Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

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Living in Harmony – Sermon on Romans 12.9-18

We tried something different in church this week. Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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Living in Harmony

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversation during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
  2. Ask everyone to share their name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions to ask of the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask them to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen. 

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Homily:

I have wanted to do this activity since I arrived at St. John’s. We do such a good job at welcoming and connecting with one another on Sunday mornings, and during other church activities, but I’m not sure how well we really know one another.

I once knew a man who said the loneliest times in his life occurred at 11am every Sunday morning when he was sitting in our packed sanctuary. For years he was a regular worshipper, and for year no one bothered to reach out; no one knew his name, where he was from, or what was going on in his life. Ever since I was appointed here I thought about breaking us into groups to combat the exact type of loneliness that man described.

I waited and waited and then last week something happened that made me realize how desperately we needed to do what we just did.

Our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man began to cry. He said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future. These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.

I don’t want to be part of a church that does not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I don’t want our sanctuary to be the loneliest place on Sunday mornings. We did not ask and answer the questions today to just learn superficial facts about one another; we did so with the hope that these facts would spark new and lasting relationships. This church should be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness. Amen.

 

Actions > Words – Sermon on Mark 1.14-20

Mark 1.14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fisherman. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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When did I last share my faith with someone?” The paper with the question stretched across my lap in the parlor. I had been meeting with a discipleship circle once a month for a year. Our typical routine is to gather, celebrate communion together, engage in a short devotional, and then ask some of the traditional Wesleyan questions as a group. For instance one of the questions is: “Do I pray about the money I spend?” We would then take turns going around in a circle and answering the question honestly, and practice being vulnerable as we seek to grow in love of God and neighbor.

The evening began with a simpler question: “Did the bible live in me today?” Some of the answers were beautiful, some were simple, and others stretched the definition of living out God’s Word. But then it was my turn to draw one of the random questions from the bag, and I read the words out slowly and deliberately: “When did I last share my faith with someone?” All eyes in the room fell on me to answer the question.

To be honest: I hate that question. I hate how Christians have overemphasized the importance of evangelism to the point of events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I hate how sharing faith has been boiled down into trying to make other people into Christians. I hate the flyers I find in public bathrooms, and the desperate pleas for people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior or face eternal damnation. Yet, there I sat and it was my turn to respond.

I began: “I last shared my faith on Sunday when I was speaking from the pulpit. We had a number of people here in worship and as I preached, I shared my faith.” The room was silent, and it was clear my answer did not satisfy the group. “That doesn’t count” one of them muttered, “answer it truthfully.

I shivered and felt ashamed because I realized that I could not remember the last time I shared my faith outside the context of serving as a pastor.

Following Jesus means sacrifice and bringing others to him. Simon and Andrew were in the middle of fishing, participating in their careers, when Jesus called them to fish for people. They left their nets, which is to say they left their ways of life, to follow this strange and compelling man. So too, James and John were mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow and they left it all behind. The life of discipleship for them, and for us, is not easy; it requires a commitment unlike anything else, and it will cost us our very lives. 

As I sat before my friends and peers with the question weighing heavily upon me, I began to wonder: If I believe Jesus is the light of the world, that God is the author of salvation, that the Holy Spirit gives me life, then why am I so afraid to share that with others?

I left the meeting that night with a heavy heart. The conversation had moved to a new direction but I kept replaying the question in my head over and over again. Had I grown content with just assuming that people will keep showing up to church on Sunday mornings? Or am I willing to be a fisher for people?

I made a promise to myself in the car that night: For the next two weeks I was going to take nothing for granted and I was going to explore fishing for people; I was going to share my faith with others.

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Two days later I was sitting in a McDonalds in Orange, VA. I had wandered around in the cold while Lindsey was busy with a visit and decided to warm myself up under the glow of the golden arches. The place was packed. Friends and families took up the majority of the seating, and though I wanted to just grab my soda and sit alone with a book, I remembered the promise I made and began searching the joint. Near a television that was showing reports on CNN I discovered a middle aged man sitting all alone with a Big Mac, fries, and an extra large Coke. I sat down beside him, and though I felt the Holy Spirit pushing me to speak with him, I couldn’t figure out where to start. A few awkward moments passed until I blurted out, “How’s your dinner?” The man slowly looked up from his food and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s McDonalds” he said, as if returning my question with a question. Again, I was at a loss for what to do next, but he decided to pick up the conversation. He motioned toward the television:

“What do you make of all these terrorist attacks in Europe?”

