Impossible Possibility

1 Timothy 2.8-14 

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Galatians 3.19-28

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.

We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.

It was awful.

It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.

And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”

It was perfect.

I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon. 

It was perfect.

But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”

I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.

Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.

The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do. 

I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.

But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible. 

Well, sort of.

There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.

Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: 

Men should pray, Paul says. 

Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.

Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.

Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.

Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

Wow.

Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.

And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…

However, scripture says other things as well.

Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.

And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible. 

And the Gospels are no different! 

Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.

Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!

Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.

And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.

And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.

And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.

It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.

Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.

God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.

It’s really as simple as that.

And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.

Which leads us to Galatians.

Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.

Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us. 

Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.

The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each. 

In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way. 

The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it. 

Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.

But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.

Love

Philippians 1.3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.

Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.

Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work. 

And love requires a tremendous amount of hope. 

It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way. 

Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.

Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.

Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.

And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.

I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.

Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.

And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.

But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.

A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.

Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”

The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.

Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.

But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.

Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.

According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.

Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together. 

Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things. 

And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.

Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.

Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work. 

We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.

But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.

How odd of God!

In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.

When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.

We are made to be loved.

In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.

Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year. 

And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.

I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor. 

But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.

Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…

For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:

Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.

Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E. 

Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues. 

Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.

And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.

Great movie.

And here’s the grace:

There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.

Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.

They talk about why each of them are there.

Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.

Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.

And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.” 

To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”

“What if he won’t talk to me?”

“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”

“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”

It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.

And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.

And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us. 

God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you! 

And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!

Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen. 

Vulnerability

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Tell me about your last fight.

That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.

There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything. 

There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.

But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”

To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”

I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.

And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”

Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.

Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.

Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.

Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.

And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.

This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One. 

I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.

And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.

We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.

And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.

And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.

So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.

Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.

Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?

When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…

I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little  twinge of vulnerability.

I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.

And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.

However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.

The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!

In the end, that’s Advent.

More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.

Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me. 

Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents. 

Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.

Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!

Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.

Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.

This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.

I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!

In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.

And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.

But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.

And that’s a big if.

But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.

And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!

That’s wild stuff.

It’s what we call grace.

Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.

God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.

Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.

That’s not just great news, its Good News!

Happy New Year! Amen. 

Election Confession

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. 

Don’t mix politics with religion.

We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from one another as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.

And yet, we confuse them all the time! We put up American Flags in our sanctuaries and frighteningly blur the line between church and state, we view one another through the names on our bumper stickers rather than through “the name that is above all names,” we believe that what happens on a Tuesday in November is more important than what happens each and every Sunday. 

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like an extremely complicated marriage in which neither partner knows why they are still together.

It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian! Such that our faith has become so privatized that it is relegated to Sunday mornings and only Sunday mornings.

This is a rather strange proposition considering the language of faith articulated to and by Christians who confess Jesus as Lord.

Or, to put it another way, if we believe that Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same.

The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” What a wonderful word for a people who are running amok drunk on democratic idealism! I have heard, more times than I can count on more election days than I can count, that this is the most important election in history. Well, here’s a controversial and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history – the most important election in history was Jesus electing us.

The psalmist’s words echo through time and they indict us. We worship our politicians in a way that Jesus would call idolatry and we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians (princes) and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.

The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, this is a deep mistake. It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Perhaps the proclamation from the psalmist is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way of falling prey to the practice of idolatry. If we take our Christian convictions seriously, then we are bound to love our neighbors just as we love God, regardless of their political affiliation. Which is just another way of saying, the Lamb is more important than the Donkey or the Elephant.

Therefore, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be faithful, let us pray that the Lord will grant us the grace and peace necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that there is no hope in us, but that the hope of the world has come to dwell among us. That hope is named Jesus Christ whom we did not elect.

The Good News is that he elected us. 

An Ordinary Church

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

Fred Craddock was a preacher and then a teacher of preachers. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Craddock’s contributions to the field of homiletics (preaching) are incalculable. At the heart of his homiletical teaching was a desire to bring the congregation into the sermon, rather than attempting to dump knowledge into the minds of the congregation. And, at the end of the day, Craddock was a great storyteller and his stories always pointed to the story we call the Gospel.

Here’s one of those stories:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about the church. Sometimes the preacher would call and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants – it doesn’t care about me. They just want another pledge, another name to add to the roll.’ That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival. The pastor would bring the evangelist and tell him to go after my father, and he would just say the same thing: ‘The church doesn’t care about me, they just want another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times, until I didn’t. He was in the veteran’s hospital, down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and the x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, plants and flowers were covering every available surface, there was a stack of cards 20 inches high next to the bed, and even the tray that was supposed to hold the food he couldn’t eat was dominated by flowers. And every single one of those things were from people from the church. My father saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

Church is, and can be, a lot of things. It can, of course, get caught up in the machinations of the world and start to use the methods of the world to achieve its ends. 

