Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

Like A Virgin

I was a young and naive pastor. In fact I still am. But at the time it was worse than it is now. I decided to dedicate a sermon series to doubt and encouraged the congregation, anonymously, to submit anything they were wrestling with regarding their faith. The idea was to compile the doubts and preach a series on the respective topics in such a way that people could sit in and with their questions, rather than trying to make their doubts vanish into thin air.

I prepared myself for some of the doubts that would no doubt come across my desk. I assumed there would be questions about the resurrection from the dead, and the walking on the water, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. And I got a few of those, including some questions about whether heaven was real and debates about the existence of the devil. But as the doubts came in, and I started tallying them all up, there was one biblical component that people struggled with more than anything else, by a long shot – The Virgin Birth.

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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

Mary will receive unbelievable news from the divine messenger that she, of all people, will be the one to bring the Lamb of God into the world and that she will do so as a virgin. Thus the incarnation of God takes place in a virgin’s womb against all odds and against all the rules of the universe.

We don’t hear much about the virgin birth in the mainline protestant church today, perhaps out of fear of sounding too Catholic. We’ve relegated Mary to being a bystander throughout the whole ordeal and though we might lift up her Magnificat, she is not the main character in the story as we tell it. But her birthing the Messiah into the world as a virgin is biblical, it is true, and it makes all the difference.

Years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was invited to preach at a wedding during the season of Advent. As someone committed to the great breadth of scripture, Hauerwas preached on the assigned lectionary texts for the following Sunday which included Mary’s remarkable “Here am I” to the news from Gabriel. 

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In it Hauerwas says, “When I first began to think about this sermon, I kept thinking, ‘If I am to be true to the text I ought to start with an announcement: Scott, old buddy, I have some astounding news – you are pregnant, and Demery is going to take care of you anyway.’ Not a bad way for us to begin, if we are to have some slight appreciation of what it meant for Mary to say, ‘Here I am.’” (Hauerwas, “How The Virgin Birth Makes Marriage Possible” Disrupting Time)

In this rather jarring remark Hauerwas points to that which is essential, particularly for those of us for whom the virgin birth is something we don’t want to think about or even believe – Mary shouldn’t have believed it either! It’s impossible for a virgin to become pregnant, and even more so for one of the least of these to be the one to bring God’s Son into the world! And yet, Mary doesn’t receive the news as such. Instead she, without having any real reason to, believes that God does God’s best work in the realm of impossibilities.

Again Hauerwas notes, “For us, that is, us moderns, the virgin birth is often used as a test case for how far we are willing to go in believing what most people think is unbelievable.” 

This is a strange and notable case to make considering the fact that the Bible is one big impossible reality: God makes everything out of nothing. God floods the earth and then promises never to do it again. God guarantees an elderly woman that she will finally have a son, and then she does. God divides the sea to save the people Israel. God brings victory to a nation time and time again even though they should’ve lost. And that’s just a sampling from the Old Testament. Time and time again, God does what we could not and would not do and it comes to a beautiful and wondrous fruition in the womb of Mary. 

The one knit together in her impossible belly is the one whose life will be defined by impossibility – he will preach and teach and heal and save in ways that people couldn’t wrap their heads around. And then, in the end, he will do the most impossible thing of all – rise from the dead. 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation upon which everything else is made intelligible about our faith. If Jesus is not raised from the dead then we are wasting our time and we are fools. But we Christians, each and every one of us, are tiny testaments to the power of the resurrection for our lives have been changed forever and we had nothing to do with it.

Which is all to say, if God could raise Jesus from the dead then God could certainly make a virgin pregnant. God loves to work in the realm of impossible possibilities and upend everything we thought we knew. So perhaps the best way to approach the virgin birth isn’t by making scientific claims or qualifications, it’s not about pointing to differing translations about what it all really means. Instead, maybe we do as Hauerwas notes in another place, we come to the virgin birth in silence. For “by learning to be silent we have learned to be present to one another and the world as witnesses to the God who has made us a people who once were no people – such a people have no need to pretend we know more about our God than we do.” (Hauerwas, “The Sound of Silence” Preaching Radical & Orthodox) 

In the end, the best news of all is that the virgin birth is not contingent on our believing it. Even if we struggle with the idea, even if we doubt its rationality, God is in the business of making a way where there is no way. Like a virgin who brings a baby into the world, God raises Jesus from the dead, and that’s the best news of all. 

