This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Johanna Hartelius about the readings for Ash Wednesday [A] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Our conversation covers a range of topics including anniversaries, fellowshipping, gifts, Karl Barth impressions, liturgical observances, Fleming Rutledge, melodrama, working with words, repentance, the BCP, unfaithful sermons, rectification, personal piety, and Stanley Hauerwas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Dangerous Time
A Better Hope
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
There’s a story I heard once about a church that decided they were going to finally make Easter memorable one year. As if the raising of Jesus from the dead wasn’t memorable enough.
Anyway, they enrolled the Children’s ministry, because that’s what churches do, and they made all these costumes and taught all the children their lines and they made these first century like tapestries to set the scenes. All of it. Weeks of preparation. Programs were printed. The whole town came out for this unforgettable Easter performance.
And all went well, until it didn’t. A few kids showed up too late to put on their costumes so they wore their blue jeans and tee shirts along side Roman centurions. One kid plum forgot his lines so he had to hold the script and squint at it every time he had to speak. On and on.
And then, this pivotal scene arrived: the Crucifixion. The little boy playing Jesus was supposed to lifted up and triumphantly declare, “Father forgive them.” But the centurions who were supposed to strap Jesus to the cross got into an unscripted fight about how to actually tie him down before lifting him up. Their voices grew and they started pushing one another until other kids jumped into the gray and the whole thing started coming apart.
Until a little girl, perhaps the smallest in the cast, shouted louder than everyone else, “Let Jesus speak!”
Let Jesus speak.https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/3ImmHw3N2yCjRGgImtDOES
It was Jesus’ words and voice that first called Peter. He went from fishing for fish to fishing for people. It was Jesus’ teaching and healings that started the whole ministry – these little miracles that defied understanding. It was Jesus’ preaching on top of the mountain that dwelt deep in Peter’s soul, the blessings, and the salt, and the light, and the law. It was Jesus’ parables that Peter clung to in the moments of uncertainty, the stories of mustard seeds and prodigals and publicans.
And so, when Jesus asked about the truth, who he really was, it was Peter who said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah.”
Jesus, apparently pleased with Peter’s proclamation, pulled back the curtain of the cosmos for a moment and spoke some more truth about the coming days, and his predicted passion – death and resurrection.
But that didn’t sit well with St. Pete – “Hey JC, I don’t think you understand. the Messiah can’t die! The Messiah is here to fix everything!”
And do you know what Jesus’ said in response? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, but I’m here for heavenly things!” And then he started preaching about a call to self-denial, and taking up the cross (whatever that means), and the taste of death, again.
And now, six days later, six days after the confession and rebuke, Jesus asks Peter, along with James and John, to travel to the top of mountain by themselves.
They arrive at the top and immediately Jesus is transfigured – his face is shining like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white.
Suddenly two figures appear on either side of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and they begin talking to one another.
Peter speaks for the first time and says, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make tabernacle right here on the mountain, one for yo, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”
But Jesus doesn’t respond. Instead a cloud overshadows all of them on the mountain and from the cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!”
When they hear the voice the disciples, Peter included, fall to the ground in abject terror. But then Jesus reaches out, touches them, and says, “Don’t be afraid.” And when they look around Moses and Elijah are gone.
The Transfiguration changes things. It is the turning point in the Gospel from the Galilean mission to the journey toward Jerusalem. And, for us, it is the turning point from the season after the Epiphany toward the season of Lent.
The Transfiguration is strange. And, every year we proclaim this story as God’s Word for the people of God, I have more questions.
Did Jesus know this was going to happen, hence inviting the disciples up to the mountain?
What did Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk about?
How did the disciples know the figures were Moses and Elijah to begin with? It’s not like they had Google to look up their pictures!
The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.
Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple, told all of his followers to take up their own crosses (before they even have an inkling that he will die on one), and then, a week later, they travel up to the top of a mountain and Jesus turns into a walking talking lighthouse with two of the most important figures from Israel’s history flanking him on either side, only to have it end just as soon as it starts.
And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond, at all, to something that someone has said to him. Namely, Peter’s request to start a motel franchise on top of the mountain.
The Transfiguration shows up once a year, every year, as this transitional moment for the church. And, usually, it goes one of two ways.
A preacher like me will stand and rebuke Peter for his foolishness and then make the strange, but true, connection between Peter and all of you. It’s okay to not have all the answers, it’s perfectly fine to be imperfect. Jesus loves Peter even when he messes up just like Jesus loves you.
