People Look East!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 64.1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent(ures), the Theotokos, liturgical purity, parental love, divine ceramics, repetitive prayers, the audience of worship, the Flying V, spiritual gifts, eschatological contemplation, and Wendell Berry. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Look East!

God Said It

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

We, the church, have been breaking one of God’s laws, and it’s high time for us to atone for our sin. Frankly, I can’t believe we’ve been so brazen to keep wantonly going on like this, but I guess we’ve been drunk on our own self-righteousness to do much of anything about it.

So, today, I’m going to get us all squared away so that we can get back on God’s good side.

We need to destroy the church bathrooms.

It’s as clear as day in scripture and if God says it, then it’s settled.

Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What’s Taylor on talking about church bathrooms at a time like this? We haven’t even used the church bathrooms for 5 months?” While some of you are wondering, “What Bible has he been reading?”

Deuteronomy 23.12-14, a paraphrase – “You shall have an area outside the camp for you to take care of your bathroom business. Make sure you bring a shovel with you, and when you relieve yourself outside, cover up your excrement. God is with you, to save you from your enemies, therefore your place of worship must be holy, so that God may not see anything indecent among you.”

Look it up sometime.

So, after prayerful consideration, whenever we do reopen for in-person worship, we will no longer have bathrooms in the church buildings. We will, however, endeavor to construct some outhouses on the edge of our property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

Have you ever read that passage from the Bible? Have you ever heard someone preach on it? Chances are, you haven’t. But in the 1880’s, here in the US, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of theological debate. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

Seriously.

For some, the Old Testament rules about the Israelite encampments were just as valid for churches as they were for God’s wandering people. Therefore, some preachers stood up in their pulpits nearly over 100 years ago to fight against the growing trend of bathrooms in churches!

Today, of course, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t about what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design would enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit inside the building, but how many bathrooms should there be and where should they be situated.

God said it, I believe it, that settles it! 

It’s a common refrain among Christian types though it can appear in different ways. “The Bible is clear about this…” is another similar expression, as is “We’ve got to follow the Bible.”

Years ago, in a Bible study, we were going through the appointed text for the day when a woman interrupted the conversation with a personal dilemma. She told us that her son recently came home with a tattoo on his arm and she was completely devastated. And I, being the young and naive clergy that I was (and still am) said something like, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a tattoo.”

To which she replied, “If God says it’s not allowed in the Bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there and moved the conversation to another place, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Oh, so you don’t eat pork or shrimp or cheeseburgers? And you’re telling us about your son so that we can join you in stoning him to death this afternoon for disrespecting your wishes? And, you didn’t mean to wear those earrings today because you know the Bible forbids them as well? And, for that matter that polyester jacket you wore in today is also off limits, as is your husband’s clean shaven face!

I repent, O Lord, for my unChristian Bible Study behavior. 

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is wildly problematic, and basically impossible. If we strive to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be able to wear blended fabrics, sow two different kinds of seed in one garden, children who curse their parents would be put to death, and if you mowed your lawn on Sunday afternoon you would be put to death as well. 

God said it, I believe it, that settles it. 

It’s another one of those trite and cliche Christianisms that often float around in our conversations. When we get into debates and arguments with others about particular biblical concepts, like prohibitions against tattoos, watching movies about wizards, or any other number of things, someone is likely to take a verse out of content and use it like a bludgeon against the person they disagree with.

Because, you know, if God said it then it’s settled.

Right? 

Or maybe there’s more to the Bible than the way we’ve been treating it.

Today, as I already noted, no one is worrying about whether or not to build a church with a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belittle the men in their congregations for trimming their beards, and we all neglect to adhere to certain passages all the while holding other passages over the heads of others.

The Bible is full of all sorts of rules and regulations that we pick and choose according to our own proclivities.

Our passage today comes from Paul first letter to the church in Corinth and he drops a line on the dozing Corinthians that makes (some of) us cringe today: “Women should be silent in churches.”

This, of course, is a line we willfully ignore/disobey regularly. Back in the days when we still gathered in-person for worship (remember?) we regularly had female liturgists who stood to read God’s Word for all of us, we’ve had at least 3 guest preachers in the last 3 years all of whom were women, and that’s to say nothing of the many times we’ve had women lead us in congregational singing.