Stewardship drives can get caught up in dollars and sense rather than bodies and souls. New membership classes can get caught up in filling the pews rather than transforming hearts. Even food programs can get caught up in making a good impression on the community rather than treating those who receive the food with dignity, love, and respect.

And yet, the church, even at her worst, exists for others. We are a community of people who seek to live out a commitment to loving God and our neighbors. We receive the Good News in order to become Good News ourselves. It might not seem like much, but a well timed card, or a phone call out of the blue, or even a hastily put together email can be the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

Hear the Good News: Christ has a knack for taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary – things like water, and bread, and wine, and even us. Thanks be to God. 

Believing Is Seeing

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. My time in seminary would start the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on my theological journey.

So, like any good millennial, I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches” and I decided to try out the one with the least bad website.

I meandered through the open front doors and stood awkwardly in the narthex.

It was empty.

No ushers. No greeters. No nothing.

So I walked into the sanctuary, hoping against hope that the website had been accurate in terms of the church’s worship time, because there wasn’t a soul in the sanctuary.

I paced around for a minute or two contemplating the strangeness of the situation, when a I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and discovered a rather old and disheveled looking man who blurted out, “You must be new. We’re having worship in the fellowship hall. Follow me.”

And so I did.

We navigated a few frightening corridors, all while passing long-forgotten Sunday school rooms, until we entered the dimly lit fellowship hall. Folding chairs were arranged in a haphazard semi-circle, a leaning piano rested in the corner, and there was a make-shift plastic folding table altar next to a podium. 

As I crossed the threshold to the space for holy worship, the preacher encouraged the couple dozen present to rise for the opening hymn:

Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King.

Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee.

Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.

Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.

Then we settled in for worship. We prayed. We listened. We heard a sermon about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to God what God first gave to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we keep worshipping in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

After the benediction was shared, we were invited to the other side of the room where lemonade and cookies were waiting to be consumed. The preacher promptly pull me aside, introduced himself, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry you had to hear all of that on your very first Sunday. I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.”

I made some sort of comment that attempted to soothe his worries, when the little old man who led me to the sanctuary came up and said. “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What should we think about this situation in the strange new world of the Bible? Because right here, in one sentence, we have the whole truth about one person, and also the entirety of humanity.

This is what life can do to us.

Life, at times, seems to be everything we intend it to be. We have the right job, the right spouse, the right whatever. And then life happens. Usually, without warning, life comes at us pretty fast and we find ourselves sitting by the roadside of life. A wayward diagnosis, an argument leads to a fight which leads to words that can’t be unsaid, a company folds, on and on.

Blind Bartimaeus sits by the roadside. That’s what they called him – named by what he couldn’t do. The only thing others could see about him was that he couldn’t. Forgotten or, worse, tossed aside. If he disappeared maybe one person would notice, but life would continue on its merry way whether Bartimaeus did or not. 

And the world looks quite different from the roadside. It looks different from the hospital bed, or from behind bars, or from the fear of living paycheck to paycheck. There is nothing that one can do from the roadside but to accept fate and recognize that this is what life will be.

And yet, Bartimaeus, in his blindness, sees the truth of the world. He understands, like others in his position, what we who feel on top of the world miss – life is cruel.

Sometimes we get a taste of it, we visit someone in their distress, we sit in these pews for a funeral, but we do whatever we can to return to the comforts of our lives as soon as we possibly can. We live under the power of denial that life will continue on however we want it to, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

And then, another One comes onto the scene. This is another person who, like Bartimaeus, is about to be pushed by the world to the side of the road, to be thrown out among the dead. He has friends, they follow him, and yet they are fools. They argue about greatness and power and prestige. And, in the end, they will all abandon him.

So what happens between these two figures? 

Bartimaeus is at the very bottom of life, both geographically (Jericho is 900 feet below sea level) and literally. He has no hope in the world. And yet, the hope of the world happens across his path that day.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

The crowds beckon the beggar to shut his mouth. Can’t he see that the Messiah doesn’t have time to waste on him?

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the Lord stands still, and calls upon the blind beggar by the roadside. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks. 

It’s the same question he just asked the thunder brothers. Do you remember what they asked for? “Lord, let us sit by your side in glory, can we have cabinet positions in the kingdom of God?”

And what does Bartimaeus ask for? Mercy!

This blind man, left to the ditches of life, sees more clearly than anyone else. “Lord, let me see again!” “Go, your faith has made you well.” And immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Notice: Jesus heals Bartimaeus, reverses the misfortunes of the world, and orders him home. Go live the life you never had Bartimaeus. 

But he didn’t! Because if Bartimaeus had gone back to a normal life, we surely wouldn’t be here talking about him. After his life is changed, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Jesus is in the business of transformation – of taking us from where we are, to where we can be. That’s what church is all about. We don’t do all of this just to sing a few songs, and think a few lofty thoughts, and feel a few warm fuzzies only to do it all again next week. We do this because it changes us.