Or, using Peter again, a preacher like me will make comments about Peter’s strange desire to stay up on the mountain and how the life of faith isn’t just about mountaintop experiences, but going down the mountain, back to reality, where we get to do all the churchy stuff we’re supposed to do like help people in need. The sermon ends with a call to discipleship or mission with a reminder that the mountaintop moment motivates us toward movement.
It’s either: Peter’s just like you, or we’ve got work to do.
Preaching is strange. I know of a preacher who received a grant to go around listening to other preacher so that he could write a book about preaching. And, when asked about the experience of listening to all these other preachers he said, “If anyone hears anything in a sermon, it’s a miracle.”
Now, on one level, his comment is a critique about the sorry state of preaching in the church today – yours truly included. I never know what’s going to happen when I sit down to write a sermon, let alone what will happen when I stand up here to preach it.
Preaching is, inherently, a foolish endeavor. We all know that. It is foolish because preachers preach, week after week, with the hope that, miraculously, God’s people will hear a revelation from God.
And yet, divine revelation is not something within the control of the preacher. God speaks however God wants. Sometimes God does actually speak through a preacher, I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not that happens here. And sometimes, more than preachers would like to admit, God speaks in spite of preachers.
Only God can speak for God.
Which means, oddly enough, that that other preacher is right – if anyone hears anything in a sermon, it is a miracle.
Preaching God’s word and hearing God speak is miraculous.
As is the Transfiguration.
Peter and company experience a miracle – they get to witness a peak behind the curtain of the cosmos. In one brilliantly beautiful moment they see the real truth in front of them, what Paul will later intone with the words, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
For some reason, we (that is preachers) like to take this miracle, and instead of focusing on it, we focus on Peter. We make our theology into anthropology. Focusing on Peter makes this extraordinary story ordinary, which undermines the miracle that is the Transfiguration!
The Gospel isn’t found in Peter and friends cowering on the mountain, and it’s certainly not in the idea of doing good works which we all know we’re supposed to do whether or not we know the Christ on the mountaintop.
The Gospel is Jesus Christ and him transfigured.
Notice, the light that radiates in and through Jesus’ flesh is the same light that was the result of the One who said let there be light. It is the same light that that spoke to Moses through a burning bush and eventually permeated Moses’ face on top of another mountain, the same light that blazed in the whirlwind that took up Elijah into the sky.
If the point of the Transfiguration is to merely give us a little encouragement when we’re afraid, or a call to more do-goodery, then it is not sufficient for the sin-sick world we live in.
It doesn’t give us any hope. Or, if it does, it only puts our hope in us.
Again, that’s anthropology, not theology.
If the hope we need is in us, then we should’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now.
The great, and staggering, truth of the strange new world of the Bible is that we need all the help and all the hope we can get because all is not as it ought to be.
And yet, Christ beckons us to the mountaintop even when we, like Peter get it all wrong. We are called to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves. Take it from Peter, the more time you spend with Jesus, the more he invades your life filling it with impossible possibilities.
The more time you spend with Jesus, the more you hear what he has to say.
If you leave from church today, or any day for that matter, with even the slightest inkling that you heard something from the Lord, it’s a miracle. It’s certainly not a testament to my preaching ability, or even our gifted musicians. It’s an ordinary experience of the miraculous work of God.
Did you notice that, when Peter starts getting all these funny ideas up on the mountaintop, Jesus doesn’t light into him like he did the week before? Instead, a cloud arrives, overshadowing all of them.
Its as if the Lord is saying, “Pete, shhhh. Just, for a moment, please, listen.”
The rest of the Gospel story will remind us that Jesus was crucified in our vain attempt to stop his talking. But not even the grave could stop of the Word of God made flesh from speaking. Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age.
Despite all the reasons God should’ve left us behind, abandoned us in the valleys and mountains of our own making, God is with us, speaking to us.
Therefore, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, listening to him, we begin, thank God, to look and sound more and more like Jesus. To move as he moves, to see as we are seen and to hear as we are heard. That hope, the hope of our transfiguration, the hope of holding what we behold is what the book of Hebrews calls the better hope.
Behold the Transfigured Christ, bask in his light that is light eternal, and listen to him. Amen.
The Party Before The Penitence
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 23.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including slinkies, transfigured observances, liturgical timeliness, weekly communion, bookends, Sufjan Stevens, mountains, glory, divine laughter, eyewitnesses, Simeon Zahl, and crucified horizons. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Party Before The Penitence
Everyone Has A But
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murder shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your bother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your member than for your whole body to go into hell. It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, cause her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let you words be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
The narthex is buzzing at First Church Galilee.