However, there are churches who believe the language regarding the supposed subordination of women is the Gospel truth. In those churches, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible studies when men are present, and they are not allowed to do anything that would ever require them to speak in front of the gathered congregation.

Which, to be honest, is rather strange – even from a biblical standpoint. Paul certainly offers his opinion here in 1 Corinthians, and he does so in other letters as well, but the New Testament is filled with other examples that completely contradict Paul’s words. Women are noted as prophets, evangelists, and apostles, Paul even refers to Euodia and Syntyche as coworkers who struggled together with him in the ministry of the Gospel, and Aquila taught the ways of God among the earliest Christians.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that without female preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Contrary to the verse in question from Paul today, the Gospel (Good News in a world drowning in bad news) radically altered the position of women, elevating them to a partnership with men that was unparalleled in the first century. 

And yet, the church, as a whole, has been remarkably slow in embracing the New Testament’s vision of mutuality among people regardless of any distinctions. Even within the New Testament, there is a vacillation between a vision of things not yet seen and a keeping things the way they are.

And its that dance, it’s the movement back and forth, that really stands at the center of the statement, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Like the many apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking to us even today. But we aren’t just passive recipients of what it says, lifting it up like a weapon to be used against others. We ask questions of it. We pray for the wisdom and guidance to discern how it shapes our lives. We wrestle with the text and then, in community, we do the hard and important work of interpretation. 

Paul might have something to say about women being silent in church, but many of us would simply not be Christians unless women were brave enough to stand and speak in churches.

The Bible might have more than 200 verses in support of slavery, but we recognize that slavery is incompatible with God’s kingdom here on earth.

We might read about doing our business outside the boundary of God’s holiness, but we don’t build churches without bathrooms.

The best way to do the work of interpretation is to be the disciples Jesus has called us to be – in short, we follow Jesus’ example.

Contrary to how we might imagine the Lord in scripture, Jesus did not adhere to the strict biblical literalism that is still found in some churches today. He had wildly different ideas and interpretations of Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly violated the Law of the Old Testament by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian today is all about developing a lens by which we can encounter the strange new world of the Bible and proclaim it for this time and this place.

Even the Bibles to which we turn are themselves works of interpretation. 

Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from the Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but the words we use can make all the difference. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version renders John 3.16 – easily one of the most well known verses in all of scriptures. But what many of us do not know is that the word for “perish” in Greek is APOLLUMI and it can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, to be killed, or to be ruined. 

Each of those different words can change the meaning of the text in ways both small and large and they are a product of interpretation.

Therefore whenever we take up a Bible, whenever we flip to a particular passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the words. And to make it all the more challenging, even the best translations leave us to continue the work of interpretation.

So, how do we do it?

Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our Bibles all by ourselves and decide we know exactly what God is saying, we don’t listed to a sermon and decide that the end all be all on the subject.

We interpret God’s Word in community. 

We read from commentaries on scripture from those who came before us, we engage in Bible studies where iron sharpens iron and we come to know more than we would on our own, we send emails to our friends and pastor with questions so that we can come closer to the strange new world of the Bible.

And, we let Jesus help us interpret. 

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As God’s definitive Word, Jesus helps us understand the words within the Word. We read from both the Old and New Testaments through the lends of Christ and we can then do the good and sometimes hard work of wrestling with how these words continue to speak into our lives.

But that requires a whole lot more than, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

For, those who say “The Bible is clear” are those who have never really read the Bible. Reading scripture, the work of interpretation, is hard work. It calls us to become servants of the Word rather than masters of the text. And, frustratingly enough, that work never ends.

People have used God’s Holy Word with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery and racism. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward those who believe differently. 

It has been used as a weapon over and over again.

So today, we, the people of God, who come to the text with fear and trembling witnessing to the fact that it gives life, we repent for the ways we have used it to take life away.

And with the courage of the Spirit we join together to say, “no more!”

“No more!” To the use of Scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized.

“No more!” To the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for being exactly who they are.

“No more!” To the backward ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” To God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. 

I love the strange new world of the Bible. I fell in love with it as a kid sitting between my parents in the pews on Sunday mornings, I still fall in love with it every time I take it up and read. And I think what I love most about it is the fact that it is alive. It is not some dead book that demands to be kept in the past. 

It is alive, and it gives life. Amen. 

