This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 18.1-15, Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, Romans 5.1-8, Matthew 9.35-10.8). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the co-hosts of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including protesting in sacred places, better Trinitarian texts, laughing in church, impossible possibility, limitlessness, craziness in the pews, transactional theology, and communities without communion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hold My Beer
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Think and Let Think · All!
They were all together in one place.
A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.
But instead they were all together in one place.
A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.
Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.
They told them the Good News.
The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.
And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”
The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church.
For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter.
But, go read his sermon some time.
It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.
So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.
But, go look at what the church does.
Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.
The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.
If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.
Just like the Spirit.
I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”
And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.
It’s shouldn’t exist.
But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers.
None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.
And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.
I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”
Which is fine.
But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?
It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost.
Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.
Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.
Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.
Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.
Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy.
It still drives us crazy.
Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.
Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.
It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.
We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.
And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control.
Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever.
We just don’t act like it.
Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.
What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.
But that’s ridiculous!
Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.
Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.
We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.
But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.
Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.
And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid.
We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.
We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.
Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.
But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.
Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?
Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”
The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.
The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently.
Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.
In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.
Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.
Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.
Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”
And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.
Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.
But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.
Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.
And all really means all. Amen.
The church has gone digital.
Frankly, it started a long time ago.
However, the recent wave of the COVID19 pandemic has forced churches across the world to adapt to the situation whether they wanted to or not.
When I first felt a call to ministry as a teenager in the early aughts, I told my pastor and he responded by telling me I would be preaching at the end of the month. He then gave me a few instructions (here’s the text, write 2,000 words, practice in front of a mirror, etc.) and the rest is history. One of the unanticipated benefits of being launched into ministry the way I was means that every sermon I’ve ever preached can be read online.
Literally through this blog.
As the years progressed I started making digital audio recordings of said sermons and now it’s not just a matter of reading the sermons online, but anyone anywhere can listen to them as well.
Therefore, to add the videocamera a few weeks ago to the typical Sunday morning experience wasn’t too much of a stretch.
It would seem, then, that going forward every sermon can be read, listened to, or watched online.
But, is it still church?
A good friend of mine, Alan Combs, recently started a new podcast called “Shelter In Place.” The idea behind the podcast is to reach out to a variety of people to discover how they are finding comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. I love the premise of it all and was thrilled to be invited on for a recent episode.
In it Alan, his friend Joey, and I talked about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of the pandemic from live-streaming on Sunday mornings, to staying connected with church folk, to what kind of music we’ve been listening to.
If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the Shelter In Place podcast, you can do so here: Faith In The Time Of COVID
We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.
We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions
Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together.
Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.
- Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
- 1 Corinthians 3.9
- “For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.”
- Ask everyone to share their names.
- Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.”
- Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
- What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
- What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
- What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
- If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
- If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
- When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
- If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
- If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
- Who is your hero and why?
- What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
- If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
- If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
- If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
- What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
- Wrapping Up
- Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
- Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.”
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.
But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.
A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.
The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.
We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jim Moore about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Jim is a lawyer by trade and is currently working for the federal government with regard to the 2020 census. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fishing for puns, lay advice, doom and gloom, removing burdens, increasing joy, feeling guilty in church, dancing with our enemies, the old foolish cross, dinner parties with strangers, and the nearness of the kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Victory In Defeat
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Phil Woodson about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [A] (Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 3.13-17). Phil serves in Charlottesville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including baptism stories, defining justice, lofty language, Joel Osteen and the Good News, Twitter rage, a place for spectacle, destruction and devastation, Karl Barth and the Titanic, divisions in the church, and a new cosmos. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: No Partiality Means No Partiality
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Questions. Questions. Questions.
Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!”
That’s not why we come to church.
If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.
Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.
One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”
Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed.
For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”
This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.
He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.”
And people lost their minds.
How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!
There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.
But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.
Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.
A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.
A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.
Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.
Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.
In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do.
For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story.
And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.
King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2.
Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land.
Or, in other words, they become refugees.
As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.
The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak.
And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be.
It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian.
As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are.
We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do.
We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions.
For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.
Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized.
Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.
When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should.
When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.
When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.
But it is a Kingdom.
And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.
