And The Plan Shall Set You Free

I am in St. Louis with the team from the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to provide reporting on the UMC’s Special General Conference on Human Sexuality. The denomination has come to an impasse and we are trying to carve a new path forward. And, because we are a global denomination, we are doing so through parliamentary procedures and democratic voting. As it stands currently, the UMC believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are prohibited from becoming ordained clergy, and clergy are prohibited from presiding over same-sex unions.

Here are some of the plans being presented:

The Traditional Plan

This plan will maintain the current prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings. It also broadens the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include person living in same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state they are homosexuals. It will mandate penalties for disobedience to the Book of Discipline with a suspension of one year without pay for the first violation and a relinquishing of clergy credentials for the second violation. 

The Simple Plan

This plan will remove the incompatibility clause and eliminates all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexual people in the church. It will allow, but not require, same-gender weddings in churches across the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan

This plan will replace the current geographic jurisdictions with three new connectional conferences based on perspectives with regard to sexuality: Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. Every single individual church across the connection will have to decide with which new connection to identify, and clergy will have to do the same. Eventually a great re-shuffling will occur so that like-minded churches will be paired with like-minded clergy. 

The One Church Plan

This plan will remove “incompatible with Christian teaching” from paragraphs in the Book of discipline, and removes prohibitions against same-gender weddings and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It also adds protections so that no clergy person, nor bishop, will be forced to preside over a wedding, or ordain someone, if they theologically disagree with the change in the Book of Discipline. Bishops would take into consideration the theological positions of clergy and churches when making new appointments. 

And there are more that will be considered at the General Conference.

Rather than going through all the plans one by one to address their theological strengths and weaknesses, it is worth considering the strange task at hand beyond the actual ideological divide: we think we know how to save ourselves.

Or, perhaps even worse, we think we can save ourselves. 

To borrow a line of thought from Robert Farrar Capon, I think one of the reasons we are struggling to find a way forward together, is that we are addicted to the religion of our own creation. Religion, here, defined as the belief that so long as we follow a certain sets of rules, practices, and doctrines that life will properly, and perfectly, fall into order. Religion, here, is evidenced by the church’s constant and unwavering work of attempting to have control over itself. Religion, here, is seen in the never-ending requirements we assume exist in order to be saved.

Religion, as largely practiced in the UMC, is a denial of one of the greatest verses in the entirety of the Bible (and ironically a phrase from the communion liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal!): While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

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Instead we practice and preach a faith that acts as if God in Christ only meets us after our sins, rather than in them. Or, to put it another way, God only arrives for us when we’ve gotten ourselves figured out. Or, still yet another way to put it, God will only bless our church if we make sure we’ve got all the right rules established.

We love making plans. And I think we love making plans because it convinces us that we are somehow in control of our lives (or our church) when the plain and simple truth is that we are not in control. That’s kind of the whole message of the Bible: God is God, and we are not.

The longer the Book of Discipline becomes for the United Methodist Church, the more we draw lines in the sand about what constitutes incompatibility or not, the more we play into the sin that surrounds us all the time. It creates a version of the church where we will have only proclaimed salvation for a select few who are able to kid themselves into believing they can meet a bunch of requirements that simply aren’t there.

Before we attempt to pave a new way forward for the church, I think it would do us some good to admit, at least, the addiction we have to our own religion. 

Because Jesus was frighteningly honest with his opinion of religion (as defined above) during his life. He ate and drank with sinners, broke the rules of sabbath observance, and was murdered under capital punishment for blasphemy. And he had the gall to break forth from the tomb three days later with a declaration that whatever religion had been attempting to do, was now done once and for all in him, in his life and death and resurrection. 

We cannot save ourselves. And, to be perfectly frank, we cannot save our church.

Only God can do that.

Why else would we call it Good News?

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Back To The Middle

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

My college campus ministry was going nowhere. 

We had a solid band that played some of the newest Christian music.

We tried exciting and new initiatives to reach out to other students on campus in order to get them to join us for worship on Sunday evenings.

We even tried to create series around relevant topics like recent blockbusters or culturally important topics.

But we just had the same people showing up week after week.

We never had a real conversation about it, but there was a feeling in the air that if we weren’t growing, then we were failing. 

Every summer I’d go home to work at the church that raised me, and every fall I would return to school with new ideas about how we could get new people. 