To My Youngest Sister On Her Second Wedding Anniversary

1 Corinthians 12.12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage. 

What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.

I did the same thing the day you got married.

I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.

In the church we call that grace.

Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.

It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.

On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace. 

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On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives. 

All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse. 

Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married. 

Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.

No matter what.

God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and brought to fruition in the empty tomb.

In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon. 

Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.

Sincerely.

Your Big Brother

Riding The Wave Of Chaos

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tripp Fuller about the readings for Pentecost Sunday [A] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13, John 20.19-23). Tripp is the host of Home-brewed Christianity, and is a Religion/Science Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad reviews, favorite beers, practicing Pentecost, back to Babel, vacation the right way, the necessity of chaos, lordship, U2, the crazy canon, and wild news. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Riding The Wave Of Chaos

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We Are (Not) Together

We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions

Directions:

Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together. 

Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
    1. 1 Corinthians 3.9
    2. For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.
  2. Ask everyone to share their names.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
    9. If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
    10. If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
    11. Who is your hero and why?
    12. What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
    13. If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
    2. Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.

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Homily:

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.

But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.

A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.

The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.

We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?

The Gospel of Ren & Stimpy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-9, Matthew 5.21-37). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the deletion of hymns, typology work, low anthropology, guilt management systems, disruptive distractions, the glory of the gospels, DBH, the passivity of plants, throwing out the ledger book, and the new Moses. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel of Ren & Stimpy

We Are (Not) Crucified

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

I was standing in line, along with everyone else, waiting for my chance to pass through customs. We were on our way to Guatemala to spend a week working in the remote highland area with an organization called HSP. The group had packed accordingly, we had read all the right scriptures that compelled us to go and love on our neighbors to the south, and honestly we were just really excited. We were college and high school students, and for some of us this would be our first time going out of the country.

It was the 4th of July, and you could tell from the sheer amount of red, white, and blue adorning just about everyone leaving the US. We joked in line and the buzz of anticipation was palpable in the air. I, just like most everyone else, was wearing a shirt with an American Flag prominently displayed on the front when I was my turn to step forward and hand over my passport.

I patiently smiled as the TSA worker looked at my picture, looked at me, looked at my ticket, and then looked at my shirt. Her gaze promptly returned to the desk in front of her, and without even looking up she said, “Just a piece of advice – I’d change my shirt if I were you.”

I stood in confused silence – I mean, why would I need to change my shirt?

And, as if reading my mind, the TSA agent said, “You’re traveling to a place where that flag doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Bible-and-Flag

Reading from the Apostle Paul in worship can be a difficult endeavor. His sentences tend to drag along and he is quite the fan of repeating himself. And taking the time to look at his argument, if we want to call it that, week after week after week is, possibly, an ill-advised proposition.

And yet, here we are.

Today, many of us, if not most of us, face the unenviable task of coming to grips with the fact that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel stories were recorded. That is, the earliest churches that sprung out around the Mediterranean had a better than good chance of meeting or reading from Paul long before they got a chance to hear or read from the evangelists.

Therefore, for those of us who think we can get closer to Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, that’s all good and fine. But to elevate the gospels as much as we do does a disservice to the work of Paul.

And, it’s not easy. I mean, Paul’s letters contain almost no references to the teachings of Jesus. He doesn’t recount the beauty of the Prodigal Son, or hammer home the words from the Sermon on the Mount, or even talk about the miracle of feeding 5,000 by the sea. Instead, it is the word of the cross that coveys the everything Paul wishes to share. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the message that reshaped reality and turned the world upside down.

That’s not to say that the stories of Jesus, those he told and those he lived out, are of non-importance. They are absolutely pivotal. And yet, we often read Paul today as if he took the simple messages of Jesus and complicated them into these opaque and intellectual arguments. When, in fact, the truth is quite the opposite: Paul distilled the gospel in a way that we would not have known without him.

A small, but potent example: Jesus tells the disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. If that’s all we’ve got then woe to the rich, because this is as good as its going to get. But Paul is adamant, throughout the letters, the Christ dies for us while we are sinners, that every single one of our sins are nailed to the cross whether we’re rich or poor, and the justification of the ungodly (that’s all of us) is the whole thing.

The work of Christ on the cross then becomes the lens by which the gospels come into focus, and not necessarily the other way around.

