This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 21.8-21, Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17, Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including advice for pastors, Liturgy of the Ordinary, the practicality of the psalms, prayerful humiliation, dying to sin, abusing the Word, and The Size of the Problem. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hell No!
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”
Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”
It is not an easy season in the life of the church.
In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.
Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.
I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.
They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.
They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”
So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.
Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.
And look where that got me.
Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.
Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.
And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”
We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.
But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.
And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”
“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”
“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”
Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.
The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.
Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.
They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.
This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.
In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.
Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.
Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.
The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.
I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.
My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.
A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.
Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.
So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”
I almost fell out of my chair.
“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”
He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.
Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.
The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.
God is calling us by our names.
The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.
When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.
When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.
When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.
I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.
Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.
When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.
Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.
Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.
When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.
Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”
Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.
In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.
But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…
The Strange New World Within The Bible
We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.
We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.
We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.
We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.
We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.
We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.
We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?
We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.
We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.
We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.
We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.
Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.
Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.
And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.
We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.
And then it ends and The Bible is finished.
What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?
These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.
It is not merely a history or a genealogy.
It is neither a myth nor a fable.
What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.
We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.
But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.
Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.
And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.
The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?
The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.
The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.
The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!
“If you believe that God exists, and confess Jesus as Lord, you will go to heaven.” So said one of the staff members during our mission trip to Raleigh, NC last week. The youth were all assembled on the floor, they had shared their “Yea God” moments from the day, they had joined together for a few worship songs, they listened to a testimonial, and were now being offered a one-way ticket to glory. During the testimonial a few youth began to cry in response to the vulnerability of the young man sharing his story. The lights were dimmed to just the right degree. And then he hit them with the “If you just believe that God is real, and confess Jesus as Lord, you will go to heaven.”
However, there is a difference between believing that God exists, and believing God.
In a relatively recent poll, it was determined that 9 out of 10 American adults believe that God exists, and more than 40% of Americans say they go to church weekly. However, less than 20 % are actually in church on Sundays. In the US we have a considerably high number of people who believe that God, or some sort of universal spirit exists, but only a fraction of them believe God enough to gather with a regularly worshiping community.
Believing that God exists is something that most people are willing to admit. When confronted with the totality of the universe they’ll confess that there might be someone, or something, behind the scenes. When they encounter a question without an answer, they are okay with assuming that “God” might be the answer.
But believing God is another story.
When Abraham was promised descendants more numerous than the stars, he did not simply believe that God exists in reality, but instead believed what God revealed to him. Abraham believed the promise.
When Moses discovered the burning bush, he did not simply believe that God was real, but instead believed what God revealed to him. Moses believed that God was going to deliver God’s people out of bondage.
When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing”, he did not simply believe in the existence of God, but instead believed what God revealed to him. He believed in the power of God’s grace to forgive, even from the point of death.
We can believe God exists without much trouble or hesitation, because to believe God is real requires very little of us. But to believe God, to believe that God works in the world, that God makes good on God’s promises, that the Holy Spirit empowers us to serve and sacrifice, requires us to live radically different lives.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those you bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
“When you get appointed to a church the worst thing you can do is go visit the shut-ins,” said a professor of mine in seminary (who will remain nameless). “I am sick and tired of hearing about new clergy full of vibrant passion and energy wasting it on visiting the people who have already had their faith developed. Pastors form the past were responsible for them. The best thing you can do when you get appointed to a new church is not to visit the older shut-in members, but go visit all the members under the age of thirty. Now there won’t be many younger than thirty so it shouldn’t take you very long. That’s mission.”
I was flabbergasted. Here I was sitting in the hallowed halls of Duke Divinity listening to a professor telling us to do exactly the opposite of what I imagined my first few weeks at a new appointment would look like.
I believe he was wrong. The best thing that a pastor can do when he/she enters a new appointment is to visit the shut-ins and all the members under 30. In fact the best thing a pastor can do is visit with all the people that make up the local church community. The idea that the older congregants have already had their ministry does a disservice the goodness of God’s creation and the understanding that all of us make up the body of Christ regardless of age and experience.
I love the call of Abram as described in Genesis 12. Abram is called to abandon the security of his homeland, the comfort that comes with social and family support. Abram would need to rely on the Lord for guidance because this call upon his life tested, as John Wesley said, “whether [Abram] could trust God farther than he could see him.” And notice how short his obedience is described in the passage: “So Abram went.” No indecision, no debating the outcome, no weighing the pros and cons, just go. But even more than this I love the fact the the story ends with the simple affirmation that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.
If God chose to establish the covenant with a 75 year old man who dropped everything to follow in obedience, just imagine what God can do with you, whether you’re 5 or 85 years old. Christian discipleship is not dependent on our age, but instead on our willingness to hear God’s call and go.
No matter where you are on your faith journey, whether you deeply committed and active in a local church, or if you feel like you’re on the fringes of a church community, whether you’re young in the faith, or you’ve been attending church for as long as you can remember, God has a place and a call for you. It takes all of us to make up the body of Christ.
So, what is God calling you to? What might you have to drop in order to go where God needs you?