leader, and the Fuhrer. He used his words in a calm and collected way, appreciating the power they held: A true leader must know the limitations of his/her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. He puts them above himself, as a good parent does with a child, wishing to lead that child to someday be a worthy parent. Another word for this type of leadership is discipleship. “Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. The individual is responsible before God.”
Before Bonhoeffer could finish, the speech was cut off. Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were suppressing this young man who spoke out against the type of leadership that would come to define Germany over the coming decade.
What we find in the first chapter of Jeremiah is an encounter between the human and the divine. We discover how powerful words can be through God’s call. As the divine Word, God is a genuine and invisible otherness when compared to Jeremiah. During this particular encounter the word of the Lordcame to Jeremiah and the prophet meets in faith the God who meets him through the Word.
“Jeremiah! Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you, and before you were born Iconsecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! You cannot expect me to speak! I am only a boy.” But the Lord responded, “Do not say ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
In his Word, God does not deliver a course of lectures on dogmatic theology, He does not submit the content of a creed of a confession of faith, and he does not even produce a perfectly prepared three-point sermon. Instead He makes himself accessible to us. An exchange takes place here in scripture that is beyond any analogy in the sphere of rational thinking. Instead, we have here a simple encounter, just like one between any two people, where God makes Himself available and known through relationship.
Jeremiah’s experience guides him into boundary, toward his own finitude, being reminded of his humanity, as over and against God. Jeremiah’s encounter is a reminder for us that we are not God. God is wholly other when compared with his creation. When Jeremiah meets God, his personality sinks away into the background; he feels his words being replaced by the Word of God. When we truly encounter the depth and beauty of the triune God, everything about us begins to sink away as well.
It is no wonder therefore why Jeremiah evades the commission of God. “Surely you can’t use me God, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah protests because he is overwhelmed and intimidated by the call to set aside priests, princes, and people to become a prophet to the nations. He was afraid to proclaim the Word of God, which would go beyond the comprehension of his time.
This isn’t in scripture, but I can imagine God’s full response to Jeremiah’s evasion: “have you not seen and have you not heard what I have done with mere people? Have you forgotten the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and Joshua? David was but a boy when I had him defeat the Philistines. Solomon became the wisest king to rule the nation All of the prophets, the judges, the priests? This isn’t about you Jeremiah, this is about what I am going to do through you.”
Recoiling from a divine appointment is common throughout scripture. It only takes a moment to remember Moses standing in the heat of the burning bush and then turning his face away because he was afraid to look at God.
The theologian Paul Tillich once said: “we always desire to escape God… People of all kinds, prophets and reformers, saints and atheists, believers and unbelievers, have the same experience.” It is safe to say that a person who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the truth of who God is.
God dismisses Jeremiah’s excuse; Young or old, learned or uninformed, handsome or ugly, none of things matter to God because they all pertain to our own self-centeredness: my powers, my status, mydesire to have reality on my terms. Because of the power in God’s Word Jeremiah does not react in silence, nor does he step aside to let someone else take his place, instead he steps into the situation, which has in a way stepped into him. He responds to the encounter of God, feels the Word of the Lord placed on his lips, and is prepared to do God’s work.
From this point forward Jeremiah will not go forth on his own terms; God will send him, and he will move according to God’s will. It is because of God working in and through Jeremiah that he will be able to speak and act in the specific situations as they arise. The encounter has changed Jeremiah so that he will be able to narrate God’s plucking up and planting again. Jeremiah will speak the truth of the Word of God regardless of whether or not they are agreeable to his youth, ambitions, moods, or self-examination.
It is only when it is made plainly clear to Jeremiah that the point at issue has nothing to do with his own abilities or the extent of his talents that the truth of God’s reign is made abundant and it becomes possible for Jeremiah to become a messenger.
Like Jeremiah, the young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt the call of God to proclaim the Word. Things became very difficult for Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As the German nation descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, he struggled with how to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor and a theologian. He trained young pastors through an underground seminary at Finkenwalde and preached about remaining faithful and obedient to God before anything else. As it became harder and harder for him to proclaim the good news in Germany, Bonhoeffer learned that war imminent and was frightened about being conscripted into the army.
Bonhoeffer was a committed pacifist and was adamantly opposed to the Nazi regime, therefore he would never swear an oath to Hitler nor fight in his army. However, to refuse this would be a capital offense. It was at this time that Bonhoeffer accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While in the United States Bonhoeffer had somewhat of a Jeremiah experience, because even though he had the freedom to run away from his calling in Germany, Bonhoeffer realized that his responsibility was to God with the German people. Just as God would pluck up and replant the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time, Bonhoeffer knew that the German nation would have to be destroyed in order for it to be fruitful once again. And so Bonhoeffer returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.
Upon arriving back in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s desire to speak powerful words against the Third Reich resulted in him being forbidden to speak publically starting in 1940 and he had to regularly report his activities to the police. Within a year he was forbidden to print or publish. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwehr’s plot to undermine Hitler’s regime.
He remained in prison for two years, able to write letters and theology that were smuggled out by sympathetic guards.
Though he remained hopeful for the end of the war and his eventual release, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by hanging just two weeks before the United States liberated the camp where he was being held. Before his execution, Bonhoeffer was led away as he was concluding his final Sunday service and said to one of his fellow prisoners: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
I fear that whenever we hear stories of people like Jeremiah or Bonhoeffer we regard them as a special kind of people, set apart for the work God ordained for them. And to be quite honest, it is very unlikely that anyone of us in this room will ever be imprisoned, or suffer, for our Christian identity. But we are all called to be Jeremiahs and Bonhoeffers in our commitment to following Jesus Christ. Just like those two prophets God has formed us, consecrated us, and placed the Word on our lips.