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Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is no easy thing to do. It wasn’t for Paul and it’s not easy for us. We are constantly in search of signs of demonstrated power so as to know where our allegiances should reside. We look up to the healthy and the wealthy as if they are more important and holier than the sick and the poor. We are so persuaded by, to use Paul’s words, the rulers of this age rather than the one who came to overthrow the powers and the principalities that compete for our attention.

I stood in the airport, displaying my red, white, and blue, and right before I boarded the flight, I took it off and put something else on. I spent the following week working with and among people whom I otherwise never would have seen, and I learned more than I could have dreamed.

Sure, I learned a lot about what it means to be a faithful disciple, and what it means to put faith into action, but the thing I learned the most about was what it meant to be an American. At least, what it meant to be an American to those who are not. 

That week in the Guatemala opened up my eyes to the long and sordid history of the United States with the government and civil war in Guatemala. I discovered how our country, in the name of freedom, instituted a new government in their country, assuming it would make for a more favorable relationship between the countries. But I also discovered how ravaged families and communities were by those actions, how many young men were indiscriminately murdered in a short period of time leaving behind a country that is still suffering the consequences of ours.

For me, it was a painful moment of transformation. For, in those conversation and interactions, in the tears and in the stories, I realized that, by the world’s standards, I am a citizen of empire. The country of my home and the country of my birth has bullied the rest of the world into recognizing our supposed superiority such that I was encouraged to remove my patriotic teeshirt before leaving the country.

In other words, I am exactly who Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 2. And so is every average American Christian.

We might enjoy spending our time bickering among ourselves about what President Trump said during the State of the Union, or Nancy Pelosi ripping up his speech, or who really won the Iowa Caucus, or any other number of things, all the while people across the world are living entirely different lives. 

How we carry ourselves in the world, whether at home or abroad, makes a tremendous difference because, whether we realize it or not, the Red, White, and Blue says a lot more about us than we think.

Even a sentence like that is troubling and confounding these days because the “us” in the “says more about us” is almost undefinable. As soon as we feel lumped into something we feel like we shouldn’t, we throw up our arms as if to say, “That’s not me!” And we very quickly and rapidly move into a posture of rigid defense and we stop up our ears from having to hear anything contrary to what we might think or even believe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the symbols of patriotism in the United States. Proudly displaying flags and colors and even documents like the Declaration of Independence are all fine. Except, for Christians, those patriotic symbols seem to mean more to us than the symbol of our faith: the cross. 

And it makes total sense. The cross is an ugly and deadly thing. We don’t want to be bombarded with thoughts of death and suffering and so we prefer to worship and idolize other symbols – symbols that appear more simple.

The cross is anything but simple.

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We are forever trying to reduce the complex questions of life into these manageable and simple solutions as if there really is a solution to every single problem in the world. And whoever comes up with the easy formulas for success are the people we worship the most. We do it with politicians we do it with preachers we do it with just about anybody.

If the solution can fit nicely into a tweet or a soundbite on the news then its good enough for the rest of us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are the masters of fate, and we therefore have nothing to be afraid of.

Except, it’s not true.

We are not in control. Fate is fickle. And there is plenty to be afraid of. 

The cross always hangs on the horizon, an ever present reminder that when things get tough, when things get too complicated, we all too often resort to violence and power and control in order to put things back the way we think they should go.

We did it with Jesus on the cross.

We did it with Guatemala.

We’re still doing it as a nation, and we’re all, in some way, shape, or form doing it in our own lives.

We think that it’s all up to us, and we’ve forgotten that the cross also stands to show us how Christ is already in the business of putting us back together, in ways we’d rather not if it were up to us.

But thanks be to God that’s its not up to us, because if it were all we’d achieve is more of the same instead of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. If it were up to us we’d only associate ourselves with the people who already think like us, and talk like us, and even look likes us instead of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that only have one thing in common: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians because he was devastated by how quickly they had fallen away from the complicated message of the cross. They had factionalized around different leaders that only told them what they already wanted to hear, instead of hearing the good news that sounds too good to be true: Christ died for us while we were sinners, which means we cannot remain as we were.

The church was not and is not meant to be like the world – It is a counter-cultural endeavor in which the powers and principalities and empires of this world are called into question. Knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified is but another way of articulating a different way of being in the world.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is crucified so that we don’t have to be. We don’t have to mount the hard wood of the cross because Christ has already done it for us. We don’t have to suffer the indifference of the world because Christ has come to conquer the world. 

Paul implored those first Christians to open their eyes and ears, to recognize how their beliefs and patterns and habits communicate what they valued and what they worshipped.

Today, how we live and move in the world with others makes all the difference as we, like Paul, strive to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Everything else is secondary. Amen.

Salvation Is Confounding

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 58.1-12, Psalm 112.1-10, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Seattle hatred, using the S-word in church, the work of the Lord, focusing on what we don’t, the social gospel, scripturally shaped imaginations, the evils of capitalism, salty Christians, and being least in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Salvation Is Confounding

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We Are (Not) Scandalized

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

I worked hard on the sermon.

I mean, I worked really hard on the sermon. 

At one point I had, on my desk, three different commentaries, a collection of Christian poetry, two Biblical atlases, and my Greek New Testament. I must’ve written three versions of the sermon before I finally felt like it was complete before and I saved the document and patiently waited for Sunday.

And Sunday came.

I walked down the center aisle tightly gripping the sermon in my hand while the congregation sang around me. I sat dutifully throughout the service, listening to the different lay people playing their parts, and when the time came to preach I ascended into the pulpit, took a deep breath, and preached my heart out.

I used my hand emphatically, lowered my voice when I wanted everyone to hang on the words, and I ended with as large and as booming of a voice as I could muster.

When I sat down I had to wipe my sleeve across my forehead because I worked up a sweat.

After the service, I stood in the narthex waiting to shake hands with those in attendance that morning and was feel rather proud of my effort. 

A tall gray-haired gentleman was the first to walk over that morning, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Son, that sounded nice and all, but you used too many of them big seminary words and not a one of us understood not one thing you said.”

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There’s something interesting going on in the budding Corinthian Christian community. Sure, Paul’s already proclaimed grace upon all who receive his letter, and he’s warned them about breaking off into different factions, but here, before we even get to the second chapter of the letter he addresses what we might call, status consciousness. And notice, I’m still falling prey to the temptation to use bigger words than necessary!

It’s not just about who each of the early disciples follow, but to which class each person belongs. (As if people belong to certain classes)

In our minds when we think of class divisions today we rightly consider economic disparities, or even geographical placements, but one that we often ignore (to our detriment) is the division of education. There were some who proudly proclaimed their educational prowess while putting others down and it was starting to create major rifts in the community. 

“I know more than you do,” or “I’m smarter than you,” become more than childish attacks and take on a whole new version of the in crowd and the out crowd. 

Whereas Jesus comes to show us how we were once all in the out crowd, and we are all now in the in crowd.

Paul puts it this way: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debtor of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In other words, “What makes you think you’re so smart? None of this is smart! God has made the wisdom of the world into foolishness! The religious elite call for signs and the secular folk want wisdom, but we proclaim a crucified man, dead on the cross. This will always be a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to those outside the faith.

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Now the challenge before us, regarding this text, is nearly impossible – imagine, if you can, having never heard of Jesus or his cross. Imagine, challenging as this might seem, that you encounter someone in your life, perhaps a friend or a neighbor or even someone in your family and they tell you, “The most powerful being in all of the creation, chose to become like us, to dwell among us, and then when the right time came he was executed for all to see, and then three days later he rose from the dead.”

It’s difficult to take a step back from all of this, from a sanctuary adorned with cross, and hymns with language about the cross, and to consider how confounding the cross is. 

Or, to put it in a Corinthian context, it is scandalous.

That’s the word for us today, that’s the thing we cannot ignore, how scandalous it all is. Our English Bibles, of course, render it as foolishness a la the foolishness of the Gentiles, but in Greek the word is SKANDALON. 

Even in their boasting, those that had reason to boast, Paul reminds them that all of their bragging is for nothing because the word of the cross, the truth of Christ’s work, has nothing to do with our own intelligence, or our own wisdom, or our own work.

That scandal is difficult to approach – it is challenging because everything about the crucifixion from the details about the responsible parties to the words offered by those who witnessed the event carry little to no redeeming religious features. 

It is not an uplifting moment even though Jesus is lifted up. Which is strange when we consider just how much of our faith and all that we do as Christians is tied up with inspirational uplift and attempts at making us feel better whether we want to or not. 