You know, for what it’s worth (pun intended), the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than anything other topic except for love. Which, of course, relates to money and possessions. Where our treasure is, there are hearts are also.

Following Jesus on the way is all about coming to grips with a new reality in which giving of ourselves in the only way we know how to live because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and does, for us.

Our giving, whether it’s our time, our talents, or our tithes, connects with how we, and others, experience little slices of heaven on earth here and now. Or, to use the language of our scripture today, they give us opportunities to have our eyes opened by Jesus to the truth.

In just the last few months alone I have witnessed the transformative ministry of God through this church. We welcomed in gobs of kids for Vacation Bible School and taught them about the virtues of discipleship. We sent our youth on a hometown mission trip in which they truly lived out their faith by loving their literal neighbors. We restarted all of our Sunday school classes and small groups in which, through the powerful work of study, we’ve grown in Christlikeness. We’ve even brought back our different music stylings from the praise band at the early service to the different bell choirs at the traditional service all so that we can retune ourselves to God’s frequencies in the world. 

All of those things are made possible by and because of giving – the giving of talents, times, and, tithes.

Generosity changes us. It changes us in the immediate because our brains release endorphins when we do things for other. And it changes us in the long term because our giving now makes things possible for others later.

We have a church history room down off from Memorial Hall. There’s a remarkable quilt that details the different developments of Methodism, there are pictures of the building throughout the decades, and boxes full of old paperwork. 

This week a woman came by the church because she was baptized here, she was married here, and is now back in town and she wanted a change to remember. So she and I sat together in the history room, we looked over the old attendance records where she was able to find the names of long gone friends and family. It was a remarkable experience.

After she left I went back into the room for a moment and found myself bowled over with emotions. 100 years ago a group of people were so committed to the Good News, despite the world being filled to the brim with bad news, that they decided to start this church. And for one hundred years Christians like us have been gathering again and again to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to it with giving.

People gave their time, talents, and tithes without knowing at all how it would bear fruit, and they did it anyway.

That’s the kind of mission we’re caught up in today. Planting seeds with our time, talents, and tithes so that they might bear fruit in ways we can’t even imagine. Jesus’ great gift makes gift givers of us all. What we do as a church is nothing short of eye-opening endeavors in which we are given opportunity after opportunity to be blessings to other because we have been so blessed. 

We are all Bartimaeus. Life has knocked us down at some point or another. We’ve felt the weight of the world come crashing down upon us. We’ve felt abandoned to frightening fates in the ditches of life.

And Jesus come to us there in the ditch. Meeting us in our sins and in our shortcomings. The great gift giver comes to set us free. He opens our eyes to the truth. 

“Go,” Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What happens next, is up to us. Amen. 

Church Is Good For You

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 

A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.

The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”

Literally: church is good for you.

Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people. 

The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.

Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.

To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone. 

I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”

He was right.

And now we have the research to prove it!

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:

The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.

Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios. 

The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.

(More) Reasons To Join A Church

Psalm 104.24

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 

A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work. 

Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”

So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)

  1. The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
  2. The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
  3. The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life. 
  4. The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
  5. The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
  6. The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
  7. The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
  8. The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
  9. The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
  10. The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news. 

A Different Kind Of Church

Psalm 124.8

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

“A Different Kind Of Church.”

Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”

I see these slogans online, on tee-shirts, on billboards.

And, truth be told, they drive me crazy. They drive me crazy because they all present a version of church that is false advertising.

It’s the same when churches boldly proclaim their commitment to inclusiveness. It’s one thing to say it, and another thing entirely to live it.

More often than not, the call to inclusiveness in the church is all about getting people in the door. Some pastor says, “God loves you just the way you are,” but then, rather quickly, the church becomes a program of moral observance and we no longer want people to be the way they are – we want them to be like us. 

There’s no such thing as a different kind of church. Sure, churches might vary in expressions of worship, or missional engagement, or even multicultural representation. But, at the end of the day, churches are all the same because they are filled with the same kinds of people: sinners.

The most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that all of us are the sinners for whom Christ died. 

Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!

Karl Barth puts it this way: “It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong… We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that… [in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.”

We live in a time in which church and individuals alike excel in the practice of marginalization. That is: we delight in demonstrating all of our rightness against all the wrongness we see around us. It’s why we put certain names on our bumper stickers and attack people on social media and whisper when particular people dare to sit near us in church. 

Despite what we might feel, or even believe, there are no innocents in human history. Most of our programs to make the world a better place accomplish little more than making the people who created the programs feel better about themselves (read: ourselves). 

We don’t need programs. We don’t need “different kinds of churches.”

The only thing we need is the One who comes to deliver us from ourselves. That deliverer’s name is Jesus Christ – the judged Judge who comes to be judged in our place – the great rectifier of our wrongs. 

Or, to put it another way, our help isn’t in us. Our help is in God. Could there be any better news than that?

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.