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.
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
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.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
“A Different Kind Of Church.”
Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”
I see these slogans online, on tee-shirts, on billboards.
And, truth be told, they drive me crazy. They drive me crazy because they all present a version of church that is false advertising.
It’s the same when churches boldly proclaim their commitment to inclusiveness. It’s one thing to say it, and another thing entirely to live it.
More often than not, the call to inclusiveness in the church is all about getting people in the door. Some pastor says, “God loves you just the way you are,” but then, rather quickly, the church becomes a program of moral observance and we no longer want people to be the way they are – we want them to be like us.
There’s no such thing as a different kind of church. Sure, churches might vary in expressions of worship, or missional engagement, or even multicultural representation. But, at the end of the day, churches are all the same because they are filled with the same kinds of people: sinners.
The most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that all of us are the sinners for whom Christ died.
Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!
Karl Barth puts it this way: “It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong… We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that… [in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.”
We live in a time in which church and individuals alike excel in the practice of marginalization. That is: we delight in demonstrating all of our rightness against all the wrongness we see around us. It’s why we put certain names on our bumper stickers and attack people on social media and whisper when particular people dare to sit near us in church.
Despite what we might feel, or even believe, there are no innocents in human history. Most of our programs to make the world a better place accomplish little more than making the people who created the programs feel better about themselves (read: ourselves).
We don’t need programs. We don’t need “different kinds of churches.”
The only thing we need is the One who comes to deliver us from ourselves. That deliverer’s name is Jesus Christ – the judged Judge who comes to be judged in our place – the great rectifier of our wrongs.
Or, to put it another way, our help isn’t in us. Our help is in God. Could there be any better news than that?
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
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.
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.
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.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”
Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.
Instead he says, “Follow me.”
The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him.
Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.
But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.
And the dead can’t raise themselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.
We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us.
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there.
But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.
Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.
Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.
It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.
“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”
As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.
And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.
“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”
A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”
Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people.
Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.
And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.
God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.
Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.
Because none of us deserve him.
She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even.
Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.
In other words, God likes crowded tables.
There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.
But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?
Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.
And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.
Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”
When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”
And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”
Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.
In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.
Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.
The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.
There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.
And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.
I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since.
A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.
And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.
Until that night.
The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”
The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help.
She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.
They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”
He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her.
She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.
Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.
We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.
But that is the heart of grace.
We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.
People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us.
God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.
God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace.
One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate.
And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen.