Evil Defeats Itself

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Byassee about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 17.32-49, Psalm 9.9-20, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41). Jason is an Associate Professor of Homiletics at Vancouver School of Theology and is one of the co-writers of Faithful and Fractured. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Canadian Christianity, middle school bible stories, being int he wrong place at the right time, diving for the weird, the perspectives of the psalmists, political sweater models, knowing the unknown, and Paul as a golden retriever. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Evil Defeats Itself

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Can You Just Not?

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Adam Baker about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-10, 14-17, Mark 4.26-34). Adam serves as the associate pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in Wilmington, North Carolina. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the challenge of drinking less coffee, going from the pew to the pulpit, showing up and shutting up, knowing your woundedness, ironic scriptures, the confounding nature of the divine, heilsgeschichte, and the safety of chaos. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Can You Just Not?

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The Elephant (and Donkey) in the Room

1 Samuel 8.4-11, 16-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only – you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

I hadn’t even been a pastor for a week when I got my first visitor to my office. There were still boxes upon boxes of books stacked in the corner, and I could barely see over the mound of paperwork on my desk when the older gentleman gently knocked on the door. With only one Sunday under my belt everyone looked familiar and unknown at the same time.

So as he offered his hand and introduced himself I tried to remember if he was one of mine, if he had been in church for my first Sunday, but then he answered my question. He said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leaders I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”

I was flabbergasted. What a kind and thoughtful thing to do! He could have been doing a great number of other things, but he took the time to find me, in my office, and welcome me to the community.

We talked for a few minutes about where I went to school and where I was from, before he announced that he needed to get back to his office. I thanked him for the incredibly wonderful gesture, and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word for me from their pulpits when needed.”

And with that he walked away.

Everything is political. We could say that everything has always been political, and though that’s probably true, it hasn’t always been this political.

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I challenge any of you to get online, open a newspaper, or turn on the television without learning something about a vote (or lack of vote) in Congress, or a radical tweet from the president, or any number of other issues. Politics have become the totality of our news.

Since last Sunday one of our former Presidents, Bill Clinton, was interviewed about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and he publicly stated that he doesn’t believe he owes her an apology. The most powerful man in the world, who had a physically intimate relationship with one of his subordinates, who then lied about it to the American public, doesn’t think he owes her an apology. This revelation was all that the news outlets could talk about for hours.

Since last Sunday, our current president hosted a “patriotism” event at the white house, after publicly lambasting the Philadelphia Eagles, and the entire NFL, for not respecting our nation’s flag. And during the event, while the band and a choir of dozens performed God Bless America, our president clearly didn’t know the words to the song. This revelation was all that the news outlets could talk about for hours.

Since last Sunday, I’ve driven in my car all over Woodbridge and I have heard two different political pundits, representing both sides of the spectrum, say the exact same thing: “The 2018 midterms will be the most important election in history.” Which, for what it’s worth, is what they said about the 2016 election, the 2012 election, the 2008 election…

Everything is political. And because everything is political we continue to dig our political trenches deeper and deeper, and we’ve let it completely infect the church.

            The Elephant (and Donkey) in the room is the fact that we’ve let the elephant and the donkey into the room, the church.

Now, you might be thinking, what’s so wrong with letting animals into the church? Aren’t they part of God’s good creation? Wasn’t our Lord born in a manger surrounded by farm animals?

The problem with having elephants and donkeys in the church is that at any moment they can go on a rampage through the circus tent of church life just like they used to do every election cycle, and they now do two to three times a week.

And, to make it all the worse, we knew exactly what would happen when we let them in.

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“Give us a king to govern us so we can be like everyone else!” the people of Israel declared. And the Lord warns them, “I’ll give you a king if you want a king, but know this – the king will send your young sons and daughters off to war, the king will take a tenth of everything you own and keep some and share the rest with the wealthy and the powerful, you will become slaves to the political regimes of your own design. And when you begin to see what you have done, when you cry out to me because of your king, who you yourselves chose, I will not answer.”

Our desire to root ourselves in our politics and elections is no new phenomenon. The people of God, having finally placed roots in the Promised Land are no longer content with the guidance of would-be judges and they demand action from the Lord. Give us a king so we can be just like everybody else!

And since the days of Samuel there have been generally two responses to the infection of politics in faithful living. The people of God are either tempted to avoid politics altogether – there is talk of spirituality and prayer and personal relationship with Jesus; we proudly proclaim that pulpit proclamations and personal political proclivities have nothing to do with one another.

Or, we are tempted to shout out in resistance to whatever comes from the towers of power. During the Davidic kingdoms it came from the Temple and today it often come down from Capitol Hill. We forge ahead to wage battle against those with whom we disagree. We not only point out the elephants and donkeys in the room, but we also rage against them with every fiber of our being.

We complain about politics, whether our party, whichever one it might be, is in power or not. We hold our elected leaders to standards that we ourselves do not adhere to. And when they disappoint us we act as if no one could have predicted this.

            But we get the politicians we deserve.