Grace Is Ridiculous

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Tate about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 7.10-16, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, Romans 1.1-7, Matthew 1.18-25). Our conversation covers a range of topics including working out for Advent, setting the church on fire, baptismal remembrances, testing the Lord, Mary’s knowledge, The One Thing Needful, the bread of tears, having a Roman holiday, Christmas trees, and the simplicity of scripture. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Is Ridiculous

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The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

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I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen. 

Farting Around

Devotional:

Psalm 146.10

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord! 

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I had an existential crisis yesterday.

I was sitting in a local Auto Parts Shop waiting for my car’s inspection and emissions to be completed having procrastinated for far too long. When I entered I took a seat close to the door, filled up a too-small styrofoam cup with horrible coffee, and pulled out a book to read. But before I could even find my recently dog-eared page, I noticed the man sitting next to me. He was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, he had a beat up paperback sitting on his lap, and he was fast asleep. It was then that I took stock of my own clothing and situation, for I too was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, and I was about to open my paperback book.

And I kind of freaked out.

What made me freak out wasn’t the odds of running into my twin (who was probably 30 years older than me) but was the fact that I felt like I received a brief glimpse into my future. And it left me feeling, well, uncomfortable.

Instead of opening my book and actually reading, I spent the rest of my purgatorial time asking questions in my head like: Is this what I doomed to do the rest of my days? Is life just a repetitive joke until it ends? Is their any meaning to all of this?

By the time my name was called I was sufficiently in the midst of a mental crisis when the snoring man’s cell phone rang. He promptly woke from his slumber, brought the phone to his ear, and after listening for a moment he said, “Yeah, just farting around waiting for my car to be ready.”

Which made me think of a haunting quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

In Stanley Hauerwas’ sermon “Facing Nothingness – Facing God” from his collection Without Apology he seeks dispel the sentiment of Vonneguts’ quote by in fact naming what we are here on Earth to do, namely “wait for a new heaven and a new earth.”

The sermon explores the many ways in which we wrestle with our finitude and mortality by trying to seek out our own immortality by making a difference such that “we will not be forgotten by those who benefit from our trying to make a difference.” And yet, we very rarely actually make much of a difference. The world continues to spin in spite of our best intentions, we revert back to the same old sins that leave the lost lost and the found found, and we neglect to realize that even if we are remembered for our good deeds the people who knew those good deeds will also one day be forgotten.

This is a recipe for anxiety.

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But what does this mean, particularly, for Christians? What about those who gather week after week in the hope that our lives are not pointless?

The prophet Isaiah was once called by God to comfort God’s people and to speak tenderly with Jerusalem. But when Isaiah presses the Lord about what to actually speak it sounds anything but tender – “All people are grass that withers away when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.”

Or, in other words, we are not the center of the universe.

For a people constantly told to “make your own destiny” and “leave your mark” it can be a difficult endeavor to confront the reality that we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday: We are dust and to dust we shall return. The life of a Christian is defined by the recognition that we are fragile, fleeting, and finite things. And, even more importantly, we can’t do much of anything about it! This is our lot in life.

But we are an Advent people and we have learned (or are learning) what it means to wait. Christianity isn’t about being given a set of tools or resources to make sure we are remembered long after we’re dead. Instead Christianity is about seeing how the time we’ve been given is a gift because it is God’s time for us.

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Karl Barth put it this way: “When I really give anyone my time, I thereby give them the last and most personal thing that I have to give at all, namely myself… The difference at once to be noticed between our having time for others and God’s having time for us is twofold, that if God gives us time, He who deals with us is He who alone has genuine, real time to give, and that He gives us this time not just partially, not with all sorts of reservations and qualifications, such as are habitual with us when giving to others, but entirely.” Church Dogmatics I.2

The regular gathering and shaping of Christians through the liturgy forms us into people who know how to wait in the time God has given us. Whenever we hear the Word read in worship or we gather at the table of communion or we pray over the waters of baptism we do so by facing God in the person of “Jesus Christ who gives us the confidence that time is not a tale told to us by an idiot, but rather time names God’s desire that we participate in God’s very life. We are not abandoned. The heavens do declare the glory of God.” (Hauerwas, Without Apology, 54).