So much of what I learned in school, the schooling that was required for me to become a pastor, was all about speaking the right words to make things right in your lives. It was about pushing lay people, you people, to be more faithful. It was about helping each of you to see all that you needed to do in order to find Jesus.

And yet, the scandal of the cross is scandalous precisely because it stands as a stark reminder that we are messed up, and Christ come to us anyway.

It is a reminder that no matter how smart we are or how dumb we are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how virtuous or sinful, Christ comes to us anyway.

A few years back one of my dearest friends and a fellow United Methodist pastor (and godfather to my son), made it through 8 rounds of chemotherapy to treat his incurable cancer. The suffering involved was such that when he was told that they could no longer see any signs of his tumor he didn’t believe them. That is, until they reminded him that the cancer was still in his bone marrow and would never full be gone. 

He would, and still does, rely on what they call maintenance chemo in hopes that the cancer will be kept at bay.

In the wake of receiving the good news that sounded like bad news but was actually good news Jason, that’s his name, articulated something strange about the whole experience.

He said that even though learning he had cancer meant mourning the loss of the life that he had and the loss of the future he envisioned, so too, paradoxically, finding out that he wasn’t going to die quite yet meant mourning the loss of the life he’d found while living with cancer.

Basically, he kind of enjoyed having the cancer.

As crazy as that sounds, there was a reason for feeling that way. You see, while undergoing those months of chemotherapy and the constant fear about losing his life before he expected to, he discovered that he had his theology backwards. For far too long he had believed, and to some degree articulated, a faith that required people to grow closer to God, a faith in which Jesus suffers for our sins and that’s it.

But what Jason discovered in his cancer was that Jesus joins us in our suffering, that its not up to us to grow closer to God because God is already closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how bleak or frightening or terrifying, God is there in it.

In church terms we call it A Theology of the Cross.

Paul would call it the scandal of the cross. 

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Today we might talk about how the cross is a sign of how Jesus saves us from our sins, but what Paul, and Jason, would have us consider is that the cross is where the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ meets us.

The cross is where God meets us in our own lives. In all of our suffering, in all of our sins, in our shames and pains. 

And that is downright scandalous because it rubs against so much of what we’ve been taught to think and speak. If we’ve left church feeling guilty for all the things we should have done, for all the things we left undone, then we’ve missed the scandal of the cross. The scandal is that we don’t have to do anything. Because Christ does the everything we could not and would not do for ourselves.

And even more scandalous is the fact that God in Christ continues to meet us not in the mountaintops of our achievements, not in our theology degrees or perfectly performed prayers, not in our miraculous morality, but in the moments that frighten us and scare us the most.

Paul writes to the Corinthians in hopes of knocking them down a peg or two, he points to the scandal of the cross and reminds those who call themselves Christians that we really have nothing to boast about. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. No amount of education or status or health can fix that fundamental problem within us. Therefore, confronting the scandal of the cross compels us to reorient ourselves into the shadow of the cross. 

All the things we lift up, right education, economic success, perfect health and perfect bodies, have nothing to do with the scandal of the cross. It simply is what it is.

The cross has always been the focus of Christianity. The cross embodies all of what makes the Good News good. And for as long as it has been the object of our worship, it has also caused offense and has been scandalous. Here within the context of our own country, we tend to push the cross out to the margins, away from view, because we prefer a more upbeat and earned and triumphalist version of faith. 

This is, perhaps, because we are so obsessed with ourselves and what we deserve and how hard we’ve worked. We are moved by consumption and instant gratification. We lift up the healthy and the wealthy as the paragons of virtue and idealism. And, the more we do this, the more the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the celebrities of our culture become that which we idolize, and we ignore the plight of the sick, weak, lonely, and poor.

The word of the cross, that which confuses the religious and the irreligious alike, calls we who follow Jesus to embrace the struggle of life, to never turn a blind eye to those around us, and to remember that Christ meets us in the midst of our sins.

It’s scandalous. Amen.

Meek Mill and The Beatitudes

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cliche Christian tattoos, social activism, divine controversies, usury, moral ambiguity, the cross as everything #blessed, peace-making vs. peace-keeping, and being poor in the kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Meek Mill and The Beatitudes

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