And sometimes it worked. We’d be setting up for worship in one of the local United Methodist Churches that let us use their space for free, and a college student would walk in explaining that he/she wanted to check us out.

Our spirits would soar in joyful hope and anticipation, but then of course we would be incredibly nervous for the rest of the service hoping they’d come back next week.

But they almost never did.

During my final semester of undergrad we decided that the only way to really reach new people was to start over. 

Literally.

We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate. 

The ways we had been “doing church” no longer worked, so we decided it was time to make a new church.

The core group met over at a bagel place in town, and even though I was soon-to-graduate, I attended in order to offer my opinions about how the church might re-create itself.

Our leader pulled out a pad of paper and started by saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to create a list of what we believe. We’ll put it all together, put it online, and that way people will know what to expect when they come join us.”

Perfect. Back to the basics.

So we went around the table and people started throwing out their ideas…

I believe that the church should welcome everyone no matter what.

I agree, but I also believe that the church should have expectations of what it means to live like a Christian.

I believe that the people who join us should agree to believe what we believe.

By the time it came to me to say something we already had three pages front in back with a list of our beliefs. 

And almost none of them had anything to do with God.

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Now I would remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

Christ died for our sins.

He was buried in the ground.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. 

Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The least of the apostles.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not our behavior.

Not even a list of beliefs.

But a story.

The story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again.

And he appeared to the disciples.

Now, I know that if you’re like me, you’re heard this story a lot. So much so that we just accept it as is without giving it much thought. But, seriously, what was Jesus thinking?

He is resurrected and shows up for Peter! You know, the one who denied him!

Don’t you think Jesus would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective? For maximum results in spreading this new religion, you don’t waste your time talking to someone off the street, let alone a denier. You’ve got to go to the movers and shakers, the powers and the principalities. 

The ones who get things done.

If Jesus really wanted to shake up the world, why didn’t he go straight to the top?

Our Jesus, the one whom we love and adore, didn’t go to the emperor’s palace, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple waiting for crowds to gather in wonderment and awe.

The resurrected Jesus showed up right in front of the very people who abandoned him.

Think about it for just a moment – The most incredible thing in the history of history has taken place, and Jesus appears before the same ragtag group of would-be followers who misunderstood him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his very betrayers.

To us.

Of all the people, Peter and Paul are the ones to whom the resurrection is made as clear as day. Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer. A denier of the faith, and a killer of the faith.

It would have been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but the Good News is that he rose for them, and for us.

Churches are forever trying to figure out how to reach new people. They’ll take a good hard look in the mirror, and trim back the fat of whatever it is they were doing so that only the lean meat remains.

On Sundays the music is always easy to sing, everyone wears comfortable clothing, and the pastor will tell a story about how to find something better for your lives.

Not that far from us is a relatively new church that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings. They have a rock band that sets up by the front, and when the appointed time arrives they jam away for three to four songs while the words appear on the screen.

And when they finish a man will appear, not in person, but on the big screen as well and he will talk for 15-20 minutes about how God wants you to be the best you. 

The band will stand back up for one more song, and then its over.

And they are bursting at the seams.

Week after week more people show up wanting to know how they can make their lives better, and week after week more people have to sit in the aisles because they run out of space.

And the church should be doing what it can to reach new people, even those who are caught up in the never-ending desire to make their lives better.

Except that’s not really who we are, at least according to the Bible. The Gospel isn’t about how we can get better by getting closer to God, though it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Gospel is about how groups of bad people come together to cope with their failure to be good.

But that doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t drive people in through the doors. It doesn’t ring well as a promotional slogan or fit nicely on a bumper sticker. It doesn’t compel people to go home and invite all of their neighbors back for next Sunday.

And yet the story of Jesus Christ doesn’t revolve around people trying to find God and find themselves along the way. 

Over and over again the Gospel is the truth that God keeps seeking us despite our worst, and even our best, intentions.

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God is the shepherd who doesn’t shrug his shoulder when one of the fold is missing – God goes out and does whatever it takes, risks everything if necessary, to find that missing sheep.

God is the father who does not sigh in disappointment about the wayward son. He reaches down into the muck and mire of life in order to grab the prodigal son so that he may rejoice with his father forever.

God is the sower, who regardless of how bad the weather looks or the soil appears, keeps tossing out seeds in the hopes that they will grow into new life.