A young seminarian, the son of a construction worker is the rumor, just finished preaching a sermon and the amount of responses was staggering.
It started with oohs and ahhh. A scattering of amens. But then there was silence, and head scratching, and even a few audible “Excuse Mes?”.
Mrs. Smith, the dedicated Sunday school teacher has amassed a crowd by the coffee decanter. “The nerve!” she begins, “Can you believe what we just witnessed? Don’t you think that boy would’ve had the good sense to know that we don’t come here to be told what to do, but instead to hear about who God is?”
Parishioners shake their heads in affirmation.
Mr. Cline, the head usher, then steps in, “Well now. He is young and so full of the Spirit. Maybe he didn’t really mean it.”
“Give me a break Jim,” Mrs. Smith retorts, “You know he meant it! You don’t get up in the pulpit and say things like that if you don’t mean it!”
And right then the preacher stops shaking hands at the door and walks up to the small but rather agitated crowd. Before he has a chance to speak, Mrs. Smith lights into him, “You’ve got a lot of nerve you son of a carpenter! It’s not responsible to tell people to pluck out their eyes and cut off their arms! There were children present during your message! You know, I have half a mind to send a note to the bishop about you!”
And, oddly enough, the preacher closes his mouth into a smile and says nothing. In the oddity of his silence, the congregation awkwardly begins to disperse, and they leave amazed and astounded at his teaching.
It is a strange sermon that our Lord preaches, a sermon we call the Sermon on the Mount. I think we can agree to an extent with my fictional parishioners who witnessed his proclamation – it is a bit weird to hear such word from the Word made flesh.
It’s one thing to tell people their blessed when they’re grieving and mourning. It’s still yet another thing to talk about being salty and shining your light into the world. But it’s another thing entirely when Jesus takes the law and cranks it up to eleven.
You have heard that it was said that you shall not murder, but I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister you’ve committed just as bad of a crime.
You have heard that it was said you shall not commit adultery, but I say that if your eye lingers just a second too long on someone other than your spouse, you’ve become an adulterer.
You have heard it was said that you shall worship the Lord your God, but I say to you that if you miss even one Sunday at church you are liable to the H E double hockeys sticks of fire.
Geez Jesus. What’s the deal? What happened to loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing a nice thing for someone else every once in a while?
And that’s not even mentioning the abject craziness of being told, by the Lord, that it would be better to rip out our eyes and cut off our hands than to continue living in the sins of our imaginations!
Now, we all know that Jesus spoke in parables. It’s important, of course, to note that Jesus also spoke in hyperbole, exaggerated speech, what Stephen Webb calls, “blessed excess.”
Though, it doesn’t sound very blessed, even when Jesus does it.
Hyperbole – overstating something in order to underscore. We do it all the time do, we add for emphasis. We spice up our stories for effect, we exaggerate in order to drive something home, we give ourselves over to hyperbole.
Even in the church we do it. Have you ever heard the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”? I don’t see 1,000 people here today…
I mean, it would be irresponsible for us to take Jesus at his word, to take him literally. If we did, this congregation would turn into a bunch of one-armed cyclopses. And that’s just the verses we read today. He keeps going!
And yet… and yet…
Might it be that we don’t feel comfortable with these words from Jesus not just because of how graphic he is, but also because of how close it hits to home?
I suspect that only a very small selection of Christians enjoy this part of Jesus’ sermon. Honestly, this preacher didn’t want to have to preach a sermon on Jesus’ sermon on the mount this week. It’s a lot. But there are some out there for whom this sermon, these words of Jesus taking the people to task, it rings of truth because they know there is more at stake in the Kingdom of God than merely being accepted.
Acceptance is a passive reality that actually runs counter to God’s nature.
God doesn’t just accept us otherwise God, in Christ, would never heave preached this sermon. Acceptance isn’t enough. Neither is tolerance.
Nobody wants to be accepted or tolerated.
We want to be loved.
And Jesus does love us, even me and you, but his love is intense, frightening, and overwhelming. In fact, Jesus loves us so much, he’s willing to do something most of us avoid at all costs – he tells the truth.
But there’s a reason we avoid the truth – that we run from it whenever it rears its ugly head. No one wants to be told they are a sinner, let alone admit it themselves.
We all have our “buts,” our excuses, when it comes to Jesus’ sermon.
Just because I looked it doesn’t mean I acted on it.
C’mon, what’s a little grudge got to do with me being able to come forward to the altar?
So what if I get a little judgmental every once in awhile, it’s not like its hurting anyone!