As Advent people we are also Easter people – We know how the story begins and how it ends – We know the Alpha and the Omega.

It is far too easy these days to give in to the existential fears that so regularly plague us. No matter how old we are we all look back and wonder what the sum of our lives mean. Life can, at times, feel meaningless. But for Christians, our lives have meaning precisely because God has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Our meaning comes in receiving the One who comes to us precisely to remind us who we are. We have been given good work to do because all we have to do it wait – the rest is up to God.

Advent Is A Little Lent

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Tate about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including relational leadership, Advent Hymns, highlighting tension, tempering the holidays, divine reversal, the Bible on a bumper sticker, opening prisons, The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, burning Christmas trees, and churchy expectations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Advent Is A Little Lent

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All Or None

Romans 15.4-13

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Here’s the scene:

A group of people from different backgrounds, ages, races, socio-economic statuses, marital situations, and countries of origin are sitting around a folding table in a dimly lit basement. Just taking a look around the room, it’s clear these people have nothing in common with each other, and the silence is palpable as they occasionally take turns refilling their sub-par coffee in their too-small styrofoam cups.

There’s a man, prematurely balding with an unkempt beard sitting at the far end of the table and he seems to be in charge. In front of him is a simple plate with a dried out piece of bread and a half-consumed bottle of merlot that seems to glow in the candlelight. 

“Welcome everyone,” he begins, “Welcome to the first meeting of the gathering.”

“Oh, is that what we’re calling ourselves?”

“Of course it is. We are the gathering. We are a people who gather together. Simple enough. Now, before I jump into the first bits of information, are there any lingering questions?”

“Yeah, who died and made you king?”

“Um, Jesus I guess. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Anything more substantive?”

“Aren’t we going to lay out some ground rules about who is in and who is out?”

“Ohhh, that’s a juicy one. The answer is yes.”

“What do you mean the answer is yes? That doesn’t answer my question at all. Who is in and who is out? What are the requirements for people to gather with the gathering? I think we should expect people to give up certain sins before ever being welcomed like, no more alcohol, certainly no smoking, and absolutely no tattoos.”

Another man chimes in, “I agree, and while we’re at it, lets make sure that only people in happy and healthy marriages are allowed in – no divorced people, we don’t want them screwing this up for the rest of us.”

And another person chimes in, “Absolutely, but why stop there? Now, I mean no disrespect to other people at the table, but its clear that some of you haven’t bathed in some time and we should have some expectations of cleanliness.”

This goes on and on with the list of who could be in getting smaller and smaller while the list of people out got longer and longer. And all the while, the man at the end of the table slowly takes swig after swig from the bottle of wine until it empties and he merely reaches under the table to pull out another and is about to start in on that bottle when they all turn their attention back to him.

“So what’s it going to be?” They say in unison.

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“Look,” he begins while wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, “I’m coming to this just like the rest of us. I thought I had my whole life figured out. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I had all the benefits and all the privileges of the world until my world got turned upside down. And now I’m here with all of you, and there’s no going back. But it seems to me all of our squabbles about the in crowd and the out crowd have to stop.”

“Why? Don’t we want to make sure that only the best of the best get to be part of the gathering?”

“Well friends, that’s the whole thing right there. We are all here because we are not the best of the best, in fact there’s no such thing. It is our undeserving that brought us here to this place at this time and the sooner we own that the sooner we can get down to business.”

“Which is what exactly?”

“I’m getting there, hold your horses. God doesn’t just tell us what to do and that’s it. It’s not about having a set list of what’s right and what’s wrong and then living accordingly till the end of our days. God gives us something incomprehensible, in order that all of our differences, which are clearly manifold, and in all of our brokenness, again pretty obvious, that we might find some harmony.”

“Have you not been listening? We can’t even agree on whose allowed to join us or not and you’re already talking about harmony?”

“Yes, there will always be disharmony in our new budding community, but in our divisions we might start to discern the wonderful unity in plurality of the Trinity.
But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me try to come at it from another angle: God sees things that we cannot. That’s the message of the scriptures, all those who came before us in the people Israel, over and over again God found strength in the weak, and weakness in the powerful. God saw impossible possibility in the people God created and in their brokenness he brought them into new life.”