“I think it’s terrible, and I will never understand how people believe that death can accomplish what they want.”

“If we catch them, how do you think they should be punished?”

“I guess they should be charged, and put in prison if found guilty. Maybe they’ll even turn their lives around.”

“If I had it my way, I’d string ‘em up in the center of town for everyone to see while they suffer and are killed for what they’ve done.”

At this point I should have just stopped talking and gone back to my book, but I couldn’t help myself. I should have at least thought about what I was about to say, before I said it:

“You know, a group of people once hung a man on a tree to die for a crime that he did not commit, just so everyone could witness his suffering.”

“Oh really? Who was that?”

His name was Jesus.

The rest of our time together at McDonalds was filled with silence. Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

This is the view from an airplane.

Later that night I was in line to board an airplane with Lindsey as we were preparing to make our way to visit her parents in Florida. Due to an oversight with the airline, they overbooked our flight and bumped one of us to first class. I pleaded with my wife to take the ticket, to enjoy the flight from the comfort of high society, but (like the true disciple she is) she insisted that I take the upgrade and stretch out my legs.

I had never been in first class before and was excited and nervous about the experience. When I found my seat I discovered that I would be sitting next to a man who was already watching an episode of South Park on the screen in front of him, jovially chuckling to himself. I got comfortable, and while the rest of the common people were entering the plane, a stewardess came by to take our drink order. I said that I was fine and went back to my book when my seat-mate looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Son, getting a drink is the best part of flying first class!” and proceeded to order a Jack-and-Coke.

Four Jack-and-Cokes later we were in the air and I had my laptop open and my bible in my lap when the man leaned over to talk. I thought, “this time the person is coming to me” and I quickly prayed that God might give me something to say.

“What are you working on?”

“It’s a sermon for Sunday; I’m a pastor.”

“Well then, what are you reading?”

“It’s the Bible?”

“What do you think of it? Any good?” (Like he was asking about a John Grisham novel)

It’s the living Word of God for the people of God.

He paused and looked as if he was trying to figure out if I was serious or not, and slowly brought his headphones back to his ear, and drink to his mouth.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

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Lindsey wasn’t feeling well when we returned from Florida so we decided to hit the Minute-Clinic at Walmart to find out if she needed a prescription or not. Remembering that she so graciously volunteered for me to ride in First Class, I thought it only appropriate that I drive and stay with her during the appointment. The waiting area was rather crowded, so I saw Lindsey to her seat and decided to sit on a bench outside of the room. I had a book with me and was looking forward to some light reading when I noticed a very disheveled man sitting on the bench all alone.

His mullet was knotted and unkempt. His smell was palpable from a few paces away. His clothes were stained and ill-fitting. His skin was blotchy and unhealthy. And I knew that I needed to share my faith with him. 

Unlike the previous two attempts I did not feel the pressure of the Spirit nagging me to do something, and I did not have a bible with me to spark a conversation, so instead I just decided to be myself, rather than someone else.

I introduced myself and sat down. He kept staring off into the distance, clearly focused on other things and remained unfazed by my presence.

Do you mind if I ask you a question?

He shrugged as if to say “I don’t care”

How are you doing?

He slowly turned his head to look at the stranger sitting next to him and he began to answer the question. I learned about how he and his wife had fallen on hard times and could no longer purchase anything other than food. He shared with me his own personal frustrations with not being able to provide for his family. He talked about how people are so blind to the needs of others in our community because they just assume that everyone is fine. He vented about employment opportunities and the lack of fairness in the hiring process because businesses are only looking to hire people who think and look just like themselves. And he told me that he was at Walmart so that his wife could walk around the store and feel like she was shopping even though they would be going home empty handed.

The conversation went on and on and I let the man speak, I let him go wherever he needed, and I just sat there and listened. When the time came his wife found us sitting on the bench and he told me that it was time to go. I could tell that he was in a better place than he was before the conversation, perhaps because he was finally able to get some of his worries off his chest, and before he left he turned around to shake my hand and said, “Thanks for listening -nobody else does.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes our actions speak louder than our words.

I don’t know for sure what compelled the first four disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus, but I imagine it had a lot to do with his actions. Jesus loved to eat among the poor and the outcast, he loved to seek out the last and the lost, and he was known for listening to people in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

Sharing our faith is a difficult task because it requires us to be vulnerable and step into situations that might blow up in our faces. It implies a willingness to believe that faith is something so important and life-giving that it is worth sharing no matter what. Sharing our faith means we have to start acting like Jesus outside the walls of church to meet people where they are and listen.

When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Amen