Sure, maybe I went a little too far but I’m not as bad as some other people!
Okay, I’ll admit that I said some thing that I shouldn’t have, but words are not the same things as actions.
Yeah, it was a mistake, but I won’t do it again.
Everyone has a but, and each of those buts is just a further reminder that, at the end of the day, we’re all sinners! And, to be honest, the sermon only gets worse. Jesus will shortly command his followers to turn the other cheek, love and pray for their enemies, and more!
The whole thing builds and builds with a crescendo, like many good sermons, until Jesus hammers it all home with this: “Do Not Judge lest ye be judged. Why do you seek the speck in your neighbors’s eye and neglect to see the log in your own?”
In other words, the sermon functions to help us see that we can’t judge anyone else for what they’ve done or left undone because, according to Jesus, all of us are incompatible with Christian teaching.
Any straight reading of scripture, Jesus’ sermon included, shows us that the Law is inflexible and total. Do your best and God will do the rest is not the message of the Bible.
The Law functions to drive us out of our propensity toward sinful self-sufficiency. That’s why Jesus preaches his offensive sermon. Otherwise, we are doomed to remain exactly as we are. And the Lord doesn’t arrive to keep things the same – the Lord arrives to make all things new. Including us.
But there is no resurrection without crucifixion. Hence the expression: The Gospel can only make alive those whom the Law has killed.
Jesus’ sermon accuses us – you are dead in your sins – and it also promises us new life – for the One who preaches these words is the same one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for people like us – people who don’t deserve it according to the words of his sermon.
It’s a bit odd to claim Good News in the midst of the sermon on the mount that sounds like such terribly bad news. But there is Good News because God in Christ does for us that which we cannot do on our own.
We can’t live up to the expectations of Jesus’ sermon, but that’s kind of the point. Again, it reminds us that we are no better than anyone else. In fact, it helps us to see that we’re all in the same boat. Therefore, like Peter who jumps out of the boat, Jesus’ sermon give us the strength to call out, “Lord, save me.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus does.
Do Not Lie
Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
If you were called upon to give a graduation speech at a local high school or college, what would you want to convey?
I think that question is something we all think about whenever we encounter one of those speeches because we can’t help ourselves from wondering what we would say to those about to enter “the next stage” in their lives.
I can remember sitting in my rather uncomfortable polyester high school graduation robe when a classmate of mine stood before the microphone and said, “Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.’” And all I could do was smile, because I shared that quote with her a week before graduation!
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas was asked to give the graduation address at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in 2017 and he began by saying:
“Graduation addresses are in general all alike. The speaker must begin congratulating those for their achievement… Those graduating are assured that the education they have received has prepared them well for the challenges they will confront. The climax of the speech take the form of recommendations for how those graduating should negotiate the rest of their lives. These recommendations are commonplace generalizations that are difficult to take seriously because the speaker lacks the authority to say anything that has the ring of truth. As a result, you will discover if asked what the speaker has said you cannot remember anything. I know this because I estimate I have heard over forty-five of these addresses and I cannot remember any.”
Hauerwas waxes lyrical for a while about the folly of such speeches and then challenges the audience to hear a piece of advice that is often overlooked completely: “Do not lie.”
All of these students, their professors, and their families, and the only thing Hauerwas wanted them to hear was “Do not lie.”
The irony, of course, is that we all know we’re not supposed to lie, and yet we do it constantly. We lie to ourselves, we lie to those we love (and those who love us), and we are perfectly content to lie to strangers.
But if the majesty and might of the church has anything to say about who we are to be in the world, it is that Christians are called to be people of truth.
Or, as Jesus put it in his Sermon on the Mount, “Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
However, living truthfully is not so easy. Not only have we become far too comfortable with the lies we tell and the lies that surround us, telling the truth will often require us to say things that others do not want to hear. Lying, oddly, is what we do to keep others happy. But happiness is not the same thing as holiness.
Jesus was relentless with his truth-telling. So much so that it led to the cross. And yet, the grace of God gives us the strength to be at home in the truth, even though it will be difficult.
A Theory of Change
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches other to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be call great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is in the middle of his proclamation. He is preaching his sermon on the mount. And whenever Jesus teaches there are fireworks, in large part because what he has to say runs counter to everything we think we know.
The sermon begins, innocuously enough, with a bunch of blessings. Albeit, a bunch of blessings don’t make sent according to the convictions of the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
And then Jesus turns the discourse over to a reflection on salt and light.