We Christians might like to think that we’re good, and always getting better; that we have special access to something the world otherwise ignores. 

But at the heart of being a Christian is the recognition that something has happened to us, in spite of us. The risen Lord came back to us.

We might not be able to pinpoint it, or even describe it, but we are here simply because Jesus did not give up on us, nor did he abandon us. 

Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.

What is of first importance for Christ’s church? 

To the poor and wretched and struggling Corinthians, who were failing at being the church, arguing daily, and refusing to welcome the other as brother and stranger as sister, Paul takes them back to the middle – to the decisive and most important moment in the middle of history – Easter.

Paul reminds them, and us, that when the gathering of Christians happens the risen Christ finds them. Not the other way around.

If we are honest, a decisively difficult thing these days, we like Paul, are the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called apostles. 

In the last ten days, our state has seen its share of controversy. The governor’s medical school yearbook surfaced with a picture of a man in black face and a man wearing a KKK robe in hood all on his page.

The second in command, our Lieutenant Governor, has been hit with a number of credible accusations about sexual assault.

And the third in command, our Attorney General, also admitted to having worn blackface in the past.

That’s just Virginia, and it’s only the three most powerful political figures in Virginia, and that’s only in the last week and a half.

I could go on and on, and I have plenty of times, I love picking on politicians from the pulpit. It’s easy. And it’s easy because we so deify those who hold office. Governors, Representatives, Presidents, Senators, we hold them to a standard that we ourselves would not.

And then we are shocked to discover that they are flawed.

That they are like us.

And the great theological smack in the face, is that God died in Jesus Christ for them too. 

So we can do what we think we need to do. We can change what we do on Sunday mornings. We can make it more appealing (whatever that means). We can even blow up the church and start over from scratch. 

But of first importance, at the very heart of what it means to be who we are, is a story.

And not just a story, or even our story, but the story.

The story of God. 

Who came back for us. Amen. 

What’s Good About The Good News?

Devotional:

Luke 5.11

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

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Are you willing to leave it all behind for Jesus?

It’s a question that Christian types will ask under the auspices of something like “evangelism.” And for as much as it pains me to hear things like that, it’s not actually wrong.

I mean, its THE implicit question that Jesus hangs in the air when he meets Peter while fishing. The fisherman have finished their late night trolling (no one was dumb enough to fish during the day) and then this strange and bewildering rabbi shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go out and see what we can catch.” 

Peter, inexplicably, agrees and before long they’re hauling in so many fish the nets begin to break and the boat starts to take on water.

Peter can’t handle the holiness of the moment and begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. But Jesus calmly replies, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Notice: Jesus doesn’t ask a question! There is just something about the profound wonder of the moment that compels Peter and the other fishermen to leave everything and follow Jesus. 

Oftentimes when this passage comes up, we make it out into a moment of self-righteousness; it becomes a competition about who has given up more for Jesus. And, invariably, the everything isn’t everything but mostly just a list of material possessions.

And no doubt, Peter and the others gave up something material – they left the livelihoods of fishermen. But there is more to what is left behind for Jesus than just our jobs or our material comforts.

Sometimes we are compelled to leave something even more difficult behind.

Our sins.

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The faithful life is not easy. When we confront the frustrations in another person, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. When we witness horrible behavior, Jesus whispers in our ears “judge not, lest ye be judged.” When we are so convinced of our own righteousness, Jesus shows up to remind us of how broken we really are.

But the kicker is that even though we are compelled to leave it all behind, we don’t. 

We might have good days where we make the right decisions and speak the loving words that Jesus would have us say. But we invariably fall back into patterns and rhythms in which we are not the people God has called us to be.

And we’re not alone – the same thing happened to Peter! Peter, called from the boat, abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need and denied even knowing him.

But to whom does Jesus appear after the resurrection by the side of the sea? 

Peter.

One of the great mysteries of faith is that we are compelled to leave it all behind and Jesus knows that we won’t. 

That’s the kind of love we encounter in the risen Jesus, a forgiveness in spite of, and because of, us.

No wonder we call it Good News.

All You Need Is…

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can put in the hours of preparation, I can fall to my knees in prayer, but a lot of being a pastor is like fumbling around in the darkness.