And it is all too tempting to blame those who represent us for all of our current problems – looking for scapegoats is part of our nature. But that blame game isn’t good enough, because the truth of the matter is that they, politicians, are not the problem – the problem is us.

We forget the intense emotions of all sides of the political spectrum are remarkably similar even though they are rooted in completely different value systems. Much of who we are politically is not based on what we want the world to look like, or deep-rooted convictions, it’s a reaction to what we fear.

The Israelites were afraid that without a king they would not be like all of the other nations, that they would not hold the might and power they so desperately craved, that they would fall back in the chains of slavery they had in Egypt. The deep fears about their present reality convicted them to demand a king from God. And God, as a loving God, listens and ultimately gives them what they want! But not before warning them of the result of their desire.

The Lord provides vivid and frightening details about what their future holds in store, and it not only affect them but their children and their children’s children, it will affect the land given to them, it will affect every part of their lives.

And how do they respond?

No! We are determined to have a king over us so we can be like everybody else!

Friends, we are not like everybody else. Contrary to what we might read in the papers, or see on the television, or scroll through on the internet, we are a counter-cultural movement. Our values rarely harmonize with those surrounding us in the world run and consumed by politics.

We are not a red church, and neither are we a blue church.

            We are not a church of elephants, or a church of donkeys.

            We are purple church, and we worship the Lamb.

We did not elect Jesus, we did not listen to him make speeches with empty promises before we decided he could be ours, we did not choose him.

Honestly, I doubt we would’ve picked him if we had a choice. He does not represent economic power, of militaristic might, or the promise of jobs. And yet Jesus is his own politics.

Politics, rightly understood, is not the fight for a more democratic world, or the protection of freedoms, or the implementation of strategies to make America work. Politics, in following Jesus, hinge on our willingness to create and cultivate a community where we can tell the truth.

We who follow Jesus are people of truth. We do not turn blind eyes to what happens outside of these walls, and neither do we ignore the elephant and donkey that all too often dominate our conversations within these walls.

And let me be clear, this is a tension. It is a difficult situation because the elephant and donkey have become too strong and loud and powerful to be easily removed from the church. We are, to a degree, stuck with them. And because they are here and not going anywhere, we will argue. The pettiness of the conversations online, on the radio, and on television will continue to infect what we do, and think, and say, and believe.

But, after all, we Christians are a people who love our enemies. Perhaps the invasion of the political animals in this place will give us the opportunity to actually follow Jesus and love the people we hate and who hate us.

The truth is we are not like everybody else.

            We are Jesus people.

I’ve told the story before, but when the last presidential election cycle came around, I was feeling fairly apathetic. With more than a year of bickering, political trenches growing deeper and wider, I didn’t even want to vote. I thought perhaps the Christian thing to do would be to not vote. But when Election Day came, I found myself driving to my voting station at a local church.

I meandered through the line until they sent me to my machine were I pushed a few buttons and it was over. And as I looked up above the machine, at the room full of people fuming with frustrations, I saw hanging above us a picture of Jesus. And not just a normal picture of Jesus by the sea, or sitting at the table with his friends; it was a picture of Jesus laughing.

            Jesus was laughing at our foolishness in thinking that we can govern ourselves, in thinking that our freedom to choose would result in a better world, in thinking that maybe we would get it right this time.

Now Jesus’ laughter at our political pandering is not to say that politics are inherently wrong or evil. Jesus is not calling us to dismantle our current system of government, nor is Jesus calling us to retreat from the world into caves of our own making. Our democratic system has certainly provided a number of blessings to those who call this nation home.

But when the bonds of the names on our bumper stickers and the color of our political parties become more determinative than the bonds that are forge in the waters of baptism, we have fallen prey to the elephant and donkey in the room.

We are Jesus people, we believe that telling the truth is more determinative than just about anything else. And to confess Jesus as Lord is a truth that will profoundly challenge the status quo of animals running loose in the sanctuary.

We believe that God resurrected a first century Jew from the dead in order to turn the world upside down in the beginning of a revolution of reality.

We believe that by following Jesus our lives will become more difficult because we will love our enemies as much as we love our friends.

We believe that Jesus is Lord, he is our king, and that we did not elect Him – He elected us. Amen.

We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Adam Baker about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 8.4-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35). Adam serves as the associate pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in Wilmington, North Carolina. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the band Against Me!, insecurities, bowing down to the Lord, imperatives for grace, quotes from Galaxy Quest, daily renewal, and the necessity of imagination. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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Expecting The Unexpected

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Words are important.

What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.

Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.

But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

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But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?

But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?

Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.

I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.

Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.

The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.

That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.

Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.

When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”

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A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.

When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”

And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”

Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.

So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.

Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”

But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.

She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.

One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.

The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”

With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.

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One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.

When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.

Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.

God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.

God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.

Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6). Mikang serves as the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including connecting with God through a native language, the movie Love Letter, choosing biblical names, pregnancy prayers, divine repetition, shame and guilt, dissonance and harmony, and breaking the rules. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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Devotional – 1 Samuel 3.1

Devotional:

1 Samuel 3.1

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

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It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.

I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.

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We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.

Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.

Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.

We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.

If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.