Ya’ll, Jesus says, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
In other words, ya’ll bring the flavor and people are going to see me through you. It’s a beautiful bit of metaphoric reflection. Jesus takes these simple images and symbols and uses them to help us see who we are and whose we are.
But they come with warnings – the salt that provides zero flavor is worthless and the light that is hidden is nothing but more darkness.
And then comes the new teaching. It’s actually all new, but this is the beginning of the end for us. This is when Jesus’ sermon starts to make us squirm in our pews.
I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets. I’m not here to destroy the past or leave it behind. In fact, I have come to fulfill it.
What in the world does that mean?
We, the people of God, have always had plenty of trouble observing God’s commandments from the ten handed down on Sinai to the other six hundred or so from the Old Testament. And yet, Jesus says, if any of us break any of these commandments, or if we teach anyone to relax them, we will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.
And that would be enough to cause us pause. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Listen – unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What if we tried to distill it a little more? What’s really at stake?
In another part of the Gospel, while not in the middle of a sermon, some do-goodery religious types try to trap Jesus with those questions: Which commandment Jesus is the most important?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Thanks JC! Sounds easy!
But, of course, we can’t even do those two commandments. We all worship other things, thereby not loving God. And, when push comes to shove, we generally look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors.
Even John Wesley, founder of what became the Methodist movement tried to whittle it all down to three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and observe the ordnances of God.
But we don’t do those either!
Jesus says, unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Oddly, within a few years of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, St. Paul will write to the church in Rome, “None of us is righteous, no not one.”
What then, are we to do?
Christians have, from the very beginning, struggled with this part of Jesus’ sermon. And, to be completely honest, it will only get harder next week as Jesus goes on his rant about “You have heard it was said, but I say to you…”
Maybe we can feel a little better about our meager righteousness, if we have any at all, because the scribes and the Pharisees, whom we are supposed to compare ourselves, weren’t very righteous to begin with. Sure, they had all the outward signs, they obeyed the law and they showed up for worship and they knew all the rules. But they followed the law at the expense of others, leaving behind the widowed and the orphaned to fend for themselves.
And yet, if Paul is right that none of us is righteous, what in the world are we doing?
Every organization, and every church, subscribes to its own theory of change. We human beings are not static creatures, and there is always a gulf between where we are and where we can be. The theory of change that an institution embodies shows what they think works.
For instance, the self-help industry believes that we can help ourselves. We merely need to read the right books with the right tips and we will finally become the best version of ourselves. And yet, if those books worked, there would no longer be a self-help section in book stores.
And the church has a similar theory of change, or at least we do without knowing it or acknowledging it. We assume that if people read their bibles, or pay attention to sermons, or show up for the right small groups, they will begin to move in the right direction.
The great challenge with this theory of change is that it doesn’t work.
Have you ever tried to have a rational argument with someone of a different political persuasion about why they’re wrong? Or have you ever tried to convince a smoker to stop smoking?
Have you ever tired to tell a bunch of sinners to start being more righteous?
We can’t will ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, into better behavior. We can’t get rid of our sin on our own. Only God can do that.
Therefore there is a difference between what we call the Law and the Gospel.
Jesus is hammering his listeners with the Law – there is no leniency whatsoever. Which should leave us shaking in our boots or, to put a more liturgical spin on it, it should bring us to our knees. Which, incidentally, is kind of the point.
The primary purpose of the Law, the call to righteousness, isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.
It reveals the truth of who we are – that no matter how many books we consume, or sermons we receive, we will forever be sinners in need of grace.
Basically, the function of the Law is to get each of us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we will ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
When we are in a space to ask that question, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
We are not far from the Gospel – the Good News.
The Good News is that Jesus makes us righteous because we cannot do it on our own.
But there is a question that lingers: How?
I mean, I recognize the irony in preaching a sermon about how sermons can’t and don’t make us change. But if you’ll bear with me for a just a bit… The sermon on the mount, this proclamation from the Lord, is what begins to constitute the community we call church. The sermon is not about giving us tips on how to be better people, instead it functions to help us see that we’re not very good to begin with and yet we are welcome in a place, this place, despite our inability to be good.
The law, the call to righteousness, drives us and downright forces us to the gospel. It requires us to rest in and trust Jesus’ amazing grace to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
In other words, the only way we can ever change is through our hearts, and not our minds.
Change is only ever possible through relationships, not requirements.
But even that is almost impossible. Its so difficult that only God can really do it.
Change, transformation, occurs through the gift of the Holy Spirit such that our desires, not our minds, start to shift.