“But if we’re just a bunch of broken people, won’t the gathering be… broken?”

“Exactly! That’s the whole point. We can only welcome one another because Christ welcomed us. We’re all here because of him! Whether we’re weak or strong, young or old, good or bad. To him all of our voices have worth and value. To him, it doesn’t matter one bit whether we’re standing on the highest step or the lowest step of life, we are bound together by him. Forever.”

“Okay, I think I’m starting to see your point. So we’re like the band of mis-fits toys?”

“Sure, if you want to put it that way. But remember the way Jesus put it: We are his body. And a body has lots of parts all working together, and sometimes not together. It’s about figuring out how we all fit together and can work together to build one another up while also seeking the good of those who are not with us.”

“Okay, I’m with you, but are we seriously not going to set up any expectations or requirements to join?”

“Let me try to come at it one more time. How did Springsteen put it? ‘You don’t need no ticket – you just get on board.’”

“Fine, we’re open to anybody. But what are we going to do once all the ragamuffins join us?”

“It’s clear we need to move on, but I want to say something about that word you just used – Open. The gathering is not an “open” endeavor. Sure, in a sense, we are open to everyone. But it’s more than that. We welcome because we were welcomed. And when I say welcome I don’t mean the innocuous, “Anyone is welcome to join us” that we post on Facebook for a neighborhood barbecue, I mean the verb of the word – actually meeting people where they are and welcoming them into something that will radically upend everything they think they know. Isn’t that why all of you are here right now? You could be anywhere doing anything else, but instead you’re here with all these other people with whom you have nothing in common except Jesus.”

The table nods silently in affirmation as everyone considers the truth of the statement. If pressed most of them couldn’t answer exactly why they were there but they knew that they had to be. The different shapes and sizes and histories of the people around the table start to fade away as they start to see one another through the eyes of the one who came to change everything.

The mood has changed since the debates about expectations and without being told they start passing around the communal bottle of red, each tearing small pieces off of the loaf of bread.

“By the way,” the leader says, “I forgot to introduce myself earlier. My name is Paul and I’m glad you are here. I’m glad you’re here because this is kind of what it’s all supposed to look like. The gathering is a Spirit infused, multi-cultural, outwardly focused group that can bear with one another in love. It’s Christlike in the sense that we have our arms outstretched to those we know and those we don’t know. It means, on some level, that we see more than the world sees, and the last, least, lost, little, and dead are precisely the people for us.”

A woman sitting across the table is fidgeting with her fingers and says, “But, how are we going to organize ourselves? Don’t we need some structure?”

Paul thinks for a moment before saying, “Well, I guess we will have to institutional to some degree, but we have to avoid the many trappings of institutions. We have to steer away from self-preservation and move toward people-preservation. It’s not easy, but the gathering is a fellowship of people who are bound together by our faith in Jesus, and not an organization that exists for the sake of the organization.”

“So, we’re not a club and we’re not a civic organization?”

“As far from those things as possible. Ultimately one of the strangest things about who we are and what we’re doing is that we’re not really called to do much of anything at all. If anything, the only thing we have to do is celebrate that we don’t have to do anything. That’s the message of Jesus and his cross. God came to do what we could not and would not do. No amount of belief, or money, or morals can give salvation to us nor take it away. It is simply a gift for those who want it. No catch and no fine print involved whatsoever. If you want to know what the gathering looks like, save for a bunch of people hanging out in a basement, its like an outdoor wedding reception that refuses to stop on account of rain.

“Paul was it?” A quiet woman speaks for the first time, “Do you happen to have any more wine? We seem to have run out. And, while you’re at it, is there any leftover bread?”

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“No time like the present I guess. You see this bottle, and you see this bread? All of what we do and what we say and what we believe are caught up in these ordinary things that aren’t very ordinary. You see, when Jesus was still together with his friends on their final earthly evening together, after years of teaching and preaching and healing, he looked out at that ragtag group of would be disciples and knew that each and every one of them wasn’t good enough. He knew that, when the time came, they would either betray him, deny him, or abandon him. And instead of writing out all the expectations for their meeting, instead of holding them accountable to their inevitable sins, he threw out the whole ledger and said, ‘I love you no matter what.’”

The table grows remarkably quiet as Paul motions for the wine and the bread to be brought back to him at his end of the table. And he says, “Listen carefully. Because what I’m about to say will save your life.”