My first wedding took place a few months after I arrived at my first church. I had done my due diligence with the couple, took them through the wringer of premarital counseling, I even walked them through the ceremony step by step, but when the actual moment arrived, I felt woefully unprepared.

I knew the expectation was that the bride was supposed to be kept away from the husband until that magical moment she she appeared by the door at the back of the sanctuary when the photographer knew to take a picture of the very-soon-to-be-husband crying as he took in his very-soon-to-be-wife in her wedding dress. So I sequestered the bride and the bridesmaids in a Sunday school room on the other side of the building, and I waited with the groomsmen in the narthex and greeted all of the friends and family on their way in.

When it felt like enough people had arrived and it was time to get things started, I pulled one of the groomsmen to the side and I said, “I’m going to go check on the girls so we can get this show on the road.”

I walked through the empty hallways until I could hear the girls laughing with gleeful expectation, and they told me they needed about 5 more minutes and then they’d be ready to go.

But when I made it back to the narthex, the groomsmen were missing.

Well, they weren’t missing missing. But they certainly weren’t where they were supposed to be. In fact they were already in the sanctuary, standing up at the altar, staring at the narthex doorway, waiting for the bridesmaids and the bride. 

And not only were the groomsmen looking back in anticipation, but so was every single person in the sanctuary.

Now, to be abundantly clear, five minutes might not sound like a long time, but it can feel like an eternity when the expectations are all caught up in the hopes and dreams of a wedding service.

For the first minute people politely smiled and waited patiently. But by minute two, the beads of sweat started appearing on foreheads, and by minute three, groups of people started fanning themselves.

I, trying my best to ease the tension, started walking down the aisle as slowly as I possibly could to make it appear as if this were all part of the plan. But even when I made it to the groom I knew there was still too much time, so I knelt down on the floor and started praying for the girls to hurry up. Because of the architecture of the sanctuary I strained to listen and eventually I heard their high heels scuffling across the floor in the hallway behind us, and finally, FINALLY, they stood in the back and we could get on with everything.

But, as it would have to happen, the first bridesmaid walked in the frame and seeing all of the eyes peering down on her, particularly with the added fear about a potential missing bride situation, she just froze in silence.

I subtly motioned for her to come forward, and then I eventually just started waving my hands out of frustration. And when she did start to move she walked down the aisle even slower than I did.

The poor pianist was running out of music to play.

Eventually the bride stepped onto the carpet, being escorted by her father and everyone stood in joy and excitement. The ceremony could truly begin, and after welcoming everyone into the space I said to the father, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

And he forgot what to say.

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We bring all sorts of cultural expectations with us into the big moments of our faith. Whether or not we’ve attended a lot of weddings, or funerals, or baptisms we certainly know what they’re supposed to look like because we’ve seen them in plenty of movies.

Many of us can remember any number of rom-coms in which the minister says something like, “If anyone should see why these two should not be lawfully married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Many of us can call to mind a great number of scenes in which an entire group of people are covered in black from head to tow, while standing in the rain, watching casket being lowered into the ground.

And many of us can immediately picture the Corleone family flanking the priest by the baptismal font for the infamous baptism scene in the Godfather.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done plenty of weddings, and funerals, and baptisms and to my knowledge none of them have been interrupted by a would-be lover stepping in at the last second, I’ve never been to a perfectly monochromatic funeral service, let alone a burial in the rain, none of the them have resulted in a mafia style massacre.

But those types of things make for great dramatic moments that keep us on the edge of our seats.

And, in the same way we bring our expectations into those moments, we do that with scripture as well. By my estimation this is done more with 1 Corinthians 13 than any other text in the Bible. I probably don’t even need to read the actual words before many of us will immediately think about big white dresses, and rented tuxedos. 

Love is patient, love is kind.

Can you smell the floral bouquets, and hear the nervous pitter pattered footsteps of the ring bearer and flower girl waiting to walk down the aisle?

The majority of us have heard these words before, and we think we know what they mean. They are so familiar that we can scarcely imagine them meaning anything else.

But their familiarity is also their downfall.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I have held fast to one rule in all of them – I will preach on any text from the entirety of the Bible during a wedding ceremony, but I refuse to preach on 1 Corinthians 13. 