In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Lamentations 1.1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1.1-14, Luke 17.5-10). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad segues, Capon’s The Youngest Day, good/bad cries, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, singing psalms, rekindling gifts, the Gospel as treasure, Last Week Tonight, and killing mustard seeds. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preach Until You Get It
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in here?” (Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
Inviting people to church can be a strange endeavor.
It’s strange enough if you’re a lay person and you approach someone in your life, whether a friend or stranger, and say something like, “I’d love to bring you to my church on Sunday.” Or “We’ve got this crazy pastor and you’ve just got to see the strange stuff he comes up with every week.”
It’s another thing entirely when you’re the pastor inviting someone to church. It takes on a whole new level of self-righteousness when it comes off as if I’m inviting people to wake up on a Sunday morning, drive over to the church, to listen to me hammer on about grace until it finally sticks.
But we do invite people to church, or at least we feel like we’re supposed to do it whether we actually do it or not.
I know that on several other occasions I’ve shared this rather ominous statistic, but I can’t help myself from bringing it up again: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone else to church once every 33 years.
It’s really crazy when we consider how the overwhelming majority of us are here because someone either invited us or brought us to church. Very rare is the person who just decides to go check out what all these Christians are up to in whatever worship is supposed to be.
So we invite people, or we don’t, but we know there’s some reason we should be doing it, even if we can’t fully articulate it.
Sure, the gospel of Matthew ends with this great charge to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But doing it just because Jesus tells us to never really feels adequate enough.
I have the occasion to invite people to church on a regular basis simply from having to describe what I do all the time. It’s the go-to ice-breaker when you meet someone for the first time, “What do you do?”
If I say something like, “I’m a reverend.” It conjures up all sorts of things that can be good or bad or true or untrue. Therefore, for awhile I tried out different responses to the question.
What do I do? Well, I work for a global enterprise. We’ve got outlets in nearly every country in the world. We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, feeding programs, educational opportunities. We’re involved with a lot of justice and reconciliation things. Basically we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioral alternation.
And then people will always say, “What’s it called?!”
And I say, “The Church.”
But that usually rubbed people in a way that did not endear them to whatever it was I was trying to do, so now I just tell people I’m a pastor and leave it at that.
And therein lies the regular opportunity for invitation because people will start asking questions about the church I serve and then I’ll encourage them to join us on Sunday.
Just this Friday, I was working at a local Panera with my Bible out on the table in front of me and a random stranger came over and struck up a conversation. And within the first few minutes the question was asked and the invitation was made, and the man’s response to the invitation was rather interesting. He said, “I’ve got a lot of difficult things in my life right now, but once I get them sorted out I’ll come check it out some Sunday.”
I think some of us, myself included, often confuse what the church is all about, or what it is for. We make this weird assumption that we come to a place like this to feel better. Which makes sense when you think about it, because that’s why we really go anywhere. We show up in particular places with the hope and expectation that we’ll feel better on the way out than we did on the way in.
And yet, at the same time, we also weirdly feel like we have to have it all figured out before we get here. Or, at the very least, we have to make it seem like we have all our ducks in a row before we sit in one of these rows.
But if we read from the prophet Jeremiah – Jeremiah doesn’t seem like he wants us to feel better. In fact, I think he wants us to feel worse.
Or, to put it another way, if we can’t really feel what we’re feeling here, where else can we?
Let me be clear for a moment: you all look good. Best looking church this side of the Mississippi. But I know, and you know, that some of us here are going through some really tough stuff. Some of us are dealing with depression such that it feels like a dark cloud is following us wherever we go. Some of us are struggling with anxiety that keeps us awake at night while we fret over a host of subjects. Some of us are afraid, or are going through a period of grief, or loneliness, I could go on and on.
And the message of scripture today is this: God knows all of those things and grieves over them.
God, the God we worship and praise and adore, weeps for our weeping. Jeremiah describes God crying a fountain of tears because of the plight of God’s poor people, us.
And even if you want to pretend like your life is perfect, just look at what’s happening in the world…
Millions are marching right now in an effort to combat the devastating effects of climate change and they are largely being led by an 11 year old girl because for some reason we live in a time when adults are acting like children and the children are being forced to act like adults.
Yet another major politician is struggling under the discovery that he wore black face to a party as a twenty something.
Saudi Arabian oil facilities were allegedly attacked by Iran bringing a host a major world nations into the possibility of a conflict the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.
And here’s one of the craziest things about all the news. We might try to block it out, it might feel simply too overwhelming, but even if we can’t avert our eyes and ears it doesn’t matter much because so many things keep happening that we just move from one horrible thing to another.
It’s no wonder people show up on Sundays with the hope and expectation that whatever happens here will make them feel better on the way out.
However, for the overwhelming majority of the church’s history, people showed up in places like this with people like us for one reason: to make things right with God.
Christians knew deep in their bones their own sinfulness and they knew they had wronged the Lord.
And we don’t really know that anymore. We avoid the s-word (Sin) like the plague. We fear that we might run off the newcomers if we mention it too much.
We come to the church to feel better, not to feel worse.
In other words, we’re all looking for a balm.
We were singing the words just a few minutes ago, and we read them from Jeremiah, the balm of Gilead. Gilead was known for its commercial and medicinal success with a simple apothocaric venture with balms that could close wounds and keep them closed. And Jeremiah uses this culturally known and available remedy to poke at whether or not the illness of God’s people can be handled by a spiritual balm.
God’s laments that God’s people feel deserted. And yet, it is their own behavior that has them trapped in this paradoxical feeling of isolation. It’s hard for anyone to realize how trapped they are by their choices or their decisions or their prejudices. We no longer know we are a people of sin because we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing and naming the sins of other people.
During the time of Jeremiah the temple was responsible for making sure the people of God upheld the covenant made with God. It was at the temple where the nation Israel was told the unvarnished truth about their behavior and the consequences of their never-ending self-interest.
But for some reason the temple stopped doing its job. The priests neglected to speak truth to power and truth to people.
They had failed and there was no balm.
Imagine if all we ever did was pick and choose the people outside of these walls as the scapegoats for all of our problems.
Imagine if you came to a place like this, a church, week after week and all you were told is that the world is perfect, that your lives are perfect, that all is well.
Imagine hearing that knowing that all is not well, in fact it often feels like all is hell.
Today we are no less lost than the people were during the days of Jeremiah. Our own self-interests blind us to the harm we are doing to others. Greed increases because our insecurities are overflowing. Fear pushes us into such rigid postures of defense that we are no longer listening to the people we really need to be listening to. We rarely recognize how often we place other things from our lives on the altar of our worship as if those things can save us when the only hope we have in the world is a God who weeps for us.
You see that’s the whole thing right there. It would be all too easy to end a sermon like this one with a resounding refrain about how mad God is at us for all the stuff we’ve been doing and all the stuff we’ve avoided doing. I assure you there are plenty of churches out there that can meet that need if that’s what you’re looking for. But the witness of Jeremiah is not that God wants to strike us down out of loathing.
Jeremiah reminds us of a bewildering truth that we’ve all but forgotten these days: God grieves for us and God grieves with us.
The balm of Gilead came from the resin of a tree – cultivated and disseminated for all in need. Our balm comes from a similar place, but from a different tree, the one on which Jesus hung for you and me.
The great witness of the church immemorial is that we know there is a balm in Gilead! The balm isn’t in us. We know we can’t fix ourselves, much to the contrary of the narrative beat into us by the world all the time.
All we’ve got in us is sin, is selfishness, is self-righteousness.
The balm we need comes to us from outside of ourselves. It comes to us through the one who condescended himself to know our miserable estate – he became sin who knew no sin. We might not think about our own sins, we usually don’t, but our lives are ruled by them. Its our sins that keep us awake at night and disconnected from one another and even disconnected from God.
How terribly sad.
But God says come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. The beginning of our transformation comes not in feeling good, but strangely enough in feeling bad. That’s after all why we come to church: to bring our burdens to bring our truths to bring our shortcomings to the one who offers us the things we need the most: grace, forgiveness, mercy.
And then maybe we do leave feeling better than we did on our way in, knowing God did for us what we could not and would not do for ourselves. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42-43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Josh is a regular contributor to Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the humanity of Elijah, being found in scripture, following the rules, HBO’s Chernobyl, the twisting of sin, angry prayers, a church full of strangers, the too good Good News, feeling bad for pigs, and social healing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are Not The Plan