Or, as Paul says “Our hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
People are changed not through their will, their choices and actions. And neither are people changed through their minds and the consumption of knowledge. People are changed through their hearts, through love.
And judgment kills love. When we feel judged, ie when we are told what to do, we hide our love away and we put up walls and we resist.
St. Augustine says, “The law commands rather than helps. It teaches us what is wrong without healing it. In fact, it increases what it does not heal, that we might seek the gift of grace with even greater attention.”
The church, then, exists not to judge the world, but to proclaim the gift of God’s unending power and love in the person of Jesus Christ. We do what we do to help others encounter the profound wonder of Jesus. The experience of being met by God in our need is the heart of our faith.
Basically, guilt only ever produces more guilt. Love, on the other hand, is full of impossible possibility.
Love actually changes things.
A few years ago I was listening to the radio when I was bombarded by a story of grace, a story of love, a story about a man named Daryl Davis.
– Daryl Davis Picture –
Davis is a black blues musician and, for the past 30 years, he has spent his free time doing something outrageous – befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. And, a result of those friendships, 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.
How did he do it?
Did he go to Klan meetings with pamphlets about their racism? Did he encourage them to read certain books that would help reframe their thinking?
He did something much harder and much more dangerous.
He befriended them.
It all started in a bar call the Silver Dollar Lounge when, after playing a set of music, a white man walked up to thank him for his performance and told him that he couldn’t believe a black man could play the blues so well. Davis was so confused by the comment that he asked if he could buy the man a drink and they sat down to talk. And talk they did. They talked about music and musicians, about how the blues originated with black musicians, and after offering a set of recommended records to buy the white man said to Davis, “You know, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a beer with a black man.”
Again, Davis pushed to find out why, and the man pulled out his KKK membership card from his wallet.
However, that conversation led to a friendship that led to the man leaving the KKK behind forever. Not because Davis judged him, but because he befriended him. The man’s heart, to put it one way, was strangely warmed and he was never the same.
Why do we give ourselves over to wondrous music? Why do we make friends and invite them over for dinner? Why do we ooh and ahh over various sunrises and sunsets?
We do so out of the simple delight in the goodness of creation but also because half of the planet’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.
In short, we fill our lives with loves out of a delight for what they point us toward: the kingdom of heaven.
But make no mistake: love, the kind of radical love that leaves to KKK members turning in their robes, the kind of delight that actually leads to any change is downright dangerous.
And yet, ultimately that’s the kind of radical love that God has for us, a people completely undeserving. But God keeps showing up, even to the point of the cross, with nothing but the Gospel.
In the bread and cup, in the singing of our faith, through the hard wood of the cross, we all receive a righteousness that far exceeds anything the scribes or Pharisees could ever hope to accomplish – the righteousness of God.
The Gospel does not promise the possible – it deliver the impossible.
The Good News of Jesus Christ gives what the law demands.
That’s why the love of God is strong enough to change things, even us.
Or, as Luther put it: God accepts none except the abandoned, makes no one healthy but the sick, gives sight to none but the blind, brings life to none but the dead, and makes no one righteous except sinners.
Sinners like you and me. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the youth of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church about the readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Our conversation covers a range of topics including youthful church members, confirmation, divine requirements, humility, the outward signs of a Christian, foolishness, sanctuary signage, preaching, Karl Barth, and blessings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: #Blessed
Wading for Jesus
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
We have a new bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference, her name is Sue Haupert-Johnson. She was interviewed this week by the Conference office in order to introduce to the people called Methodist in this place. And, among all the interesting and theological bits from the interview, she was asked about our vision.
Those without vision are doomed to perish, the scriptures say. So it was a worthy question. And this was her response: “Vision doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the people. However, the heart of the vision of the church always contains this question: How do we introduce people to Jesus?”
John the Baptist is arrested.
That’s how our scripture starts today. It’s an odd beginning, and one that is all too easy to breeze over without realizing the implications of such an introduction.
Why is John arrested? The last we heard of him in Matthew’s Gospel he was out in the wilderness, far removed from the movers and the shakers, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. That doesn’t sound like much rabble-rousing, let alone enough to warrant being thrown behind bars. But, of course, he did call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “a brood of vipers!” Even still, it’s not like he was committing a crime.
However, whenever the power that be are called into question, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop those questions.
John has a sense, a glimpse, of what the world could be. As the herald of the One to come, he stands squarely between the times and beckons the gaze of those with eyes to see that not all is at it seems. Something is on the way. And that something has a name: Jesus.
The drama begins.