It’s all about love, and marriage has to be about more than love. Love, whatever it may be, is not nearly enough to sustain two people through the crucible that marriage is. No love is strong enough when we are stripped of all of our defense and all of our disguises. Love doesn’t help us when all of our imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

So instead, I’ll preach a sermon in which the honesty about the difficulty of marriage will leave people squirming. Not because I get satisfaction out of it (well maybe I do), but because I don’t want people entering into marriage thinking its easier than it really is.

The other reason I refuse to preach on this text, much to the chagrin of some couples, is that it doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage in the first place, of even with love we feel toward other people.

1 Corinthians 13 is about God.

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The Corinthian Christians were abusing their freedom in Christ – they refused to share in common the kinds of things that were normative in the church, certain individuals were not participating in the joy of the community and still yet others were jockeying for positions of respect at the expense of the poor and the marginalized.

The differences within the body of Christ were apparently too difficult to overcome.

The church, since the earliest gatherings, has always been full of differing theological opinions, programs, organizations, missions, and ministries. And for most of the time, there has been plenty of room for this kind of diversity to exist peacefully.

But tensions always rise.

It happened in Corinth.

It’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.

And it will continue to happen in the future.

Fights about space, or time, or money, or personalities, or even political proclivities infuse the church and lead to the kind of divisions that have haunted the church for centuries.

Social and cultural concerns press in upon the church and lead some to insist that its either my way, or no way. Which completely neglects to even consider that Jesus is the way!

When these things happen, Christians seem to have this incredible and blinding power of masking our self-interest with self-righteousness.

I’m right.

You’re wrong.

And this church ain’t big enough for the two of us.

Over and over and over again. 

And in the midst of this infighting, whether in Corinth, or now, or somewhere in the future, we Christians forget that there are most important things than being right or even being powerful!

Whenever we think we have gained everything by standing on principle, or dominating others, or simply being “right”, we have already lost it all.

If we want to be faithful, if we want to follow Jesus as the way, rather than believing we know the way, then this text stings in a way than it doesn’t when its read aloud at weddings. Because the passion of love and intimacy that we might reserve for those who exchange rings implies a willingness to not only know someone else deeply and truly, but also to be known by someone else deeply and truly.

And for us, this takes place between us and God.

This text isn’t about our love for each other, or even our love for God, but God’s love for us.

God is the love that holds up a mirror to who we are and reveals to us the stranger that we are to ourselves.

We, in and of ourselves, are not capable of the kind of love described for us by Paul. We are not patient, nor are we kind. We certainly aren’t free of envy or boasting. Not with our friends, not with our families, not with our spouses, and not even with our church.

The sentimentality of a patient and kindly love expressed at weddings ignores the active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering love that God has for us!

But whenever we come across this text, at a wedding or on a Sunday morning, it is always whittled down to another thing we are supposed to do. In the Bible, the Law is always a list of you must do this, or you must not do this. And it shows up in our lives all the time – all of the shoulds, musts, oughts, that we constantly hear in the back of our minds. 

And, like the expectations we bring to the Bible, when we encounter this call to love, it does not result in a kind of joyful and carefree freedom, instead it bears down upon us like the weight of the world.

Simply because we know we can’t do it. 

The Law and the call to love shines a painful light on all of our failures, all of our fractures, all of our fears. And so when we read this passage about love, the result is that we just kind of wind up feeling worse about ourselves.

But, and it’s a big but, Paul’s talk about love isn’t meant to be the Law. It’s not supposed to be a call to executing the loving order that’s detailed over these thirteen verses. It’s not meant to be a club that we swing around at other people for nothing loving us enough.

In fact, it’s supposed to the opposite of the Law…

It’s the gospel.

As a friend of mine wrote this week: It’s the Law that says, “Be loving.”

But the Gospel says, “You are loved.”

This often used marriage scripture isn’t about what we do, or even how we treat each other. It’s about how Jesus does these things when we cannot.

If God is love, then so is Jesus.

Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Jesus never ends.

So, we can go and love the people around us. We can even love the people we hate. The world could certainly use a little more love. But there is a big difference between “be love” and “be loved.”

The former is the Law.

And the latter is the Gospel. Amen.

I Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for 2nd Sunday After Epiphany (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Forged Fitness, preaching through one book, being a city on a hill, the church in exile, new names, the Government Shutdown, spiritual gifts, divine interruptions, the difference between Baptists and Methodists, and drinking with Jesus. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: I Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore

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Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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