Christ our Lord invites to this his table…

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Christmas Ruins Advent

Waiting is a dirty word, at least to the ears of most Christians (in America). After all, we are a people of action. We are not comfortable to sit idly by while something could be taken care of. In the world of United Methodism, this is inherently part of our DNA as John Wesley is the one who first said, “Never leave anything till tomorrow, which you can do today. And do it as well as possible.”

It is therefore strange and uncomfortable to arrive at church during the Advent season to hear all about the virtues of waiting.

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In many ways we blindly stagger toward the word of waiting with connections to waiting to open what is under the tree more than waiting on Jesus. It functions as a trite and helpful little analogy that resonates with parents and children alike. And so long as we’re all patient, we’ll get that for which we hope on Christmas morning.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us want to wait around for anything, let alone presents, the birth of the Savior, or his promised return.

Or, to put it another way, if God isn’t going to bring us the kingdom, we’ll bring it ourselves. That’s the American way.

In his sermon “Waiting” from Minding the Web Stanley Hauerwas laments our inability to wait during a season all about waiting:

“Advent is a time, and time is at the heart of what it means for us to be a people who have learned to wait. Therefore at Advent, we think it important to at least act as if we are waiting… we play at being Jews for a few weeks, but we do so as if we are in a drama with designated roles for us to play. However, once the play is over, we have no reason to play the roles associated with waiting.”

There’s a reason that many in the mainline church avoid the early Pauline corpus in worship – it’s too apocalyptic. All that talk of Jesus returning again sounds like what people in crazy churches talk about. We are far more sensible. We are helping people become better people. We are taking care of business. 

And we do so because we have been habituated this way. Our bodies and our minds are shaped by practices and rituals that start to form us such that we no longer know how we wound up this way. Pay attention the next time you’re in church, notice how many times you hear the words “should” and “ought” and “must.” The church today has taken upon itself the burden of responsibility and habituates it into the people through the words and practices of worship that leave us feeling like we have to do something no matter what that something might be.

Consider how we treat the presents under the tree as children (and to some degree as adults). We were once encouraged to ask for particular things from Santa, or from friends and family, all under the auspices of possibly receiving those very gifts so long as we behaved accordingly. This is all the more relevant today with the meteoric popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” We are always making new ledgers to keep others in line.

But part of the message of the Gospel is that God has thrown out the ledger books forever! As Paul wrote, “And when you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2)

The songs we sing (He’s making a list, checking it twice) and the traditions we practice (Elves hiding on shelves) form us into people who are afraid that our behavior will remove blessings (presents) from our lives. And for as much as we’d like to consider ourselves beyond these silly theological ramblings as adults – habits formed in childhood are very hard to break.

Which leaves us far more comfortable with waiting for a baby in a manger who appears innocuous and unable to judge us, than waiting for the Son of Man who comes to judge both the living and the dead. For, we know in our heart of hearts, we’ve done things for which we should rightly be judged.

We no longer know how to wait. We want to skip to Easter Sunday without having to confront Good Friday and we want Christmas without Advent. And yet all of them, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable, point us to something beyond ourselves: The judged judged has come to be judged in our place. Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible by his incarnation, has accomplished that for which it was purposed. 

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus’ crucifixion rattled the very constitution of the universe because death could not hold him. Three days later he is raised. He walks with two former followers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them how to read Scripture. Such instruction was required, because they found it difficult to understand how the one to liberate Israel could end up on a cross.” 

Today, it seems we are a people who find it difficult to believe that God would choose to die for us. We’d rather hear about all the things we can do to earn God’s favor than to believe that God favors us regardless of our behavior. 

We are not particularly good at waiting because we want to take matters into our own hands. And yet part of the message of Advent is that if it were all up to us, we would fail. We need a savior who can come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the end the only thing we have to do is wait, because the rest is up to God. 

Killing The Wicked

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben Crosby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 11.1-10, Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19, Romans 15.4-13, Matthew 3.1-12). Our conversation covers a range of topics including theological Advent calendars, Weird Anglican Twitter, Methodist monikers, the strange new world of the Bible, the rectification of ALL things, suffering sinners, depoliticizing justice, the low bar of toleration, and finding vipers in the manger. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Killing The Wicked

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