John is arrested and how does Jesus react? He retreats to Galilee. That’s a bit odd when you take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible… I mean, we’re talking about the incarnate God! Perhaps we would prefer it if Jesus called the people to arms, if he stormed the gates of the prison to free his cousin, or any other number of reactive activities.
But, instead, Jesus responds to John’s arrest by preaching.
Words are powerful things, more powerful than we often give them credit for. John’s words were so powerful that they put a target on his back. Jesus’ words wind up sending him to the cross. And today, our words are just as powerful, they can build up and they can destroy.
Jesus’ mission and ministry in Galilee is for a purpose, one that Matthew begs us to see. Jesus preaches in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
That text might sound familiar, and if it does it’s because we read those words every Christmas Eve – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The great light, now, happens to be the One who preaches in Galilee.
And then the text moves to the call of the first disciples.
Jesus is preaching, but he’s also searching. He’s looking for those who can help manifest and live according to the strange new world we call the kingdom of God. Notably, Jesus does not call his disciples from the powerful or the elite, he doesn’t create a big board of draft prospects for kingdom work, rather he calls those who are ordinary knowing that, with the power of the Spirit, they can do extraordinary things.
There are no crowds yet waiting to see what the hope of the world can do, the Pharisees and the scribes haven’t started their plot to get rid of him, because this is still the beginning. And one day, while walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the lake. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets behind and followed him.
Luke’s Gospel adds some flavor and flourish to the story with some drama out on the water, but according to the Matthew the call of the first disciples was as quick as “Follow me.”
Much has been made about this moment in scripture and what it means for us today as followers of Jesus.
In other words, this is the story of the first call and what we, in turn, are called to do.
Life, today, often feels a lot like U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We on the search for something. Some of us are looking for fulfillment, or purpose, or belonging. We look for it in people, jobs, vocations.
I have a friend from seminary who embodied this searching perfectly. Every few months there was a new fad that dominated his existence. At first it was the desire to eat in a more local and healthy manner. He cultivated a backyard garden, read recipes book, even interned with a local farmer in between his classes. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the garden was overrun by weeds, but by then he was on to the next thing: Barefoot running. He listened to some podcast about how our modern shoes are bad for our posture, and he became convinced that he needed to start running, every day, without shoes. So he did. He adopted a running calendar based on his class schedule and figured out the optimal times and places to run barefoot. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the weather started to change and running sans shoes was starting to take a toll on his feet, but by then he was on to the next thing: Reading a book every three days. He encountered some article online about the devolution of our minds and the necessity to read as much as possible as quickly as possible. So he did. He set up timed alerts on his phone that told him when and what he was supposed to read. Every moment of the day was calculated down his average page per minute so that he could finish a book every three days. And, for awhile it took, until it didn’t.
I could go on. He certainly did.
He still hasn’t found what he was looking for.
And though curiosity is good, and frankly we could do well to have more of it in some ways, when it comes to the realm of the kingdom, we’ve got it backward. The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.
Perhaps that’s why the reference to Isaiah before the call of the disciples is so important: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. In the darkness of our lives, when we least expect it, God shows up.
The disciples weren’t looking for a teacher to follow, or a barefoot running regimen to adopt, or a spiritual guru who could help bring fulfillment to their lives. If they were looking for anything, it was fish. And then Jesus shows up with the nerve to flip their vocation completely upside down.
Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.
God in Christ shows up, and then gives us something to do. Though, how we respond to that call is as varied as the people who Jesus delights in calling. What comes to your mind when you hear the commission?
Evangelism can sound like a dirty word in United Methodist circles. It is often manipulative and preys on individual fears in order to get people in the pews.
Some will take evangelism as our responsibility to save souls, or win people for Jesus, or knock on doors until we find someone who is willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Some will stand on street corners shouting about the end times, while others (a few blocks away) will hand out tracts with 3 simple steps to make sure you go to the right place when you die.
On and on.
Fishing for people. It’s the Lord’s metaphor, so we’ve got to work with it. Though, I’m always a bit fearful of the language since fishing is inherently a coercive endeavor. We try to trick fish into eating something fake in order to reel them in.
Maybe that’s not the best metaphor for evangelism. Except for the fact that fishing requires us to go where the fish are.
Therefore, perhaps we are called to wade for Jesus just as much as we are called to fish for Jesus. The earliest Christians weren’t converted to Christianity because they were looking for something, or because they were convinced or duped by the disciples. The earliest Christians were encountered by the living God and they couldn’t help but follow.
Wading into the muck and mire of a stream to catch a fish is inherently a messy and frustrating endeavor. The same is true of wading into someone’s mess. But that’s exactly what God did and does for us.