There is a power in words that we regularly underestimate. The way that we often talk about other behind their backs carries with it a great destructive energy. When we ignore the truth of our interconnected as the body of Christ in this place by speaking poorly of one another does a disservice to the God who formed you from the womb. Our words are powerful, use them wisely.
So too, there is a power in the words that we use to affirm and address one another in love; By caring for and reaching out to those around us we continue to live out the kind of fruitful lives that God has always envisioned for us. This church is called to be a place where we understand the power of our Words and use them appropriately.
Do not be afraid of this power that God has given to you. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer did not go in their own strength and neither do you. They did not speak on their own authority and neither do you.God is our strength and our authority. “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” The thoughts of our selfish lives can be cast away to the side so that we can assume the proper posture as messengers of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians “Yet not I, but Christ working in me” (Gal. 2.20).
Throughout their lives both Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer saw the collision of powers in the world. What defined them was their ability to see God’s decisive acts in history, remembering that God is the true authority over all things in spite of the powers that dominated their cultures. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer were ordinary people. They were just like us. They were living their lives, expecting everything to be fine when God put something on their lips to say. Hearing and responding to the Word of God is a difficult thing, but God is always speaking and our response to that Word will define us as a people of faith, hope, and love.
Do not be afraid to speak the truth, for the Lord is with you.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It has been ten years since the last time I placed my hand over my heart and said the words to the pledge of allegiance. For the better part of eighteen years, I started every morning in school by standing up with my classmates, turning to the corner where the flag was standing, and saying those words that countless Americans have said throughout the decades. But then I stopped, and I haven’t since.
I was in 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in the living room watching the towers fall over and over and over again on television. I can remember my dad saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.
In the weeks that followed everything was a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of patriotism and nationalism to that degree since the end of World War II. My friends and I had conversations in the lunch hall about how we needed to go to war and kill the people who killed our people. We seriously wondered if the country would reinstitute the draft. And we proudly stood each and every morning to pledge our allegiance to the flag that was now flying in every front yard and on every car-bumper.
Over the next few years my dedication to the eradication of terrorism grew and grew. When members of Amnesty International painted our high school rock with words about peace and love, I got my friends together and we painted over it in black and red paint with things like “Pro-War” and “Bomb Saddam.” When we learned about how our country had played a major role in the chaos of the Middle East, I tuned out my teachers and ignored the textbooks. And when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier to declare that we were victorious I beamed with pride.
But then a strange thing happened; I started really paying attention in church. I waited for our pastor to echo the same sentiment of celebration that President Bush declared. I waited to hear him give thanks to God for our victory over tyranny and oppression. I waited to learn about God’s saving hand over America from the pulpit. And those things never came. Instead we were asked to do something bizarre: pray for our enemies.
I heard the words of Jesus in a way I never had before, and it forced me to confront my own sinfulness. The more I read the bible the more I realized that my behavior was just like the crowds standing before the cross shouting, “crucify!” The more I read about Jesus’ way, the more I realized that I had fallen short of God’s glory and that I needed to repent. The more I experienced God’s grace the more I realized that my feelings were in conflict with my faith.
And then the words of the pledge of allegiance started sounding strange. I continued to stand with my peers throughout high school, I placed my hand on my heart and said the same words, but it made me uncomfortable. And then one day I stopped, and I haven’t since.
This has been particularly awkward at times; like when I was asked to speak before a local Kiwanis meeting and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room when I did not participate in the pledge of allegiance, or like when I gathered with a community band on the Fourth of July to play patriotic music and I was the only one who did not pledge allegiance to the giant flag waving gently in the breeze.
I am not against the American Flag, and I do not wish to be disrespectful toward it. I am not against our military nor am I a traitor. Instead, as a Christian, I have problems with the pledge of allegiance.
When we pledge our allegiance to a flag and whatever it stands for, it means we are pledging our allegiance to everything the flag represents; The flag that stood at the frontlines of Native American massacres; the flag that orchestrated coups in foreign countries for our own benefit; the flag that suppressed minority voices and segregated races; the flag that has benefited the rich at the expense of the poor; the flag that symbolizes “freedom” but really means “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” Our flag, and what it stands for, is something that puts me at dis-ease and is not something that I can blindly pledge allegiance to.
When we pledge allegiance to one nation under God it means that we believe that we are one nation, and that we believe in one God. We are not one nation. Just turn on the news for five minutes, or listen to the bickering of our politicians, or the activists from Black Lives Matter, or anything else and it is clear that we are not one nation. Day after day we are at odds with one another over some of the most important and some of the most frivolous things. And we are certainly not all Christian. Oddly enough, the words “under God” were not added to the pledge until the 1950’s when the Christian church in America started to decline. Though Christians are called to make disciples, we are not called to do so by conscription. To expect and force all citizens to pledge an allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against the freedom of religion that we so dramatically praise on a regular basis. Moreover, to expect and force all citizens to pledge their allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” If we would not stand to pledge our allegiance to one nation under Allah, or under Buddha, or under Krishna, then we should not expect others to do the same to God.
When we pledge allegiance to a nation that stands for liberty and justice for all we must wrestle with the fact that our country does not have liberty and justice for all. The rise of voter registration laws that unfairly affect those of a lower socio-economic status means we do not have liberty and justice for all. The frighteningly high incarceration rates of minorities mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The unbelievably prevalent examples of gender discrimination and wage gaps mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The seemingly endless episodes of violence against those who are different than the norm mean we do not have liberty and justice for all.
I am grateful for the freedoms that this country affords me. I believe in paying my taxes even if they are used for something I might not agree with. I am thankful for a military that defends the weak across the world. But my allegiance is not with America; it is with Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t make me un-American. It just makes me a Christian.