Each of us here are here because, somehow, God showed up in our lives. And, more often than not, God shows up through someone else.
There’s a big difference, a huge difference, between trying to convince someone of the Gospel, and living according to the Gospel. For, living according to the Gospel, puts us in relationships with people we would otherwise ignore and, because God has a sense of humor, it usually results in someone seeing how we live and then asking, “Why are you the way you are?”
And the answer, of course, is Jesus.
Notably, the word evangelism just means, bearing the Good News. After Jesus called the first disciples he went through Galilee proclaiming the Good News and great crowds began to follow.
He didn’t try to coerce them, or frighten them, or even convince them. He just preached the Good News.
Hear the Good News: You are loved by God. There is a place for you in God’s church. There is nothing in your life, no matter what you do or leave undone, that can ever separate you from God’s love.
Introducing people to Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow. How we introduce people to Jesus is actually quite easy. It’s the why we introduce people to Jesus that we often overlook. We, of course, do it because Jesus tells us to. But also because our lives have been changed by God and we want that for others. My life is fundamentally better because of the church’s willingness to relentlessly wade into the muck of my life reminding me of the Good News when everything else sounds like bad news.
I am who I am because God waded into my life.
Following the Lord will bring us places and to people we would never have picked on our own. Living according to the Gospel will make us appear strange to those who have not heard it. Strange enough that they might wonder what happened to us.
And, of course, it’s not what happened to us, but who: Jesus.
The Circumference of the Kingdom
1 Corinthians 10.10
Now I appeal to you, brother and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
We were in the middle of nowhere North Carolina and I was receiving a tour of the town from a local clergy person. He pointed out the local watering hole, the 7-11, and the mortician’s brick and mortar funeral parlor.
From my vantage point in the front passenger seat of the aging preacher’s beat up truck it looked like every building was slowly falling apart and no one was bothered to do anything about it. Until we got to the end of the tour and there was a huge, recently leveled, field and construction equipment was strewn about in every direction.
“What’s this going to be?” I asked.
The preacher said, “The new baptist church.”
“What happened to the old baptist church?”
“It’s still here, we passed it a few blocks back. The church got into a big knock-down-drag-out fight about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So half the church left to start their own.”
“Do they have a name for the new church?”
“Yeah, they’re calling themselves Harmony Baptist.”
Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of Jesus, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind with the same purpose.”
In other words, “For the love of everything holy, please stop being so stupid and start getting along with each other!”
It’s notable that, since the very beginning of the church, we’ve been in conflict. The book of Acts is filled with one vignette after another of the church being churchy with their disagreements. All of Paul’s letters, in some way, shape, or form, beg the recipients to start acting like the body of Christ into which they were baptized.
And the church comes by it honest.
For, to start, the church is filled with people like us: a bunch of no good dirty rotten scoundrels (even if we don’t want to admit it). But, more importantly, conflict is actually what makes the church the church!
Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was filled with dissonance. The Pharisees and religious elites were quick with their accusations of blasphemy, the powers and principalities thought the only way to stop Jesus was the cross, and even the disciples were forever rebuking the Lord for his various proclamations and actions.
If there’s one thing we can count on in the church, it’s conflict.
No church has even found a way to follow the crucified God free of fiction.
And yet, friction is, often, what leads to transformation!
Case in point: the early church struggled with the rapid rise of Gentiles in their midst and had to figure out how expansive God’s kingdom really was. And, at the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church formally stated that no matter what scripture said, Christ’s salvation went beyond the bounds of Judaism. Therefore, matters of religious law such as circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were no longer required for those who followed Jesus.
Today, Jesus still refuses to leave us to our own devices and thoughts and even dreams about who the church is for. Jesus delights in sending people into our lives that we would never have picked on our own. And then, because he has a sense of humor, Jesus will see fit to make sure we read some of his words in church on Sunday like, “Love your enemies.”
We know that Jesus is at the center of what we call the kingdom of God, but we cannot know the circumference of the kingdom. In other words, we can’t decide who Jesus is for.
Or, as Barth put it, “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”
Or, as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!”
God’s grace is ever expanding and never-ending. Remember: Jesus commands us to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Good News. And, as such, we can expect arguments, differences, and even divisions to sprout up again and again. Perhaps that’s why God keeps inviting us back to the table, pardoning us for our mistakes and shortcomings, and offering the body and the blood that makes all of this possible in the first place.
It’s not easy being the church, but nothing important ever is.
The Best Laid Plans
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans